Despite trends in poultry keeping—such as a few years back, when everyone had to have Columbian Wyandottes in their flock—occasionally a breed that appears popular is actually in decline. Finding their chicks at farm-supply stores or at online hatcheries becomes increasingly difficult, and locating a breeder who’s within your state or region seems more and more like a pipe dream. Even if not critically endangered, these breeds can be ones to watch.
When a specific chicken you’re looking for seems nowhere to be found, you’ll more than likely find it on the Livestock Conservancy’s Conservation Priority List.
While breeds in active decline may not have lessened to the point of Critical or Threatened classification, they may meet the parameters required for categorization as Watch. For poultry breeds to be considered Watch worthy, they must have fewer than 5,000 breeding birds and 10 or fewer main breeding flocks in the United States.
Five thousand birds may seem like a lot, but let’s put that into perspective. According to the National Chicken Council, the U.S. produced more than 9 billion broiler chickens in 2021. This 9 billion does not include heritage or hybrid chickens being farmed for eggs, nor does it include all the birds being kept in backyard flocks. Suddenly, 5,000 birds seems insignificant, especially since extinction is only 5,000 birds away.
The following breeds, all developed in North America, are currently categorized as Watch. Perhaps one or more may inspire you to start your own breeding flock.
Don’t let the name fool you. The Chantecler is not a Continental-class (Northern European) bird.
It is in fact the first chicken breed developed in Canada, developed by Brother Wilfred Chatelain of the Cistercian Abbey of Notre-Dame du Lac in Quebec. Brother Wilfred set out to create a bird that could withstand Canada’s harsh winter climate. Using Dark Cornish, White Leghorn, Rhode Island Red and White Wyandotte stock, he succeeded in developing the White Chantecler (chanter means to sing and clair means clear).
The breed which was recognized by the American Poultry Association (APA) in 1921.
Halfway across the country, in Alberta, Dr. J.E. Wilkinson decided to improve on Brother Wilfred’s bird. Believing a white chicken to be too easily targeted by predators, Dr. Wilkinson developed a partridge variety of the Chantecler using Dark Cornish, rose-comb Brown Leghorn, Partridge Cochin and Partridge Wyandotte stock. The Partridge Chantecler was admitted into the APA in 1935.
Both Chantecler varieties are exceptionally cold hardy, with minimal wattles and a tiny rose comb. The breed adapts well to both confinement and ranging and gets along with other varieties of chicken. Chantecler hens lay throughout winter, producing up to 220 beige-pink eggs per year. A calm, friendly bird, the Chantecler is the ideal chicken for those flock owners living in the northern U.S. and Canada.
Sometimes mistakes turn out to be masterpieces. George Ellis of Indian River, Delaware, was participating in a breed improvement plan in the 1940s. The intention of this program was to produce a meaty dual-purpose bird that laid well. Ellis attempted this by breeding Barred Plymouth Rock roosters to New Hampshire hens.
Most of the birds produced from this cross breeding bred true, the offspring developing identically to each other. Ellis’ interest, however, was drawn to the “sports,” or mistakes, that did not match the other birds.
Ellis noticed that a number of these sports were white with black bars—similar to a Colombian pattern, but with black bars instead of the Colombian’s solid black sections. Ellis chose to pursue improving these sports, which eventually became the Delaware chicken.
Since the Delaware’s primary purpose was to be a meat bird—a broiler—the breed was not well known to the small farmer and went into decline when the Cornish Rock became the choice broiler breed in the late 1950s. But those who choose to breed the Delaware are not disappointed.
The breed is very low maintenance, quite disease resistant and rarely jumps high. Delawares are inquisitive birds who like to explore their surroundings. They will happily follow their humans around, quite possibly out of simple curiosity. Delawares tend to be chatterboxes—definitely not the breed to keep if your home is a suburban one with a limited back yard.
Hens lay approximately 200 large eggs per year, do not go broody, and will produce Delaware cockerels and New Hampshire pullets if mated to a New Hampshire rooster.
America’s first and oldest breed of chicken, the Dominique (see image above) has been around since the 1750s. Records indicate that the Dominique was exhibited at the first American poultry show—held in Boston in 1849—and it was included in the very first edition of the Standard of Perfection, published by the newly formed APA in 1874.
Despite its well-established longevity in the U.S., the Dominique began to decline in the 1920s due to two factors: the passing away of the breed’s key enthusiasts and the skyrocketing popularity of the Plymouth Rock, which was developed by crossing Black Javas with Dominiques.
By 1970, only four known flocks of Dominiques remained. With the assistance of the Livestock Conservancy, these flock owners participated in a breed rescue program, safeguarding the Dominique’s long-established bloodlines, including one that dated back more than 100 years. Today, the Dominique Club of America helps promote and encourage the breeding and keeping of this heritage American bird. Unlike some of the other breeds on this list, the Dominique’s Watch status is actually a positive development.
With its tight plumage and low rose comb, the Dominique is a cold-hardy bird. Its gentle, friendly nature make it the perfect bird for brand-new backyard flock owners with small children. The Dominique’s docility also make it a popular choice for youths participating in 4-H competitions.
Dominique hens are prodigious layers, laying up to 275 medium-sized eggs per year. They can go broody and make excellent, devoted mothers.
A recent backyard-bird rage made the Jersey Giant every microflock owner’s must-have chicken. During spring Chick Days, it was not unusual to find stock tanks full of Jersey Giant chicks for sale at farm-supply stores, waiting to be bought.
Despite this trend, the Jersey Giant remains in the Conservation Priority List’s Watch category for breeds. A possible reason for this may be the breed’s tremendous size. Originally bred by brothers Thomas and John Black of Burlington County, New Jersey, as a replacement for turkeys as a table bird, the Jersey Giant is known for its huge frame. Roosters can measure more than 2 feet in height, and hens are almost 2 feet tall.
Jersey Giant females can go broody and make good mothers, but they are also known for accidentally crushing the eggs they are incubating. Because of its size, the Jersey Giant also needs a larger coop, a larger nest box and a longer perch. Coops designed for the typical large-fowl flock may not be adequately sized for a Jersey Giant flock.
Furthermore, Jersey Giants must roost closer to the floor, as their bulk does not easily get airborne. Jumping down from a perch placed at a height typical for most chickens can potentially lead to injury for this sizable breed.
Despite a handful of negatives, the Jersey Giant is actually quite lovely to raise. There are three color varieties:
- original black, which was recognized by the APA in 1922
- white, which was accepted in 1947
- blue, which was admitted in 2003
All three Jersey Giant varieties are gentle, calm birds that get along with other chicken breeds. They love to forage and, due to their size, may take on smaller predators. Hens lay about 200 extra-large eggs per year and take an extra day or two to hatch their clutch than do other hens. Both the males and females enjoy interacting with their humans and even cuddle with their owners.
Rhode Island Red (Non Commercial)
A lot has changed for the Rhode Island Red since it was first recognized by the APA in 1904. Originally developed in the 1880s and 1890s in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, the Rhode Island Red was meant to be a table bird as well as an egg layer … the perfect barnyard bird. Little did the breed’s developers realize they’d produced what would at one time reign as America’s favorite dual-purpose chicken.
Today’s Rhode Island Red has been commercialized. It, along with the White Leghorn, is one of the mainstays of the poultry industry’s egg-production business, thanks to Rhode Island Red hens’ ability to lay up to 300 eggs per year. Since the 1940s, the Rhode Island Red has been the focus of selective breeding, with the goal of further increasing the breed’s egg production. The changes resulting from this breeding program have produced a Rhode Island Red that is smaller, less broody, more egg efficient and lighter in color.
These commercialized Rhode Island Reds can be recognized by their more compact carriage and rust-red color.
The Rhode Island Red that is on the Conservation Priority List, however, is the original Rhode Island Red: the larger, full-bodied bird whose feathers are so dark that the chicken at first appears to be black in color. These old-fashioned Rhode Island Reds are becoming increasingly rare and may soon shift to Threatened status.
Traditional Rhode Island Red hens still lay plentifully. They are gentle, peaceful birds who go broody and become good mothers to their chicks. Traditional Rhode Island Red roosters are very protective of their flock and can be aggressive to humans and other animals, especially if they feel threatened.