Heritage chickens belong to breeds that have been around for many decades with the same characteristics as they have today. Unlike hybrid chickens used for large-scale production on factory farms, heritage chickens are able to breed on their own, live long and productive lives outdoors, have healthy organs, and grow at a rate that their bodies can support.
What are heritage breed chickens?
Today, most chickens raised for meat around the world are hybrid broiler chickens. These birds have been selectively bred over generations to maximize efficiency in meat production, with little regard to the welfare of the birds. The result is that chickens who are raised for meat suffer immensely from growth rates which lead to bone issues, heart problems, and other welfare concerns. Layer hens, who have also been genetically modified through breeding, lay so many eggs that many of them have weakened skeletons and suffer high rates of bone fractures.
Heritage chickens offer an alternative, higher-welfare possibility for food production. Unlike their heavily genetically modified counterparts, heritage breeds have not been bred solely for the purpose of maximizing yield and profit. Instead, heritage birds are selected so they can reproduce naturally, have a stronger immune system, and can thrive outdoors. Breeding for these balanced characteristics means heritage birds grow more slowly than hybrid broilers. As a result, presently they are raised commercially by only a handful of farms.
APA standard breed
In order to be considered a heritage chicken, a bird must belong to a breed recognized by the American Poultry Association (APA), which defines breeds that were established before the middle half of the 20th century. Some have disagreed about which chickens should qualify as heritage, arguing that slow-growing birds who meet the other criteria should be considered heritage chickens, and qualify to be labeled as such when their eggs and meat are sold.
The general consensus, however, is that the APA breed requirement should stand for the purposes of labeling.
Commercial broiler chickens cannot breed without intervention from farmers. In order to qualify as a heritage chicken, a breed must be able to mate without such involvement.
Long, productive outdoor lifespan
Heritage breeds must be able to survive outdoors and live long, productive lives. Roosters should live for three to five years, while hens should be laying eggs for five to seven years.
Slow growth rate
Heritage birds should grow slowly enough to develop a strong skeletal system and organs that can support their bodies. This means that they should not reach market weight in less than 16 weeks.
Robust immune systems
Though not a requirement of the Livestock Conservancy for heritage chickens, birds from heritage breeds also tend to benefit from a stronger immune system than their mass-produced counterparts. This is due to their greater genetic diversity. Such considerations deserve to be higher up the public agenda both in discussions of how to avoid future pandemics affecting humans, and as the poultry industry suffers from a devastating wave of bird flu that has already seen many millions of chickens destroyed worldwide in attempts to stop the spread of the disease.
What chickens are considered heritage breeds?
There are a couple of dozen breeds of chicken considered heritage breeds by the Livestock Conservancy. These birds are broken down into categories based on how severely they are threatened with extinction. The categories are critical, threatened, watch, recovery, and study.
Ancona chickens have a long history of falling in and out of favor with poultry enthusiasts. Though the birds were once more heavily mottled, the breed standard today describes the ideal chicken as black with every fifth feather tipped with white. The birds are known for being hearty and highly active. They are most commonly raised for egg production, with females weighing in at about 4.5 pounds in adulthood.
2. Araucana or ameraucana
There are three chicken breeds known for their blue eggs: araucana, ameraucana, and easter eggers. Of these, two, araucana and ameraucana, are heritage breeds. Araucana chickens originated in Chile and are primarily kept for the pleasant color of their eggs and their unique looks. The birds often sport ear tufts, muffs (a cluster of feathers below their eyes), and beards. They also have small combs in comparison to many other chicken breeds.
Ameraucanas sprang from the araucana breed and also lay a beautifully colored blue egg. In addition to their blue eggs, they are also notable for their blue legs. They’re medium in size and are primarily raised for egg laying.
Australorp chickens are an offshoot of Black Orpingtons brought to Australia during the 1890s. While Orpingtons in Europe were bred for meat, those in Australia were most highly valued for eggs. The divergent bloodlines resulted in distinct breeds, with Australorp chickens keeping the black feathers of their forefathers. Generally, they are friendly birds that do well in flocks, though their dark color does make them susceptible to overheating.
4. Barred Plymouth Rock
The term “barred” refers to the coloring of the original Plymouth Rock chicken. Now there are also several other color varieties including white, buff, and blue. Because their characteristics made them easy and rewarding to farm, Plymouth Rocks were the most widely kept and bred chickens up until World War II and were kept for both their eggs and meat. The Plymouth Rock was one of the breeds used as a foundation for modern broiler chickens.
Brahma chickens have their roots in Chinese breeds that were not available in other places until the country opened its ports for trade in 1843. The chickens who were exported were notable for being quite large and having feathers on their legs and toes. The modern Brahma chickens we know today kept the large size—males weigh about 12 pounds and females 10 pounds—and feathering of their ancestors from around Shanghai, but were originally bred in their current form on the American continent. They were most frequently raised for meat, because of their size.
For roughly two decades, Delaware chickens were the most popular breed of chicken on meat farms on the Delmarva peninsula due to their mostly white plumage. The white feathers don’t leave behind markings on the flesh when they are plucked. After their fairly short era of popularity, they were replaced by completely white birds and largely lost favor. Younger, small-scale farmers are rediscovering the breed and starting to revive them today.
Though this breed was originally developed in France it quickly became highly popular in the United States once it was introduced in 1901 or 1902r. There are a number of different colors of Faverolles chickens but only two are recognized by the APA: salmon—which is a color unique to the breed—and white. They were bred for egg laying during the winter and for their meat.
Holland chickens were originally bred in the 1930s, in response to demand for a chicken that produced white eggs but was also fleshy enough to be used for meat. Originally two colors were bred—white and barred. The barred variety was by far the more popular while the white was rarely raised. As a result, the white variety is likely completely extinct.
The first Orpington chickens were bred in the English town of Orpington by crossing a variety of existing breeds. The goal was a chicken with white skin that grew quickly and produced a high number of eggs. Though the breed was first recognized in black, several other colors followed including buff, white, and blue.
10. Rhode Island red
Originally bred in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, the Rhode Island red is certainly the best-known chicken breed in the United States and is likely the most well known in the world. The breed has remained popular for production of both eggs and meat, though breeders have sought to increase their productivity, changing certain physical and temperamental characteristics as they do. Though these new strains of Rhode Island Reds are common, the larger, more broody birds that are closer to the original reds are at risk of being lost.
11. Speckled Sussex
Sussex chickens are recognized by the APA in three varieties, speckled, light, and red. Today’s chickens, especially the speckled and red varieties, are likely very similar to their forefathers exhibited at the first London poultry show in 1845. A few decades later, efforts to increase hardiness and size through crossing these birds with Asiatic breeds had obscured certain traits and driven the original Sussex to the brink of extinction. Through the efforts of farmers in the early years of the 20th century, the breed was reinvigorated and reached the United States around 1912. The birds were bred for dual purposes, laying eggs and their meat.
Benefits of Heritage Chickens for Farmers
Hybrid chickens, who make up more than 99 percent of chickens used commercially, have their genetics controlled by a small handful of companies. In contrast, heritage birds are “open source.” Their genetics are not proprietary but are free to be used by anyone. Farmers can raise and reproduce heritage chickens without having to rely on massive corporations to provide genetics. Farmers who breed heritage chickens have more control over their own livelihoods than those who are stuck using hybrid birds whose genetics they do not control.
Heritage chicken versus hybrid chicken
Heritage chickens, like industrial broilers and laying birds, are largely the result of crossing together various breeds. However, the methods used were a far cry from the genetic manipulation that has resulted in the hybrid chickens found on factory farms today, and the results were hardly as destructive. Unlike heritage chickens, industrial production birds often suffer due to swift growth, weak immune systems, obesity, and poor organ function.
Once the standard in poultry farming, heritage chickens have been replaced by birds who have been manipulated genetically to maximize efficiency with little regard to the birds’ welfare. Through the efforts of conservation societies and smaller-scale farmers, many heritage birds have been preserved from extinction. These birds lead higher welfare lives due to slower growth rates and a hardier nature.