Want to know more about chicken breeds? Enjoy this excerpt from The Backyard Field Guide to Chickens by Christine Heinrichs.
Stay tuned for her June article Guineas Create a Sensation here at Community Chickens.
The Mediterranean Breeds
Mediterranean breeds are associated especially with Italy and Spain, warm climates with long histories of chicken breeding. They’re egg breeds, known for regular and consistent egg production. They are more wiry in build than the dual-purpose breeds. They are non-sitting breeds, meaning that they do not get broody and will not hatch their own eggs. That trait was bred out over the years, as egg production ruled selective breeding.
Spanish, Minorcas, and Andalusians are recognized as separate breeds but share ancient roots in the Iberian Peninsula. They differ from Italian breeds in their white skin, leg color, and the genetics of white varieties. Black was their original plumage color. Development of these light Mediterranean egg breeds was influenced by English breeders in the nineteenth century with birds imported from Spain and Portugal.
Mediterranean countries were influenced by the religious conflicts of the Spanish Inquisition and the Protestant Reformation. Chicken breeding was not exempt from this influence: all breeds were by definition created by God. That precept was enforced by the Spanish Inquisition with torture and death, reducing the enthusiasm of breeders to take credit for a newly refined chicken breed.
Breeding for showing rather than production has reduced the remarkable egg-laying abilities of these breeds, but they are still the honored leaders. Commercially, Leghorns have become the sole American white egg producer.
All recognized Mediterranean breeds have white earlobes and lay white eggs, although Penedesencas are an exception and lay dark brown eggs.
There are no true bantams in this class. Leghorn bantams are among the most popular breeds shown, so develop your eye for bantam conformation watching them. Andalusian, Minorca, and White-Faced Black Spanish bantams are rarely seen. Catalana and Buttercup bantams are not known, if they were ever developed.
Leghorns are often found in backyard flocks, even though standard Leghorns can be a bit high-strung, making them flighty around humans. Some settle down with attention. Leghorns are so popular that the APA recognizes sixteen different varieties, nine colors, and both rose and single combs. Fanciers raise others, such as Exchequer, a black and white Scottish variety.
Neither the comb nor the color will lead you to a correct identification for Leghorns. Check the size—Leghorn roosters grow only to about six pounds, hens to four and a half—and that distinctive tail, at 40 degrees from horizontal for roosters, a little lower at 35 degrees for hens.
Leghorns, with their yellow skin and prolific white eggs, originated in Italy. They take their name from the English version of the central Italy port city from which they were shipped, Livorno. Back in the nineteenth century, Italian egg-layers were popular all over Europe, but breeders focused on different qualities. In America, the Leghorn became “America’s Business Hen” in the 1880s, setting it on the path to industrialization. Today, Leghorns have the most efficient feed-to-egg conversion ratio of all the Standard breeds, laying 225 to 250 eggs a year for seven years.
As a Mediterranean breed, Leghorns do best in warm climates. Single comb varieties are subject to freezing of comb and wattles in cold weather. Rose comb varieties don’t have that problem. Summer heat doesn’t bother them, although they need shade to escape direct sun.
Leghorns are so popular that both utility and exhibition strains are raised. In England, Leghorns are larger and have bigger combs and earlobes. Their tails are closely whipped, reflecting Minorca and Malay crossing, as compared to American Leghorns’ lush, spreading tails. The APA devotes an entire page to variations on Leghorn combs in its 2010 Standard.
Both single and rose combs are recognized by the APA in Dark Brown, Light Brown, White, Buff, Black, and Silver. Single comb varieties in Red, Black-Tailed Red, Columbian, and Golden are recognized today. In 1884, the first Standard recognized only single comb white, black, and brown varieties. As breeders refined their flocks over the years, the brown variety was divided into Dark and Light, and the rose comb variety was added. Silver Duckwing, Golden Duckwing, and Silver varieties are also raised.
The ABA recognizes sixteen colors, including Exchequer, Barred, Blue, Buff Columbian, Dominique, Mille Fleur, and both comb types. Leghorn bantams are among the top ten most popular bantams shown.
This big chicken may be black, white, or buff, but its face is red, rather than the white of its smaller Spanish cousin. The large earlobes are bright white, contrasting with the black or buff and blending in with the white. That big tail floats at a lower angle, just above the horizontal. It was known as a Red-Faced Spanish in the past, but now it is the Minorca.
Minorcas are usually found at poultry shows rather than in backyard flocks, but they are good layers. They have proven their strength and hardiness over the centuries. Minorcas were recognized as a separate breed, in Black and White Single Comb varieties, by the APA in 1888. Rose Comb Blacks and Rose Comb Whites were admitted later. The single comb can be a six-pointed masterpiece, standing up despite its formidable size. The hen’s comb lops over properly.
That comb is a disadvantage in cold weather and can freeze, so breeders developed rose-comb Minorcas, retaining all their fine qualities but adding the compact comb by crossing them with Hamburgs.
The Minorca’s history was influenced by British colonial wars. The first poultry show that had a class for Minorcas was in 1853 at Bristol, England. Minorcas caught on with breeders twenty-five years later, and a few were imported to the United States around 1885.
The Single Comb Buff was also recognized. Single Comb Buffs were the result of adding Buff Leghorns and Brahmas, part of the buff color craze of the late nineteenth century. Leg color varies with plumage.
Minorcas are nine pounds for roosters, seven and a half for hens. Size is an important qualification. Breeders who tried to add size by breeding Langshans or Orpingtons were disappointed, and the original silvery-black plumage is now greenish black as a result of those cross-breeding efforts.
The ABA recognizes single and rose comb Black, Buff, Self Blue, and White bantams. That long back can look odd on a bantam but gives them a majestic carriage.
White-Faced Black Spanish
A distinctive white face instantly identifies this breed as a White-Faced Black Spanish. That white face is a beacon against the black feathers, topped off by bright red comb and wattles.
The white skin should be smooth, but some folding is inevitable. Size is more desired than smoothness. The white face should be longer than the red wattles on both males and females, but hens have smaller faces than males. Cold weather can mar the perfection of their white faces with dark spots. These are birds that naturally incline to a warm Mediterranean climate.
These are somewhat leggier than the other Mediterranean breeds, and their necks stretch up a bit longer, too. They are larger than Leghorns, Anconas, and Andalusians, but smaller than Minorcas. White-Faced Black Spanish have dark legs with pink on the bottoms of their feet, compared with the yellow legs of the Italian Leghorns. Roosters have graceful tails, carried at a 45-degree angle.
Their large chalk-white eggs have distinguished them on both sides of the Atlantic. They were a popular breed in early America, cited in 1816 as one of the true breeds then. Because they take their time to mature and require extra care to prepare for the show ring, they are now a rare but wonderful backyard sighting.
They are the oldest breed of the Mediterranean class, the ancestor of white egg chickens. Records are few, but the white face was firmly established by around 1600. White-Faced Black Spanish were probably developed from Castilian chickens with red faces and white earlobes in the seventeenth century. Their meat is also highly recommended, as white and flavorful.
White Spanish with white faces have existed in the past, but they are not formally recognized. The contrast of color is less dramatic, but they have all the other fine qualities of this honored breed. The ABA recognizes a Blue variety as well as Black.
Bantams grow faster than their large fowl correlates. Large fowl may not be as large as they should be, and bantams not as small. High protein feed is recommended for large fowl chicks, to get them growing well.
Andalusians take their name from a province in Spain. They aren’t the only blue chicken, but they are the best known for their misty bluish gray plumage, the only color variety for which they are recognized. They are larger than their Leghorn cousins in the Mediterranean class at seven pounds for a rooster, five and a half pounds for a hen.
Blue Andalusians were first imported to England in the mid-nineteenth century and excited such interest that Splash and Blue cocks were being bred to any black hen even remotely resembling Spanish type to meet the demand. The attraction was perhaps irresistible: unusual, eye-catching, and difficult to get right or reproduce. Blue Andalusians were in that original 1874 Standard, even if not many breeders were successfully keeping them.
Blue, also called slate and gray, chickens were common in England, so Spanish breeds were often crossed with blue Games and other breeds. Blue Andalusians of today are actually the Blue Laced color pattern, blue feathers with a darker blue edging around the feather, as compared with Self Blue, which is an even shade of blue all over.
The blue color never breeds true, for genetic reasons. Breeding blue to blue produces approximately one-quarter black, one-quarter splash and half blue offspring. Breeding Splash to Black results in all blue offspring, but the color quality is washed out, not the vibrant blue with contrasting lacing that is the esteemed ideal. The darkest hens breed the best blue laced offspring.
Black feathers gleam glossy green in the sunlight, flashing V-shaped white tips on the feathers. They are small but not bantams. This flock, each head topped with a bright red comb and white earlobes, and standing on bright yellow legs, are Anconas.
They take their name from the port city Ancona on Italy’s east coast, across from the western region of Tuscany where Leghorns developed. Anconas are so similar to Leghorns that they are sometimes called Mottled Leghorns, but they’ve been a separate breed for more than a century, and were recognized as such by the APA in 1898. The rose comb variety was recognized in 1914.
Anconas are known as excellent layers, which may have encouraged breeders to develop the rose comb variety so they can be kept in colder climates. They are active, and good foragers. Their advocates in the late nineteenth century found them so hardy that they were able to sustain themselves on open range in wet, windswept conditions that had overwhelmed all other breeds. The downside of that hardiness is a high-strung temperament. While Leghorns are described as flighty, Anconas are called pheasant, suggesting that they are almost wild. However, while Ancona hens can be wary and move very fast, they fit in with a mixed flock well.
A cup-shaped comb distinctively crowns the head of the Sicilian Buttercup. Although the Standard accepts their origin as Sicily, Buttercups were more likely developed by Arabs of North Africa, who traveled through the Mediterranean countries. The chickens of North Africa are smaller than the Sicilian Buttercup, with a smaller comb. Buttercups have more than a passing resemblance to Egyptian Fayoumis. Buttercups could have been influenced by the Leghorns after they arrived in Italy, getting bigger and enhancing that kingly crown.
Buttercups were first imported to the United States in 1835 and accepted into the Standard of Perfection in 1918. Those willow green legs are elusive for breeders, but without them, Buttercups are disqualified from being shown. Chicks’ legs are yellowish until they develop the slate color at four to six months of age. At that age, the greenish tint will also develop.
The comb must stand straight, not flop over, and not have a third row of points. The required coloring can be just as difficult to breed as the correct comb and leg tone. The ideal rooster has a brilliant red comb complemented by a light horn beak topping his orange head and lustrous reddish orange feathers flowing down to his back. His cape should have black spangles and his black tail glisten green. Hens are golden buff with little points of black within the feathers.
The hens often develop spurs. That’s not uncommon on Mediterranean breeds, but it’s not acceptable in the show ring.
Like other Mediterranean breeds, they are non-sitters. They are an egg production breed and lay white eggs. Exhibition weights top out at six and a half pounds for males and five pounds for females.
They live up to their reputation as a flighty breed, but if they are handled daily from the time they hatch, they can be tame around people. When they are trained with treats such as sunflower seeds, they will come forward to greet visitors.
If you spot any bantams of this breed, notify the local bantam fanciers! None have been seen in a long time and this bantam may be headed for Inactive status.
This large golden rooster has a green tail, with green and buff sickle feathers flowing toward it. Golden hens have black tails. If they flap their wings, you will see flashes of black on them.
Their full Spanish name, Catalana del Prat Leonada, takes the name of its country, Catalonia, the area around Barcelona, Spain, and the farming district where it was developed, El Prat de Llobregat.
Catalanas are one of the large Mediterranean breeds, valued for their meat as well as their eggs. Although they are a rare sighting in North America, they are popular in South America. Catalanas came on the official poultry scene at the 1902 World’s Fair in Madrid, Spain. They had been developed over the nineteenth century from local landrace chickens and larger Cochins or other Asiatic breeds. They are probably not related to the local Empordanesa and Penedesenca, both of which lay dark brown eggs. Catalanas lay white eggs. They have noticeable white earlobes, as the other Spanish breeds do.
Catalanas do best outdoors, where they can forage for themselves and use their energy in productive scratching. They do well in hot weather. A chicken for the warm, sunny days of Spain is now a good though infrequent choice for American backyards.
Side sprigs, which are extra points sticking out from the comb, are unacceptable in recognized breeds. The comb starts as a single comb but expands into several lobes at the rear. In the Catalan language this is called a “carnation comb” (cresta en clavell) or a “king’s comb.”
Penedesencas are related to another brown egg–laying Spanish, Empordanesas, but only the Penedesenca has been brought to the United States. Emporadanesas have the expected red earlobes. They are more like Catalanas, buff with contrasting tails—either black, blue, or white.
The breed disappeared from public view during the upheaval of the Spanish Civil War and World War II. They have been championed by some breeders, so you may see them foraging in a backyard flock.
Penedesencas are unusual in that they lay dark brown eggs despite their white earlobes. Their eggs are so dark as to be nearly black, especially those laid by young hens. They are hardy and appreciated for their meat as well as their eggs. They may be black, wheaten partridge, or crele, a variation of Black Breasted Red coloring with barring on the feathers. Roosters grow to six and a half pounds, and hens weigh about four and a half pounds.
Penedesencas are not recognized by the APA, and there are no bantams.
Christine Heinrichs is a member of the American Poultry Association, the American Bantam Association, and the Livestock Conservancy. She grew up in suburban New Jersey but moved to rural California in the 1980s. Her daughter’s plea for baby chicks started her on her poultry journey.
She holds a degree in journalism from the University of Oregon and is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists, the Society of Environmental Journalists, Northern California Science Writers Association, and Ten Spurs, the honorary society of the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference. She is the author of How to Raise Chickens and How to Raise Poultry.