Monday, May 21, kicks off International Heritage Breeds Week. With so many amazing poultry breeds originating outside of the U.S., it’s the perfect time to shine the spotlight on several international chickens currently considered endangered.
This quartet of critically imperiled birds was all introduced to the U.S. prior to 1900 and now, according to the Livestock Conservancy, number fewer than 500 in America and less than 1,000 throughout the world.
The Belgian Campine has a remarkable claim to fame: Julius Caesar supposedly took several Campine chickens back home to Rome with him after he sacked Belgium.
More than 1,000 years later, the 16th-century Italian naturalist Aldrovanus mentioned the Campine in his writings. In 1893, the Campine was imported to the U.S. by a Maine poultry enthusiast, but this ancient breed failed to gain a foothold with American fanciers and was actually dropped from the American Poultry Association’s (APA) Standards of Perfection. In 1907, a New Jersey poultry fancier once again imported the Campine into the country, but, again, the breed was met with disdain due to its lack of hardiness.
However, the APA finally recognized the Campine in 1914
A small bird, the Campine only reaches 6 pounds (male) and 4 pounds (female) upon maturity. The roosters are hen feathered: Their tail feathers are identical to those of the females.
Campine hens are non-broody and lay approximately 150 to 200 medium white eggs per year. Campines are curious, friendly birds, but they do not like being handled or cuddled. They prefer free ranging to being confined in a run and do better in warmer climates. Campines come in two varieties: Silver and Golden. When Silver hens are bred to Golden roosters, the resulting chicks can be gender identified by color at one day of age, with pullets having a reddish color and cockerels being grey.
Descended from five-toed chickens that existed in Europe in the first century AD, the French Houdan (pictured above) has a striking, elegant appearance, with a full beard, rounded crest and either white or mottled feathering. Imported to the U.S. in 1865, the Mottled Houdan was officially recognized by the APA in 1874, while the White Houdan—developed in America by F.D. Baermen—was accepted to the Standards of Perfection in 1914. Despite the Houdan’s affectionate nature and excellent egg production, the breed never gained popularity and was almost extinct at the start of the 21st century.
Thanks to commercial hatcheries starting to offer Houdan chicks, the breed of chickens has somewhat recovered but is still considered critically endangered.
Houdans are medium-sized standard fowl, with unique V-shaped combs that resemble tiny butterfly wings. Houdan hens lay up to 230 large white eggs per year and lay well into winter. They thrive in warm, dry climates but require shade in extreme heat. They are susceptible to frostbite in colder climates.
Houdans are curious and like to forage, but their crests obscure their eyesight, putting them at risk to predation. Houdan chicks are easy to raise, and Houdans of all ages enjoy interacting with and being cuddled by their humans.
First developed in the French town of Le Mans in the 5th century, La Flèche chickens are easily recognized by their deeply V’d combs, which purportedly reflect the arrow for which the town of La Flèche is named. Imported to the U.S. in the 1850s, La Flèche chickens were considered too delicate in the constitution to survive eastern American winters. Despite this lack of popularity, the La Flèche was accepted into the APA’s Standards of Perfection in 1874.
The La Flèche is considered the epitome of table birds in France, where both females and caponized males are purposely fattened to develop the juicy flesh so prized by gourmets.
La Flèche chickens are medium-sized standard fowl with black feathers, large white earlobes, bright red eyes and face, and dark slate shanks. They are flighty both in temperament and in ability, requiring a high fence to keep them from roosting in trees. They prefer ranging to confinement, thrive in warmer climates, and tend to avoid interaction with humans.
Though La Flèche hens make poor mothers, these endangered chickens are excellent layers, producing up to 220 large to extra-large white eggs from late winter to late fall.
The Malay is truly a breed for the selective fowl fancier. One of the world’s most ancient chickens, the Indian Malay dates back more than 3,000 years. Its fierce, thuglike appearance—towering height, hooked beak, overhanging brow and broad skull—and its pugnacious nature prevented the Malay from being widely embraced by American poultry enthusiasts when the breed was introduced to the U.S. in 1846.
Its lean, heavily-boned body further estranged American breeders seeking meat-producing chickens. The Malay female’s poor egg production—between 20 to 100 medium-sized brown eggs—did not help the breed’s popularity. Nevertheless, the APA recognized the breed’s Black Breasted Red variety in 1883 (the White, Black, Spangled and Red Pyle varieties were recognized in 1981).
Because of its size, the Malay is a poor choice for a backyard flock or for any form of confinement. The breed flies well and breeders may be resigned to allowing their Malay chickens to roost overnight in trees. Due to its lean body and tight feathering, the breed does better in warm climates.
As it is an aggressive bird that prefers to stand its ground and fight, the Malay is a poor choice for families with children, pets and other breeds of chickens. However, for poultry fanciers interested in helping conserve a critically endangered ancient breed of chickens, nothing beats raising the Malay.