Homesteading & Heritage Chickens

There are a few things I want from my chickens.  In the long term, I want them to provide reliable, sustainable food for me and my family.  The future is always uncertain, but I believe that the economy is unlikely to regain the growth and expansion that I grew up with, believing that it could never end.  As a safeguard, I want to know that I have eggs, and, if necessary, meat to supplement our diet.  Thus, I want to be able to breed birds that are productive, large enough to provide meat, able to maintain a breeding population with the presence of natural predators, able to forage to supplement their diet, go “broody,” raise their young, and breed true.  Therefore, as with vegetables before, I found myself looking to heritage breeds for my long-term, self-sustaining flock of the future.

Gail Damerow’s book (mentioned in the last post) lists birds that produce eggs and are large enough to eat, called dual purpose in the chicken world.  Breeds equally valued for their eggs and meat are: Dominique, Houdan, Plymouth Rock, Sussex, Orpington, and Wyandotte.  I began my chicken-search by cross-referencing this list with her list of good foragers: Ancona, Aseel, Campine, Dominique, Hamburg, Leghorn, Minorca, Old English Game, Orpington, Rhode Island Red, Sussex, and Wyandotte.  This, of course, gave me my short-list and jumping off point: Dominique, Sussex, and Wyandotte.

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Dominiques are historic, truly American birds.  They originated in New England in the colonial era.  They are barred, meaning that they are patterned with thin ribbons of black and white, and have a rose comb, meaning that the red bit on the chicken’s head in low and tight to the head with many small points.  They are reliable layers of medium to large brown eggs.  I have been told wonderful things about this bird, and they seem to be an ideal homestead chicken.  I almost went with the Dominique, but… now you will see how truly shallow I am: I don’t like barred chickens.  I just don’t like the look.  I can’t get over it, although I know it should be inconsequential.  Nevertheless….

Onto the Sussex.  These birds are from, you guessed it, England.  Also an old breed, the Sussex is a reliable layer of light brown or cream colored eggs and is also good for eating.  According to Wikipedia, the Sussex actually originated in 43 AD with the arrival of the Romans in England.  (If you are interested, here is an article about Sussex chickens from Mother Earth News.)  The Speckled Sussex is of particular interest to me.  These birds are reputed to be friendly and gentle, and their coloring helps them to avoid predation.   Most feathers are a dark mahogany, but are tipped in white, creating a “speckled” appearance.  These chickens have a single comb, the large, red, fan-like protrusion on the rooster’s head that everyone imagines on a prototypical chicken.  When it is both cold and humid, these combs are particularly susceptible to frostbite.  People think Speckled Sussex birds are very beautiful, and I think they are cute enough, but to be honest (boy, I hope I don’t anger anyone with this post…) the speckles look funny to me.  Perhaps they will be more handsome in person.  Nonetheless, this is the breed that I have chosen to develop long-term.  We have a winner!

The Wyandotte is a beautiful bird.  “Silver Laced,” “Gold Laced,” and “Blue Laced Red,” these beautiful birds are an excellent choice, but from what I have read, seem to be less broody than other heritage breeds and are not often found fending for themselves on the homestead.  These are sweet, winter-hardy (as are the Dominique and Sussex), skilled mothers when they do sit and productive layers of brown eggs.  To be honest, these handsome birds almost stole my heart.  Almost.

To be honest, this is a simplified summary of my long-term chicken search, but I doubt you want to see the spreadsheet.  (Yes, there is a spreadsheet, comparing the twenty-three breeds that I thought most worthy of consideration…) However, my resolute reader, this chicken-breed journey does not end here.  Oh, no, not by far.

If you know somethin’ well, you can always paint it but people would be better off buyin’ chickens. – Grandma Moses

2 thoughts on “Homesteading & Heritage Chickens

  1. Pingback: A Breed Apart « Scratch Cradle

  2. Love all chickens – even mutts! But as you say you have to decide what you need. We are zoned for 5 hens. We first got 2 adorable Silkies. Silkies lay nice eggs for a large bantam but now we have 2 overly-broody darlings we don’t want to re-home. We had to re-home a Marans who bullied the Silkies. Then re-homed a Leghorn who did the same. Now we have a gentle Ameraucana and a Leghorn pullet left with the Silkies. Our experience from this drama taught us to stay with one breed after all our girls go to heaven. Not really caring for barred birds, we tried a Dominique chick from a feed store and fell in love with her temperament. We’ve had other chick breeds but the Dom displayed more curiosity and sociability without fear. Some breeds are skittish, or too sweet and are predator-bait, or are gluttons, or lazy, or aggressive, etc. But the Dom fit our criteria – decent layer, occasional broody, lightweight for feed conversion rate, hardy in all climates, alert forager, camouflage feathering, not skittish, very sociable, gentle flock temperament. We love the mind-their-own-business egg-machine Leghorns but there can be issues with their layer health and they don’t brood. The Dom will let you run fingers thru their very soft feathers whereas Legs don’t like handling. Doms will sleep in your lap whereas Legs only sit long enough to eat your treats. We’ve found the Ameraucana a good gentle sweet breed in a mixed flock and is an alert forager. In spite of prior intense research our one-kind breed decision finally came after a 4-year trial and error period and surprised ourselves in choosing a barred breed – the Dom BTW is the founding breed of the heavier Plymouth Barred Rocks! Good luck to all who are deciding on the perfect hens for their flock 🙂

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