A nitty GRIT-y guide to heritage breeds.
Ameraucana; size: small; comb: pea; plumage: widely variable; legs: clean; egg color: blue, green; use: special interest; origins: South America; ALBC rating: not rated
illustration by Diane Jacky
Every farm and most households in America used to play host to at least a small flock of laying hens – doing so was, after all, part of the program for feeding one’s family. Those flocks also supplied plenty of meat for the table, either as old hens long past their reproductive prime or cockerels of virtually any age.
In many cases, the flock consisted of a multipurpose breed suitable for relatively efficient egg production and of sufficient size to fill a frying pan when young, or a roaster as young adults. Folks in need of food haven’t been the only people interested in poultry, however. Humans have fancied the flock for hundreds, if not thousands, of years, and early breeding efforts gave rise to a number of ornamental chicken breeds as well as more specialized meat- and egg-producing varieties.
Today, chickens born of pinpoint-focused genetics are raised by the millions. The average frying chicken is physiologically so well adapted to gain weight that it is ready for the frying pan in no more than six weeks. Likewise, modern hybrid laying hens are so efficient at the process that they don’t even think of sitting on the eggs – and they barely have enough meat on their bones to make a decent pot of stew when their laying days are over.
Industrialized chicken farming has done wonders for keeping meat and egg prices low, but with an unexpected consequence: the extinction of many interesting old breeds. In the United States today, the several hundred million Cornish-cross and strain-crossed white leghorn chickens raised each year for meat and eggs are estimated to be close to 99 percent of the country’s total production. The reality that traditional breeds have little value to the factory farm is all the more reason to consider raising them yourself.
A “heritage” chicken is one that was raised in the not-so-distant past. These breeds don’t fit our generalized modern production standards, even though most will outperform their conventional counterparts in the home flock. Heritage chickens are also profoundly important as a pool of genetic diversity and will no doubt be essential to the well-being of future factory flocks. Because of their often quirky characteristics and downright good looks, heirloom chickens today offer many excellent choices for those of us who want more control over our food supply.
In the entries that follow, we have compiled the key characteristics and some anecdotal information on 20 interesting chicken breeds that fall far from the mainstream. We’ve also included information from the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy Priority List for each breed. They classify a breed as critical if fewer than 500 breeding birds and five or fewer primary breeding flocks exist in the United States. Threatened breeds have fewer than 1,000 breeding birds and seven or fewer breeding flocks. For a breed to be classified as a watch breed, it must have fewer than 5,000 breeding birds and 10 or fewer breeding flocks or be a breed that presents genetic or numerical concerns or limited geographic distribution. All three of these classifications include breeds that are considered globally endangered. A recovering breed is one that was once in another category, has exceeded the numbers of the watch category and still needs monitoring. A study classified breed is one of genetic interest that lacks definition, genetic or historical documentation. If your favorite breed wasn’t included, please send us a photo or post one (with a caption) at our new photo-blog Web site cu.Grit.com. And for more breed information, visit our Web site at www.Grit.com.
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