There are so many great heritage chicken breeds – here are a few we’ve lived with at various times over the years…
Listed as critically endangered by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, here’s a breed that deserves a comeback in backyard flocks. Calm and friendly, good layers of light brown eggs, endlessly entertaining, and good eating – though with a bird that will follow you like a puppy and ask to be picked up and carried, good luck on that one.
The origins of the breed are murky. Most consider them to be from Persia, though their later development was in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in Russia and Germany. While as chicks they like to jump up straight in the air, like a klutzy comedian, as adults they can dart and parry, making them the first to treats and amazingly effective mouse hunters.
If you’ve seen Picasso’s roosters you’ve seen Buff Catalanas. From the Catalan region of Spain, they’re the second largest of the Mediterranean breeds (the best laying varieties), and the most mellow. Catalanas lay huge tinted white eggs, and the roosters have a curious trill to their crow. They’re on the ALBC’s Watch list.
This French dual-purpose breed lays large chocolatey-brown eggs. They resemble Barred Rocks and Dominiques, and have similarly calm personalities. One of the few breeds that can be sexed at hatching (cockerels have brighter whites to their barred feathers), they’re fast-growing, another plus for those who want to raise birds for meat. Cuckoo refers to the black and white barred color pattern.
Ameraucanas were developed in the United States, partly from South American Araucana stock. They feature the beards, muffs, and wild natures of their southern ancestors, but differ in several important ways: Ameraucanas have tails, their eggs are blue rather than green, and they are much better layers. Don’t confuse Ameraucanas with so-called Easter Eggers, which are not purebred and can’t be entered in poultry shows.
Cubalayas were originally from Southeast Asia, but were developed on the island of Cuba as dual-purpose birds. They are small and slow-growing, but their meat is said to be the best chicken on earth. We don’t know this for a fact because around here their primo personalities and extravagant beauty have so far kept them from the ax. Even the cockerels, often a rude and rowdy bunch, are little gentlemen with the hens. Cubalayas are smart, excellent foragers, wary of predators but gentle and friendly with people. ALBC status: Threatened.
A rare and beautiful bundle of contradictions, the Sumatra is not for the novice. Closest to the wild of any modern breed, Sumatras are excellent foragers, but tend to be domineering in a flock, even when they’re the smallest birds. Some in fact can be downright difficult. However, if you want to train a chicken you couldn’t pick a better breed. Spare layers of small white eggs. Sumatras are listed as Critical by the ALBC.
Originally from England, buff orpingtons are very good layers of brown eggs. They perform well in a mixed flock, as they are not aggressive but large enough to hold their own. Docile and friendly with people, orpingtons are a good choice for children. They tend to go broody, reducing egg production, but are very good mothers and big enough to hatch out a lot of eggs. Breeding for color has added choices such as the currently popular blue orpingtons.
Easy-going but surprisingly shy for their hefty size, partridge rocks are excellent layers of very large, dark brown eggs. Not as likely to go broody as other heavy breeds, rocks earn their keep with eggs and are happy to forage. Partridge rocks can be sexed easily at the tender age of two weeks, as the roosters have a different feather pattern. Other colors include barred and white rocks.
Go figure: Polish are French. They all have distinctive topknots that look coifed on the hens and like Elvis on a bad hair day for the guys. There are lots of color varieties; we’ve chosen silver-laced for no particular reason other than their prettiness. They are surprisingly good layers of white bullet-shaped medium eggs; they are also quite independent and love to forage. Warning: keep them with some other breeds that are good at spotting hawks. Polish can’t see much above their heads, so they need an alarm bird and some cover to run to. They’re on the ALBC Watch list.