Rare domesticated animals need engaged stewards to survive. Raise heritage chickens and you’ll find some of the best egg laying chickens around.
For fun, profit, principle or superior nutrition, raising layer hens is a rewarding experience. Keeping a few of the chickens described in this article will provide hours of pleasure, a valuable education for the entire family, a renewed connection with your food and some of the animals who provide it, and a sense of satisfaction that you are participating in the important work of saving these interesting and valuable breeds for future generations. Many of these breeds need quality stewards to ensure their survival. If one of these breeds doesn’t strike your fancy, check out Heritage Chickens to learn about many other endangered chicken breeds that might fit the needs of your farm or homestead.
You might think Australia’s claim to fame is the kangaroo, but in the land Down Under, Australorps reign supreme. In fact, the breed is recognized as the unofficial breed of Australia, its country of origin.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Black Orpingtons were imported from England to Australia. The Australians valued the Black Orpington for its egg-production traits and began selecting and outcrossing to improve laying abilities. Meanwhile, the English continued selecting their Black Orpingtons for meat qualities. By the 1920s, the “Australian Laying Orpington” was divergent enough to be labeled as its own breed, the Australorp. The breed then was imported to England and the United States. In 1929, Australorps were officially recognized by the American Poultry Association as a standard breed.
Today, Australorps are still known for their great egg-laying abilities, often laying more than 200 eggs a year. The Australorp’s eggs are tinted tan, and average 26 to 27 ounces per dozen. Although the breed is reputed for its laying abilities, the birds have relatively meaty carcasses that can serve the needs of the small farm or homestead. The Australorp is a black chicken with a moderately large single comb. Females average 6 1/2 pounds and males average 8 1/2 pounds. The Australorp is gaining popularity among poultry fanciers.
The Campine is an attractive chicken often raised for ornamental purposes, but don’t let this Belgian beauty fool you. Underneath all those feathers is a productive layer that makes a great addition to the backyard flock.
The Campine is thought to be a cousin to the Braekel breed, first documented in Belgium in 1416. The Braekel is native to the rich clay soil of the Flanders district, whereas the Campine survived in the less fertile Kempen region — hence the Campine name. In 1893, this historic breed was first imported to the United States, but its popularity never grew. Poultrymen tried importing the breed again in 1907, this time from English stock, but many farmers felt the birds weren’t rugged enough for their needs. Eventually The Homestead Campine Farm began selecting for hardiness, but other breeds had already won the hearts of America’s homesteaders. The Campine was officially recognized by the American Poultry Association in 1914.
Today, this bird combines beauty and productivity to meet the needs of small farm or urban flock owners. Laying more than 150 medium-sized, white eggs per year, these hens won’t disappoint. The breed is known as a great forager and is active, alert and intelligent. Birds average from 4 to 6 pounds, depending on the sex. Campines come in two color varieties: silver and golden. They are said to have friendly, chatty dispositions, but they don’t always do well in confinement. Campines are critically endangered, with fewer than 500 breeding birds in the United States.
The hen-some Leghorn breed is a prolific layer that originates from the landrace Livornese fowls of Northern Italy. This landrace, found near the port of Leghorn, was reputed for its small size and ability to lay a large number of eggs.
In 1852, an American ship guide by the name of Captain Gates returned from Italy to the United States with cargo in tow — including Livornese, or what is known in English as the Leghorn breed. In 1853, additional stock was brought over from Italy. Interestingly, in the 1870s, the English imported Leghorn stock from the United States.
The English began selecting for larger size, and, in the early 1900s, these larger, dual-purpose birds made their way back to the United States. About this time, poultrymen began selecting for different qualities in their Leghorns. Some felt form and function were important and kept selecting for traditional traits, while other breeders felt production qualities were superior and began selecting for higher-production rates. Selecting for production led to the evolution of the modern-day industrial Leghorn, which is widely used in the poultry industry. Those who kept selecting for traditional traits helped to conserve the form and function of the traditional, non-industrial Leghorn.
Today, the non-industrial Leghorn is still found on farms, in shows and on homesteads across the country. The breed is reputed for its exceptional ability to lay 250 to 300 medium-to-large-sized, white eggs per year. The breed is a great forager and is very active, hunting and scratching to find food. Leghorns also are noted for their hardiness and vigor. Males weigh an average 6 pounds, and females average 4 1/2 pounds. Leghorns come in many different subvarieties with varying colors and either rose or single combs. Non-industrial Leghorns are growing in popularity as small-scale farmers are rediscovering these prolific and attractive layers.
China is home to one of the great wonders of the world, but many people don’t know it’s also the homeland of one of the great chicken breeds of the world. The Langshan, a graceful and stately breed, was bred for centuries in the Yangtze Kiang River region of China about 100 miles from Shanghai. In 1872, Maj. A.C. Croad brought the breed to England. Interestingly, because the breed was imported from Shanghai, some people thought the breed was a Cochin and began selecting for four distinct types. Luckily, some breeders recognized the uniqueness of the breed and selected for the original type known for its long legs, deep body and full breast. The breed was first accepted into the American Poultry Association (APA) standard in 1883.
The Langshan is historically a good layer and can lay up to 200 large, dark brown eggs per year. In addition to eggs, Langshans provide plenty of meat for the family because of their large size. Langshan females average 7 1/2 pounds, and males average 9 1/2 pounds. The breed is noted for its abundance of rich meat that is particularly white. It has a reputation as being fast-growing, hardy, easily reared on well-drained soils, and active. Black, blue and white Langshans are recognized by the APA. There are currently fewer than 1,000 breeding Langshans in the United States, making them a necessary conservation priority.
The Ancona chicken, like the Leghorn, is an Italian chicken breed known for its prolific laying abilities. The Ancona takes its name from (surprise) Ancona, the port city in Italy where it originated. In the mid-1800s, Ancona chickens were imported to England. Again in the 1880s, additional stock was imported to England, and the breed suddenly grew in popularity. The breed was first recognized by the American Poultry Association as a standard breed in 1898 in the single-comb variety and in 1914 in the rose comb variety.
Anconas are once again gaining popularity as poultrymen reacquaint themselves with the many valuable characteristics of the breed. Anconas lay 120 to 180 large, white eggs per year. They are similar in size to the Leghorn, with males weighing 6 pounds and females averaging 4 1/2 pounds. The breed is a great forager and very active. Some suggest that these birds are ideal in areas where birds of prey are a serious predation problem because they are alert and active, and their dark color makes them less easy to spot. Anconas are known to be fairly cold-hardy, and they often lay longer into the winter than other breeds without the need for supplemental light. If you are looking for a good layer that’s also quite an attractive show bird, look no further than the Ancona.
Many people have heard of the Rhode Island Red chicken, but not many have heard of the other famous chicken breed from Rhode Island: the Rhode Island White. While the Rhode Island White was never as famous as the Rhode Island Red, it is reputed as an excellent egg layer for the backyard flock and a true American original. The Rhode Island White was created in 1888 when J. Alonzo Jocoy developed the breed by crossing White Wyandottes, Partridge Cochins and Rose Comb White Leghorns. Breeders continued to perfect the breed with the goal of achieving a bricklike body shape similar to the Rhode Island Red. In 1922, the breed was admitted to the American Poultry Association’s Standard of Perfection. The breed had a robust following during its heyday, but by the 1960s it was losing the popularity contest to more industrial-adept breeds that could produce more eggs.
Today, the Rhode Island White is trying to regain its popularity and position itself in the backyard chicken movement. The breed is known to lay more than 240 large to extra-large, brown eggs per year. The Rhode Island White also has a reputation as a dual-purpose breed, making it a great option for a meat bird as well. Males average 8 1/2 pounds and females average 6 1/2 pounds. Rhode Island Whites are said to have a mellow disposition, and they don’t tend to go broody. They are a hardy, productive breed that also is an excellent layer of winter eggs. The Rhode Island White is making its comeback, but it needs quality stewards to ensure its future in agriculture.
Carolina born and raised, Jennifer Kendall resides in Raleigh, North Carolina, and dreams of one day owning some of these heritage breeds.
The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy is a nonprofit membership organization working to protect more than 180 breeds of livestock and poultry from extinction. Founded in 1977, ALBC is the pioneer organization in the United States working to conserve historic breeds and genetic diversity in livestock. ALBC’s mission is to ensure the future of agriculture through genetic conservation and the promotion of endangered breeds of livestock and poultry.
Membership in the organization is $35 per year. For more information or to join, call 919-542-5704 or visit The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy.
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