Keeping a Conservation Flock: Recovering The Plymouth Rock

Breed conservation efforts work. The Barred Plymouth Rock breed, once on the Livestock Conservancy's Watch list, is a prime example.

by Ana Hotaling
PHOTO: Volodymyr/Adobe Stock

When a chicken breed becomes listed on the Livestock Conservancy’s Conservation Priority List, its inclusion sometimes results in a sense of deep loss and hopelessness for its enthusiasts. Despite their best efforts to promote the breed at poultry exhibitions, through their national club and on social media, its numbers have taken a turn for the worst. The breed is now considered one to Watch, one that is Threatened, or one that is Critical and in danger of extinction.

(Note: the Livestock Conservancy has yet to lose a breed on its Conservation Priority List to extinction.)

Sometimes, however, a breed’s inclusion on the Conservation Priority List is a call to action, galvanizing breeders, small flock owners and poultry fanciers to do what is necessary to bring the breed back from the brink. This is what happened with the Orpington and Wyandotte chicken breeds, which a decade ago were included on the list.

These breeds so sufficiently recovered in population that they both graduated from the list in 2016  and their inclusion is a fading memory. Today, the Orpington and the Wyandotte are two of the most common backyard chicken breeds in the United States.

Another breed is slowly following the Orpington and Wyandotte’s exodus from obscurity: the Barred Plymouth Rock. It might amaze poultry keepers that the Barred Rock—a mainstay of most Chick Days events at farm-supply stores—is anywhere close to being endangered. Unfortunately, this breed’s status was anything but secure just a handful of years ago.

Thanks to conservation efforts by the Livestock Conservancy and Plymouth Rock breeders around the country, the Barred Rock is now categorized as Recovering.

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What Does Recovering Mean?

A poultry breed classified as Recovering was once listed as either Critical, Threatened or Watch. However, efforts to stabilize and increase the breed’s population have resulted in its numbers now exceeding more than 5,000 breeding birds in the United States and more than 10,000 globally.

Furthermore, more than 10 primary breeding flocks must exist in the U.S. to change a chicken’s status from Watch to Recovering. Recovering breeds still require monitoring, as they are especially susceptible to changes in their status. With a lot of hard work, however, a Recovering breed such as the Barred Rock can completely graduate from the Conservation Priority List.

Read more: For this keeper, barred Plymouth Rock chickens rule the roost.

The History of the Plymouth Rock

No clear origin story exists for the Barred Plymouth Rock. Numerous poultry breeders and fanciers claimed to have developed the breed at some point in the mid-1800s. The theory most hold to is that the breed was developed in the 1860s, when Black Javas were crossed with single-comb Dominiques.

The resulting bird was named the Plymouth Rock. It was slightly larger than the Dominique but otherwise indistinguishable from its progenitor.

Both had a barred, or cuckoo, pattern on their plumage and both had both single- and rose-comb varieties. The two breeds remained interchangeable until an 1870 New York poultry exhibition, at which it was decreed that the single-comb birds would be shown as Plymouth Rocks, while the rose-cushioned birds would be exhibited as Dominiques.

In 1874, the Barred Plymouth Rock, or Barred Rock, was recognized by the American Poultry Association.

Plymouth Rock Characteristics

In addition to the Barred Rock (aka the original Plymouth Rock), several other color varieties were soon developed. These include

  • White Rock
  • Buff Rock
  • Silver-Penciled Rock
  • Partridge Rock
  • Columbian Rock
  • Blue Rock

All varieties of Plymouth Rock feature a large, bright-red single comb, red wattles and red earlobes. They have yellow, featherless shanks—the chief distinguishing feature between a Buff Rock and a Buff Orpington—and hens lay approximately 200 large brown eggs per year.

Plymouth Rock females are good broodies and mothers. Chicks reach maturity at the early age of eight to 12 weeks.

Because Plymouth Rocks feather early, they are considered cold-hardy birds, although the points of the single comb are susceptible to frostbite. Plymouth Rocks are calm, sweet birds that get along with other breeds and are very affectionate with their humans. Barred Plymouth Rocks are often kept as pet chickens and are used as 4-H showmanship birds due to their cuddly, friendly nature.

Rocks like to range and explore but are tolerant of confinement. They are an excellent choice for a backyard flock.

Read more: Consider keeping these 3 critically endangered chicken breeds.

Helping North American Breeds

It is hoped that the Plymouth Rock’s population will become secure and sustainable. Sadly, over the past few years there has been a trend of decline amongst North American chicken breeds, with the Rhode Island Red moving back to Watch from Recovering and the Rhode Island White moving from Watch to Threatened.

Another North American breed, the Buckeye, moved from Threatened to Watch and back to Threatened, while the Cubalaya moved from Threatened to Critical and the Java moved from Watch to Critical.

One way to help these breeds (in addition to starting your own flock) is to support accurate reporting of each breed’s population. Another way is to become a member of a national breed club and join their efforts in promoting their particular chicken variety.

The Livestock Conservancy also welcomes new members wishing to support their conservation efforts. Check their Get Involved page for information on what you can do to help these endangered breeds.

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