Did you know that over half the breeds of chickens in America are on the endangered list? How is it possible that an animal that most of us think of as commonplace be endangered? With the popularity of industrialized farming, the small family farms have gradually fallen away, and with them have fallen the wonderful variety of chicken breeds that once served us so faithfully. The industrial farms favored newer hybrid breeds that have been bred to grow rapidly for faster meat harvesting, or for increased egg production. Today, most Americans eat eggs & chicken meat from just a couple specialized hybrid breeds.
Thinking about starting a flock of backyard chickens of your own, or about expanding your current flock? Becoming a breed steward for Heritage Breed Chickens can help protect endangered breeds from extinction and give you a high quality flock for either eggs or meat.
So what are Heritage Breed Chickens?
Heritage Breed Chickens are old fashioned breeds that have been faithfully serving homesteaders and family farmers in this country for centuries.
Heritage chickens are well adapted to living outdoors in a variety of climates. They are generally healthier with longer lives and have more productive years than the modern hybrid breeds.
The hybrid production layers might pump out more eggs per week during their youth, but after just a couple years they are exhausted of their eggs and generally stop laying. This is fine in the egg industry, they are just culled and replaced with fresh, new birds. Heritage breeds can also be excellent layers, but their productive years can reach into 5, 6, even 7 years and beyond, making them a good choice for backyard farmers.
What makes a chicken a Heritage Breed chicken?
1) The American Poultry Association has been setting breed standards of perfection since 1873. A Heritage Breed Chicken must adhere to these standards and must be from a parent AND grandparent breeding stock of a breed recognized by the APA prior to the 1950s.
2) A Heritage chicken must be reproduced through natural mating (no artificial insemination).
3) They also must have the genetic ability to thrive in pasture based, natural outdoor living. Many hybrid breeds have lost the natural instincts for broodiness, predator safety & foraging and have weaker immune systems from generations of confinement.
4) Lastly, they must have a moderate to slow growth rate to allow them to develop strong skeletal systems & healthy organs.
Heritage chickens will be marketed as such. While it is possible to buy “heritage” breeds from low quality breeders, unless they meet all of the above requirements they technically shouldn’t be classified as “Heritage”. For example a large hatchery reproducing heritage breeds by artificial insemination would not be producing Heritage Chickens. Non “heritage” chickens wouldn’t help recover the status of these endangered breeds, even though they can make lovely pets.
If you are serious about furthering Heritage Breeds, carefully research the breeder you are buying from. There are many private breeders, but there are also some larger, national hatcheries that sell certified Heritage Breeds like Meyer Hatchery, Murray McMurry Hatchery and Cackle Hatchery.
There are around 70 breeds of chickens commonly found in the United States, 49 of them fall somewhere on the endangered list.
The 12 critical level breeds include: Campine, Chantecler, Crevecoeur, Holland, Modern Game, Nankin, Spanish, Sumatra, Yokohama, Sultan, Russian Orloff, and Redcap.
The 12 threatened level breeds include: Buckeye, Cubalaya, Faverolle, Lakenvelder, Buttercup, Andalusian, Delaware, Dorking, Java, Langshan, Malay, and Phoenix
The 18 watch level breeds include: Ancona, Aseel, Brahma, Catalana, Cochin, Cornish, Dominique, Hamburg, Houdan, Jersey Giant, La Fleche, Minorca, New Hampshire, Old English Game, Polish, Rhode Island White, Sebright, & Shamo
The 7 recovering level breeds include: Australorp, Orpington, Plymouth Rock, Wyandotte, Non Industrial Rhode Island Red, Sussex, and the Non Industrial Leghorn
You’ll notice the Heritage Breeds tend to be named after their area of origin or their creator. Wyandottes get their name from the Wyandotte Native American Tribe, Faverolle is named from the French village of Faverolle where they originated, Orpingtons originated in the town of Orpington in England. The hybrid production breeds tend to have “flashier” names like Red Stars or Golden Comets.
How can you help?
If you can keep chickens, consider adding Heritage Breeds from reputable breeders or hatcheries to your flock to help support their long term conservation. If will be getting into breeding, keep the breeding flock of Heritage chickens separate from your other mixed breed flocks.
Through careful selection of birds that don’t meet the standards of perfection, you can have a hand in protecting these important chicken breeds! Even if you don’t keep them separate or get into breeding, adding a few Heritage breeds to your backyard helps to support Heritage hatcheries and will give you a quality flock to enjoy. If you can’t have chickens in your backyard, find a local small farmer who raises Heritage Breeds and support them with your purchase of fresh eggs or meat.