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.
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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 chicken 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 Rare Chicken Breeds for Backyard Homesteaders
Hollands are not the fanciest looking chickens out there, but they are on the critical list, so they desperately need more help! They are a great choice for most backyard homesteaders. Holland chickens are calm, good foragers, and lay large white eggs. They are related to Barred Plymouth Rocks, and look similar. They are fairly cold resistant and can go broody and raise their own chicks. If you are dedicated to helping endangered birds, but can’t dedicate a ton of space, Hollands are a great choice for you.
If you have more space and want an independent and hardy chicken that needs little help from you, raise Icelandic chickens. They are also on the critical list, and are difficult to find in the US. These birds are naturally adapted to survival in a cold climate and can forage extensively while still producing a respectable amount of eggs. Plus, they will raise their own chicks. They also come in a wide variety of colors, so if you like having lots of colors, they will be an entertaining flock!
If you like pouf headed chickens, consider the Houdan. These 5 toed chickens have large crests on their heads, but they aren’t just ornamental. They have been raised for eggs and meat, and are decent layers. Their personality is calm, which makes them better suited for urban homesteads than other breeds. They rarely go broody, but you can easily hatch their eggs in an incubator if you want to raise your own. They are on the threatened list, so they could use the help!
A reader also suggested raising Chanteclers, which are on the 2021 watch list from The Livestock Conservancy. Here’s some more about them:
“There are two varieties, the original White (APA 1921) and Partridge (APA 1935). This is a large, dual purpose breed, with hens laying 180+ eggs primarily in the cooler and colder months, and roosters dressing at 7 pounds +. Chanteclers are the first, some say the only truly Canadian heritage breed. The original White has an extremely interesting history, created by a Trappist monk over a 12 year period in a monastary that still exists in Quebec. His criteria was to create a dependable cold-weather layer, as well as a productive table bird. And he succeeded. The Partridge was developed by a dentist in Alberta, completely without knowledge of the existence of the White variety on the other side of the country. Chanteclers are a friendly, docile breed perfect for any small farm or homestead.”Dennis James Guy
Recovering Breeds For Urban 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 on the watch list, 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 currently on the watch list, which means their breed is recovering! 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.
are a recovering breed are no longer a rare chicken breed! They are still beautiful and a good choice for backyard flocks. 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.
Ultra Rare Chicken 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!
The Sumatra is characterized by it’s shining black feathers and long flowing tail. These birds are not great layers, but they are very intelligent. They prefer to roost in trees and are not likely to allow themselves to be caught by predators. Sumatras are considered show birds, although some people do keep their for eggs. Seramas are also the smallest chicken, so if you ever wanted to delve into indoor chickens, Seramas are for you!
Ayam Cemami chickens are very rare and beautiful. They are native to Indonesia and are not very common in the United States. Due to a genetic mutation the entire bird is black, even the meat. They are also very friendly birds, although they are poor layers. Price tags can be as high as $2,500 per bird and there is also a current ban on importing new breeding stock into the United States from Indonesia. But if you live in the right place you could probably start a very lucrative business selling these. The rest of us will live vicariously through you.
The Seabright is on the threatened list, and is one of the oldest bantam breeds. Bantams are great choices for urban homesteaders because they need so little space. I have a flock of 20 bantams currently, and they happily live in 200 square feet (plus some grazing time in the yard!). Seabrights have attractive laced plumage (check out the Wyandotte pictures for an example of lacing). Seabrights are not great layers, but they make great pets. They are a great way to introduce people to the fun and novelty of keeping chickens.
Another luxurious rare chicken is the Yokohama. These Japanese birds have incredibly long tails, as long as three feet in the males! The birds have a pretty red and white mottled coloring to them, and are the last surviving breed with that particular genetic coloring. If you have space to accommodate their majestic tails, these critically endangered birds can use some help.
These 3 breeds used to be rare, but are now doing much better!
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, They’ve made it to the watch list! so if you are in a warmer place with lots of room to roam this might be the ideal bird for you. Keep raising those Andalusians!
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. Cochins are now considered recovering. Wohoo! 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! Brahmas are also considered a recovering breed now.
Other Chicken 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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