As part of our breed series, Jeannette Beranger clues us into which chicken breeds are North American. Photos courtesy of the Livestock Conservancy.
Chickens come in all kinds of sizes, shapes, and general appearances, making them one of our most diverse domestic species. To help make some sense out of organizing them, the American Poultry Association breaks the breeds down into a number of classes, including English, Continental, Mediterranean, American, Asiatic, Oriental, Game, Bantam, and, finally, Miscellaneous (for those breeds that don’t fit the criteria of any of the other categories).
Birds within each class can share place of origin or traits, or both. In the case of the American class, the birds were all created in North America. Early American farmers were a practical bunch, so most of these birds are largely dual purpose, providing good amounts of both meat and eggs. Today, they’re also some of the most popular with hobby farmers and backyard poultry enthusiasts. However, despite the popularity of dual-purpose chickens, many are considered endangered and are on The Livestock Conservancy’s Conservation Priority List. The American class contains a diversity of appearances — surely a chicken for everyone. Here are just a few of the endangered birds from this class that could use a boost in public interest.
America’s first chicken
The Dominique is considered the oldest known chicken breed developed in America. Their start began as far back as 1750. They were created from a mix of European and Asian breeds that evolved into the breed we know today. It was historically popular in the Southeast, where it was known by a number of names, including “Dominic,” “Dominico,” “Dung Hill Fowl,” “Blue Spotted Hen,” “Old Gray Hen,” and the ever-popular “Dominicker,” which is still often used today. I live and travel extensively in the South, and I’ve rarely come across a family with history in the region that didn’t have some family member who had owned these birds at one time or another. The breed has persisted in America, and even through the Great Depression, because of their inherent vigor and thriftiness, making them an easy-to-keep and largely self-sufficient farm fowl.
A true cuckoo bird
The Dominique is a medium-sized, robust fowl adorned with black and white stripes, referred to as a “cuckoo” pattern. This coloring enables them to evade predators more easily because they don’t stick out like a sore thumb, as a solid-white or brightly colored bird may. Additionally, their rose comb, which lies close to the head, makes them more resistant to frostbite. They’re primarily lay brown eggs, producing around 250 eggs a year in their prime. It should be noted that they have better breast proportions than your typical layer breed, so they can make a nice little table bird as well. Roosters will reach a weight of 7 pounds, and hens 5 pounds. When choosing Dominiques, avoid the overly large birds that are sometimes popular in show circles. This is because the increase in body size could inadvertently impact their valued thriftiness and laying ability.
A breed with big impact
The Java chicken is another old American breed, created between 1835 and 1850. Its name hints that it may have been developed from birds of Asian descent. One of the Java’s first enthusiasts was Daniel Webster, who entered a pair in America’s first poultry contest in Boston in 1849. This show was pivotal for the Java and ushered in a period of popularity for the breed for several decades afterward. The Java never became widely popular after that, but the most important note in the bird’s history is its impact on the development of other important breeds. These include the Rhode Island Red, the Jersey Giant, the Australorp, the New Hampshire, and the Plymouth Rock, which all share Java genetics in their early foundations.
A back long enough for a saddle
The Java was at one time known by the name “Saddleback,” because of its distinctive and impressively long back. In fact, it has the longest back of all the birds in the American class. They come in four colors: black, mottled, white, and auburn, although it’s only the black and mottled that are recognized by the American Poultry Association. Despite this, there are still a few individuals in the U.S. that are currently working with the white and auburn. Javas should be sizeable birds with roosters reaching 9 ½ pounds and hens 7 ½ pounds. The hens lay about 150 large brown eggs a year. Like the Dominique, the Java is a robust and thrifty breed that’s a great choice for farmsteaders. They’re peaceful birds and make good broody hens.
A nut of a bird
The Buckeye gets its name from the buckeye nut that shares a similar color to these chickens first developed in, yes, the Buckeye State (Ohio). It is one of the few breeds solely developed by a woman, Ms. Nettie Metcalf. She wanted to produce a good meat bird that was “not lazy fowl” and could forage for a lot of its food. Having bred and raised these birds for the better part of a decade, I can attest from personal experience that the moment you open the coop door, they are off and running. Whether you have wooded areas or pasture, these birds make the most of whatever environment they’re offered for foraging. They’re excellent hunters of all kinds of insects, and can even be good mousers once they get some size on them. One producer in California once told me that wherever he let his Buckeyes roam, the ground squirrels disappeared! Despite their tenacious tendencies for small prey, they’re generally easygoing birds with a gentle disposition when it comes to people. Roosters will grow up to, and sometimes beyond, 9 pounds, and hens are large as well at 6 ½ pounds. The crow of the massive Buckeye roosters is impressive and often likened to the roar of a dinosaur — so if you have neighbors nearby, you might want to check with them to see how they feel about potentially loud chickens in the neighborhood.
If you like dark meat, you’re in luck!
One of the traits we liked best about the Buckeye was its meat. All of the bird tastes delicious — even the breast meat seems to be dark. Their bones also make some of the best stock we’ve ever experienced. After chilling in the refrigerator, it becomes a flavorful solid gelatin which no doubt would be great for creating soups that could mend whatever ails you! The hens lay about 150 large brown eggs a year, and some can become broody while others don’t.
A giant among chickens
No chicken name makes a better impact statement than the Jersey Giant. As the name implies, it’s one heck of a big chicken and is the largest in the American class, with roosters growing as large as 13 pounds and the hens a whopping 10 pounds. The breed was created by John and Thomas Black of Jobstown, New Jersey, in order to give turkeys some competition as a premium large table bird. By 1895, they were known as “Black Giants” in recognition of their creators, but later ,the name was further refined and became “Jersey Giant” by the early breeder Dexter P. Upham in honor of their state of origin. The breed was accepted into the American Poultry Association’s Standard of Perfection in 1922, and today, they’re recognized in the white, blue, and black color varieties.
Good things come to those who wait
The Jersey Giant is a slow-growing breed and will take up to 8 to 9 months to reach harvest size. The good news is that the extra growth time equates to fabulous flavor development. Producers often have to wait a year or even two in order to make good culling decisions about which birds are fully developed and superior examples of the breed. This can be a challenge for those owners that don’t have the space or resources to wait that long. The males are known to make exceptionally good capon, although the market for castrated birds has lost favor in modern American society, which favors more humane husbandry practices. The hens lay a decent amount of extra-large brown eggs, which often need to be incubated 1 to 2 days more than average chicken eggs.
Cold-tolerant chicken, eh?
A notable Canadian among the American class of chickens is the Chantecler. It was first developed by Brother Chatelain of the monks of the Cistercian Abbey in Oka, Quebec, in 1908. The idea for this breed first came to the brother when he was looking at the flocks held by the Oka Agricultural Institute and realized there was not a single breed that had been developed in Canada. His mission then became to create “a fowl of vigorous and rustic temperament that could resist the climatic conditions of Canada, and serve as a general purpose fowl.” His Chantecler is certainly that — a superb dual-purpose white chicken breed that sports a cushion comb and not much in the way of wattles, making it well-resistant to frostbite. They were selected to be good winter layers of large brown eggs for the long, dark nights of the coldest Canadian season. Later, another variety, the partridge Chantecler, was developed by Dr. J. E. Wilkinson of Alberta. He desired a bird that would be better suited for free ranging without being easy large white targets for predators to spot.
The five breeds mentioned in this article are only just a few of the many American class chickens that are available through hatcheries and dedicated breeders. To learn more about the breeds, visit the club websites (below) to gain more detailed information on each of these wonderful breeds. Do your research, and you’ll soon find the perfect fit for your chicken endeavors.
Jeannette Beranger is the senior program manager for The Livestock Conservancy. She came to the organization with 25 years’ experience working as an animal professional, including veterinary and zoological institutions with a focus on heritage breeds. She’s been with The Conservancy since 2005 and uses her knowledge to plan and implement conservation programs, conduct field research, and advise farmers in their endeavors with rare breeds. She’s coauthor of the best-selling book “An Introduction to Heritage Breeds.” At home, she maintains a heritage breeds farm with a focus on rare breed chickens & horses. In 2015, she was honored as one of the top “45 Amazing Country Women in America” by Country Woman magazine for her long standing dedication to endangered breed conservation.