If you’d like to keep an ancient chicken breed but also want productive birds, think Dorkings: They have it all! They’re luscious meat birds and respectable layers of white eggs, their friendly dispositions are second to none, and they’re unique in the fact that they have five toes: Almost all other chickens only have four.
Ancient Roman writer Lucius Junius Moderatus Columella described the ancestors of today’s Dorkings in Res Rustica, a series of agricultural books written during the first century A.D.: “[They are] square-framed, large and broad-breasted, with big heads and small upright combs, the purest being five-clawed.” Pliny the Elder, another Roman scholar of the era, also described chickens with extra toes.
Some of these birds came to Britain with Julius Caesar’s troops beginning in A.D. 43. They were further developed in an area along the old Roman road between London and Chichester, where the market village of Dorking was eventually founded. Once established, Dorking and a few other villages raised prime poultry for the nearby London meat markets, among them the Dorking chicken famed for its tender, juicy breast meat.
By Queen Victoria’s reign (1837-1901), Dorkings were one of the most sought-after breeds in England. Victoria, an avowed chicken fancier, was fond of Dorkings for their gourmet meat and tasty white eggs. Fanciers exhibited wildly popular Dorkings at Britain’s first poultry show in 1845, and Dorkings were also used in the creation of new breeds, such as the Speckled Sussex and Buff Orpington.
Capt. Morgan brought the first Dorkings, a rooster and five pullets, to America in 1847 aboard the mail ship Victoria, and the breed took America by storm. The American Poultry Association admitted Silver-Gray, Colored and White Dorkings to the first edition of its Standard of Perfection in 1874. Cuckoo (1995) and Red (1998) are also now in the standard, as are bantam versions of all the large-fowl varieties.
By the mid-1800s, the breed was widely distributed throughout the eastern U.S., and by the early 1900s, Dorkings had become America’s favorite breed. Nowadays, Dorkings are considered a heritage breed listed in the Watch category by The Livestock Conservancy, with fewer than 2,500 annual registrations in the U.S. and estimated global population less than 10,000, though they’re readily available from breeders and most large hatcheries.
What’s A Dorking Chicken Look Like?
Dorkings are one of only a few five-toed breeds (others include the Silkie, Houdan, Sultan and Faverolle). The Dorking’s extra toe is placed on the back of its foot between its usual rear toe and its shank. This extra toe inclines slightly upward and usually doesn’t touch the ground.
Dorkings also have short legs and stout, rectangular bodies with broad breasts; long, horizontal backs; large heads; and fairly high-set tails. Full-size roosters weigh about 9 pounds, and hens weigh about 7 pounds; bantams weigh 36 and 32 ounces, respectively.
Dorkings have red combs, wattles and earlobes, and are one of the few red-earlobed breeds that lay white eggs. (Most lay brown or tinted eggs.) They have white skin and tight feathering with a lot of neck plumage.
Dorkings tolerate confinement housing, but they’re much happier when they can be out and about, free-ranging. They’re outstanding foragers that easily rustle up much of their own grub in season.
Dorkings are a great backyard breed, says Jill Marie Lane of Qualicum Beach in British Columbia, Canada.
“Dorkings are extra-nice chickens,” she says. “The hens are a lovely soft color, and the males are quite showy. The hens go broody quite often and make excellent mothers. I found them to be a hardy breed.”
Elizabeth Hosmanek of Wilton, Iowa, has four Silver-Gray Dorking hens and one rooster.
“The hens are calm, friendly and sociable with each other and with people,” she says. “My flock free-ranges during the day, and the Dorkings are always the first to come running if they see me outside. Although they have the bodies of full-sized chickens on short legs, don’t let the short legs deceive you. They can run just as fast as longer-legged flock members. One hen in particular likes to follow me around the garden, especially if she sees me digging. I like to throw her grubs as I find them.”
That gentle nature and charming personality have made the Dorking famous as a fowl that can be easily rendered tame.
“This is a quality frequently overlooked in making the choice of a breed, but one which counts for much in the satisfaction of keeping fowls,” wrote English author H. H. Stoddard in The Book of the Dorking, almost 150 years ago, when Dorkings were Britain’s favorite meat breed. “Dorkings welcome the presence of their attendant and crowd around him when he appears.”
Hosmanek says it still holds true today. When her 4-year-old rooster, Little John, suffered damage to his comb, she brought him into the house for recovery and he became quite tame.
“He’s a gentleman with his girls,” she says, “and he’s always ready to protect them. Whenever I toss out scraps for the chickens, Little John makes sure that the girls have their fill before he samples anything.”
However, due to their easygoing nature, Dorkings are often bullied by more aggressive chickens, a fact worth noting before adding them to an existing flock.
Although Dorkings are known for meat production, they’re a dual-purpose breed. Hens don’t start laying until they’re 5 or 6 months old, but once they do, they’re reliable layers of large, creamy white or lightly tinted eggs, averaging between 150 to 180 eggs per year. They also lay right through the deep winter months.
“My Dorkings lay as well as my Easter Egger and Wyandotte hens, though their eggs are not quite as large,” Hosmanek says.
Centuries of selection as a table bird make Dorkings a first-class choice for anyone seeking old-fashioned chicken flavor.
“At table, they surpass all others in symmetry of shape and whiteness and delicacy of flesh,” Stoddard wrote. “[Dorking meat] is juicy, tender and of delicious flavor. For the table, the Dorking stands without a rival.” Apparently, that is still the case today.
In 2009, The Livestock Conservancy, Humane Farm Animal Care, Slow Food USA, Chefs Collaborative and Ayrshire Farm in Upperville, Va., held a Chicken Choosin’ heritage chicken tasting event, a blind taste test that included nine heritage breeds and the commercial Cornish Rock, all reared at Ayrshire Farm under the same conditions. Tasters judged each sample’s flavor, texture and appearance on a scale of 1 to 10. Dorkings were the overall favorite.
Dorkings are an all-around delightful breed with a proud past and a promising future. Try them in your flock. If you like tasty chicken, you’ll be pleased.
This article originally ran in the September/October 2016 issue of Chickens.