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Keeping a backyard flock means you can be a vital part of protecting heritage and rare chicken breeds. (There are so many ways to save the world with chickens. It’s totally awesome.) Some of the rare breeds are lots of fun to keep, and useful to have around. They are excellent layers, hardy birds, good meat producers, and good mothers. We try to pick rare or heritage breeds whenever we can. Even if you can’t have a rooster to keep perpetuating the breed you are still helping out by creating a demand for these breeds from those breeders who are raising them, plus your birds add to the total population levels.
Why keep rare chicken breeds?
According to the Livestock Conservancy, before World War there were 60 different breeds of chickens being raised in the U.S. Now there are only five being raised commercially! That’s a huge decline! I believe that the future of genetic diversity for rare breeds is critical and the more people that can raise these breeds the better!
Heritage chickens often are better all around birds for the casual homesteader. They may not be the top layer in your flock, but they can be the egg you can count on, provide meat for the table, or even be the chicken that becomes your friend. Rare breeds can be more efficient at foraging their own foods to save on feed costs, or more sturdy in weather extremes such as cold or hot areas. They can also be more disease resistant, which has become a big issue for some areas.
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Many of these heritage and rare birds are sorted into lists according to their conservation status. The Livestock Conservancy counts registered breeding stock for the breeds each year and publishes a list. The most endangered breeds are critical, with less than 500 breeding birds and an estimated population in the world of less than 1,000! Next is threatened, with fewer than 1,000 breeding birds and an estimated total population of 5,000. The watch list is for birds with fewer than 5,000 breeding birds and a total population of less than 10,000. Recovering breeds used to be on the lists, but since then have increased their numbers. While small homesteaders may not be able to keep breeding flocks, we CAN increase the total number of the breed by keeping them for meat, eggs, and entertainment.
Best Breeds for Backyard Homesteaders
The Dominique is considered to be the first American breed of chicken, but in the 1950s it was thought that it went extinct! There were four remaining flocks that still had them though. Since then they’ve made a comeback and have moved all the way to the watch list. They are starting to decline again, so go do your part! Dominiques are good foragers and like to free range, but they will do okay in a pen if necessary. They do go broody, but are still good layers. They are also very friendly and calm. Our Dominique always comes out to say hello when I go to feed them in the morning. The Dominiques have a small rose comb, which helps them be more resistant to frostbite. However, they also can adapt to hot and humid climates.
Buckeyes are also an American breed, and the only breed developed by a woman. They are on the threatened list, which means they need your help! Buckeyes are not the showiest of birds, as they are a reddish brown. They are good layers, but still have meaty thighs and breasts. They are very friendly. Our hen “Bucky” thinks she’s part of the family and often tries to come into the house. She has absolutely no fear of us and just walks right up looking for treats! They are good foragers, but can also be kept in smaller areas. They aren’t likely to feather pick in close quarters, unlike other breeds. Buckeyes are very cold hardy.
Wyandottes are a recovering breed. Because of their cold hardiness, adaptability to free ranging or smaller areas, and are decent dual purpose meat and egg birds, they are a good fit for most urban homesteaders. They also come in some beautiful colors. We have both a gold laced and a silver laced Wyandotte in our flock currently. They are beautiful to look at, even if they aren’t our friendliest birds. Most Wyandottes are docile, but occasionally they will be aggressive. We happen to have one of those more aggressive birds. I keep warning Candi our gold laced Wyandotte every time she pecks me that she’s going to end up as dinner one of these days. But she doesn’t care one bit what I think.
Fun Breeds For Special Circumstances
Chickens don’t have to be all work and no fun! Here are 3 more rare chicken breeds that can be the best choice for some situations or are just plain fun to have around!
Andalusians are good for warmer climates. While I love our beautiful slate blue Andalusian, and she’s one of our best layers, our Pacific Northwest winters are too cold for her. She spends a lot of time in the goat shed keeping warm, instead of running around and hopping fences like she does in the summer. Andalusians are good layers of white eggs even in winter, but they are very active and need a lot of space. These are on the threatened list, so if you are in a warmer place with lots of room to roam this might be the ideal bird for you.
Cochins are show birds, and they aren’t the best layers or the fastest growing meat producers. I happen to think that their fabulous fluffy feathers make up for that. Watching a Cochin run is the best entertainment. They are on the watch list. They are cold hardy, calm tempered, and do well free ranging or in a smaller space. This is not a bird that will hop your fence and destroy your garden. (Unlike SOME birds. Candi, I’m looking at you.) If you like to hatch out your own chicks a Cochin can still earn her keep. They frequently go broody and they are good mothers and are frequently used as foster mothers.
Brahmas can be a fun addition to a backyard flock because of the multitude of colors they come in, as well as their feathered feet. They do okay in hot areas, and superbly in cold. They are the largest chicken breed, and raised for meat. If you aren’t raising meat birds they aren’t the best all around layers. They do lay during winter. They’re on the watch list, so the more the merrier!
Other Rare Breeds
Want to learn more about all the different chicken breeds out there? Check out Storey’s Illustrated Guide to Poultry Breeds: Chickens, Ducks, Geese, Turkeys, Emus, Guinea Fowl, Ostriches, Partridges, Peafowl, Pheasants, Quails, Swans. I love to page through it and think about which breeds would be fun to incorporate into our flock in the future, in addition to my favorite breeds. (Want more chicken related books? Check out our resource page too!)
What are your favorite rare chickens for backyard chicken keepers? Share below in the comments!
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