Heritage Chicken Breeds for Your Backyard

1 / 5
The Nankin was instrumental in the development of other bantam breeds.
2 / 5
Nankin pullet
3 / 5
Java chickens do well when given the opportunity to free range.
4 / 5
The Dominique breed is an American original.
5 / 5
The Chantecler chicken enjoys a reputation for good winter laying.

Over the past few years, the age-old tradition of raising backyard poultry has regained its mainstream status. For centuries, chickens were a backyard staple, providing pest control, entertainment, and fresh eggs and meat. Today, hobbyists, foodies, farmers and families across the country are raising chickens in their city, suburban and farmhouse backyards.

As more folks clamor to add poultry to their urban or suburban landscapes, the question has become: What kind of chicken should I get? Not all chickens are the same, and not all are well suited for backyard or urban production. Heritage chicken breeds offer a number of excellent attributes for backyard production, such as natural foraging abilities, longevity, self-sufficiency, natural disease resistance and more. These are the breeds of our ancestors and their ancestors before them, and with a little research you can find a heritage chicken breed that will fit your lifestyle.

Status: Threatened 

Want an excellent egg layer that also makes a great meat chicken? Try the dual-purpose Java. Considered the second oldest breed of chicken developed in the United States, the calm, sociable Java is seldom aggressive, making it a nice option for the backyard or urban flock. Javas were originally used as market fowl, making them the typical “Sunday Dinner” meat chicken. Their black feathers helped indicate whether the birds had been properly plucked by the seller. While their meat is superb, the Java is also an excellent layer, laying up to 150 large, dark brown eggs each year. 

Javas come in three varieties: black, mottled and white. The Black Java is noted for its beetle-green feathers, which put off a brilliant green sheen, while the Mottled Java is noted for its ornate, busy coloring. The Java’s body type is one of its most distinguishing characteristics. They are rectangular, with a long, sloping back. In fact, Javas have the longest backs in the American class of chickens. Javas should also have a single comb with the first point not too far forward on the comb. While it is a threatened breed, the Java’s role as an ideal homesteading fowl makes it a great option for future stewards.

NankinStatus: Critical

The Nankin is one of the oldest known true bantams, meaning it’s a naturally small fowl that has not been miniaturized from a larger breed. While the Nankin is one of the smallest recognized breeds of chickens, it doesn’t suffer from a Napoleon complex. In fact, the breed’s calm, personable and sociable demeanor makes it an excellent option for the backyard flock or 4-H project. Historically, Nankin hens were used to brood the eggs of chickens and game fowl such as partridge and quail. This made them quite popular on English game farms. The broodiness of the breed is still evident today. Nankins are a great option for those wanting a cost-effective means to increase the flock size of other breeds. Incorporate a few Nankins into the flock and let them be your natural brooders.

Nankins are known for their rich chestnut hue. The breed can be found with rose combs or single combs, with both varieties having vibrant red wattles, faces and earlobes. The Nankin produces 90 to 100 small, creamy white eggs each year. Due to their relatively small size, the birds have a tendency to stay close together as a group, as there’s safety in numbers.

Today, the Nankin is listed as a critical conservation priority in need of quality stewards to help the breed survive.

DominiqueStatus: Watch

An American original, the Dominique breed was the first chicken breed developed in the United States. Historically, the Dominique was a yard chicken and provided meat and eggs even through the lean times of the Great Depression. Today, its natural foraging abilities, easy keeping nature and good egg production qualities make the Dominique an ideal choice for the homestead chicken or urban dweller. Get your recipes ready – this breed lays 230 to 275 medium brown eggs each year.

The Dominique is a medium-sized chicken with a black and white barred coloration. The barred feathers serve to make the bird less conspicuous to predators. Hens tend to have a darker coloration than males. The Dominique has a rose comb with a short, upward curving spike that is characteristic to this breed. The Dominique’s tightly arranged plumage and low profile rose comb make the bird more resistant to frostbite than other chicken breeds, though the breed adapts well to a variety of climates. The close feathering also provides quality material for feather pillows and feather beds.

Another neat characteristic of the Dominique breed is the sex-linked traits that allow the chicks to be sexed as hatchlings. Cockerel chicks have yellow shanks and toes, while pullet chicks will show a grayish or blackish coloration in these areas. While the breed’s numbers are on the rise, more stewards are needed to ensure the future of this versatile breed.

Status: Critical

A Canadian original, the Chantecler is the only breed of chicken developed in Canada. The breed was developed by Brother Wilfred Chatelain of the Cistercian Abbey in Quebec. In 1907, Brother Chatelain realized that all chicken breeds in Canada were imports from Europe and the United States. He set out to develop a dual-purpose chicken breed that could withstand the harsh Canadian winters. His mission was a success, and today the Chantecler is a great meat chicken and egg layer for the backyard flock, especially for those in cold climates.

The Chantecler can be found in two colors: white and partridge. Both varieties have yellow flesh and legs. The breed is known for having almost no wattle and a small cushion comb. These attributes help the Chantecler withstand frostbite and cold climates. The breed lays 120 to 180 large brown eggs each year. The breed is noted for being calm, gentle and personable. Today, the breed is a critical conservation priority, with an estimated global population of fewer than 1,000 breeding birds.

Rhode Island Red – Non-Industrial 
Status: Recovering

An iconic symbol of the early United States, the Rhode Island Red’s history and legacy are world renowned. In fact, the bird was once so popular that the state of Rhode Island, the bird’s place of origin, named it the official state bird in 1954. The original developers of the Rhode Island Red desired a backyard chicken that was an excellent layer and a desirable meat bird.

In the 1880s and 1890s, breeders used a number of different breeds to create the dual-purpose Rhode Island Red.

The Rhode Island Red is known for its rich, deep-red distinctive plumage. The bird is recognized in both single- and rose-comb varieties. The breed produces between 200 and 300 brown eggs each year. Due to their egg production qualities, they are known as one of the best layers of the dual-purpose breeds. The Rhode Island Red is known for its vigor and ability to produce eggs under marginal conditions. Most hens are docile and friendly and can become broody except within the strains that have been heavily selected for egg production. The Rhode Island Red is again gaining popularity as a great dual-purpose breed for the backyard flock. 

Jersey Giant 
Status: Watch

Developed in New Jersey in the late 1800s by John and Thomas Black, the Jersey Giant is true to its name. These easygoing birds are the largest purebred chicken breed, with mature roosters weighing up to 13 pounds. The original goal of the Black brothers was to create a chicken that would replace the turkey as the premier table bird. In the process, they created a dual-purpose breed that excels at meat production. While the breed has a reputation as a meat bird, the hens still lay 175 to 185 large, brown eggs each year, making them a good option for a homesteader looking for a nice meat bird to also provide eggs for the family.

Today, Jersey Giants are found in three color varieties: black, white or blue. They have large, single red combs. These birds have excellent foraging abilities, good vigor and calm temperaments. They are well-suited to producing excellent, large capons (a castrated rooster known for its tender and flavorful flesh). Young Jersey Giants grow relatively quickly, but they take time to fill out their large frame to produce a marketable bird. The Jersey Giant breed is increasing in numbers, making it less threatened than it was in years past, but it’s still in need of new stewards to keep the breed alive.

For more information about selecting a heritage chicken breed, or about heritage chickens in general, visit www.HeritageChicken.org.

Carolina born and raised, Jennifer Kendall resides in Raleigh, North Carolina, with her husband, Bassett Hound and Orange Tabby, and dreams of one day owning some of these heritage breeds.