You might think that selecting chicken breeds would be an easy process.
I mean, they are all just chickens, right? Actually, the process can be a bit more intense than that. All chicken breeds are not created equal. Some are very aggressive, and difficult to mage for a novice.
Others are gentle and will require more attention and nurturing. Some lay eggs like crazy, and some grow really fast and large. These are best suited for fresh meat. Some, like most Heritage chicken breeds, are beautiful and stately.
You need to have an idea of why you want to have chickens, before deciding on a breed. Do you want them just for composting and bug control? Do you just want fresh eggs? Let’s look into heritage breeds…
The Big List of 8 Heritage Chicken Breeds
There are lots of breeds that many consider as Heritage breed chickens, and even a lot of the established Heritage chicken breeds are not recognized everywhere. But this list contains breeds that most countries accept as true Heritage chicken breeds, even they are not officially recognized by a particular country. They are in no particular order. This list is current as of 2021.
1. American Game Fowl
This breed has been around almost as long as the country itself. Originally bred for the brutal ‘sport’ of cockfighting, the evolution of humanity, and laws, in general, have allowed this breed to be appreciated for its beauty, intelligence, and mostly calm demeanor.
They are excellent foragers and have a striking appearance. As a rule, you can expect around six dozen cream-colored eggs per year from each hen. They are good at brooding if you want to hatch some. They have a good disposition towards people, but if you put two roosters in the same run, they will fight viciously, maybe even to the death.
2. Phoenix Chicken
The Phoenix chicken is a modern incarnation of the ancient Japanese Onagadori breed. The Japanese bred Onagadoris for over 1000 years, specifically to have long tail feathers like a pheasant, over 30 feet long in some cases.
Sometime in the mid to late 19th century, a few of these beautiful birds found their way into Germany, where they were an instant hit. However, Onagadoris were delicate, and Germany’s climate did not agree with them. They were crossbred with German breeds, which resulted in a magnificent and hardy bird.
Unfortunately, the very long tail feathers were lost in the process. Through continued improvements to the breed, the tail feathers stabilized at around 2.5 to 3 feet long. The new breed was christened the Phoenix because it has arisen from the ashes of its parent breed. The Phoenix arrived in the US in the early 1920s. Today it is found worldwide.
Phoenix chickens are fair at producing eggs. You can expect one cream-colored, medium-sized egg a week from each hen. But they are good at hatching. The chicks are hardy but will need extra protein when their tails start growing. They have a mild disposition, but they need lots of room to spread their feathers, so you can take advantage of their stately appearance. They are best suited for estates.
3. Brahma Chicken
The Brahama chicken is huge, second only to the gigantic Jersey Giant. Roosters over 10 lbs. Are not uncommon, and hens can be 8 lbs, and up. This is a purely American breed, developed in the late 1800s from Chocin and Maylay birds brought from China, and India.
Up until the 1920s, Brahmas were prized as meat birds, but they were later replaced by faster-growing breeds. Now they are kept mostly for ornamental purposes and non-commercial eggs.
Even though they have a calm and gentle disposition, they are imposingly large birds, with tight feathers. Three colors are recognized: Light, Dark, and Buff. Slow growing, they mature at around 7 months and can live over 10 years.
As large chickens, they are obviously good for fresh meat. But they are also very good egg layers. You can plan on 4-5 medium to large brown eggs a week from the hens throughout the winter months, from Oct-Mar. The only downside may take 7 months from hatching before they begin to lay eggs. In the spring, the hens will sit their nests diligently.
Due to their tight feathering, they tolerate the cold very well and lay eggs in the winter when most other breeds have slowed down or stopped laying. They are better suited to cooler climates up north, than the more hot and humid south.
They have a calm demeanor and get along well with other chickens. They don’t mind being held, and are content with confinement. They are less prone to foraging and cannot fly very well at all, so low fences are adequate for containment.
Brahma chickens are easy to take care of with one caveat. Due to the long feathers around their feet, they tend to get clogged up with mud sometimes and will require periodic cleaning.
4. Dominique Chicken
The Domonique, also known as the Dominicker, is one of the oldest known breeds in America. They came with the earliest settlers in the 1700s, both as a meat source and for eggs.
They even used the feathers to stuff pillows with. In appearance, they closely resemble the Barred Rock chicken. They are also similar in size and are often confused with each other. The best way to tell the difference is to look at the combs. A Dominique will have a “Rose” comb, meaning it is somewhat flat, and a Barred Rock will have a single, upstanding, blade-shaped comb.
Also, the bars on a Barred Rock will be more distinctive and sharp, with more contrast. A Dominique’s bars are more irregular and less distinct. Dominiques are medium-sized chickens, weighing an average of 7 lbs., with a lifespan of around 7 years.
Dominique chickens are a very hardy breed and like to forage, but do well in confinement. They have a very calm disposition and like to be carried around. Roosters can get a little aggressive around mating time, but not towards humans. They get along well with other gentle breeds. Though not particularly broody, when hatched, the mothers take very good care of their chicks and have a high success rate for raising them.
Dominiques are good layers. You can expect 4-5 medium-sized, brown eggs per chicken every week during the spring, summer, and fall.
5. Cochin Chicken
Formally known as the Shanghai Chicken, the Cochin breed was created in China and imported to the US in the 1800s. At the time, no other chicken looked anything like the Cochin. With thick, luxurious plumage, and sweet disposition, it’s easy to see why this bird has become so popular.
In appearance, the Cochin looks like a big ball of feathers. Imagine a basketball with soft downy feathers growing out of it in all directions. Add a head and a pair of legs, and you have a Cochin. Even the feet and head are surrounded by soft fluffy feathers.
Although they are medium-sized chickens, their feathers make them appear a lot bigger than they are. They average around 8 lbs and are very stocky, much like the Brahma. There are eight colors recognized by the American Poultry Association: Black, White, Blue, Brown, Golden Laced, Silver Laced, Barred, and Buff. All are striking, and make a wonderful addition to any gentle flock.
As beautiful as they are, they are not very good layers. You can expect maybe 1, or 2 eggs a week per chicken, but on the good side, they lay them in the winter when other breeds are on hiatus. They are excellent brooders and will happily set any eggs you give them. They are very attentive mothers.
They are very gentle, and non-aggressive towards other chickens, even the roosters. The exception is the Bantam variety, which can be a bit mean at times. Not good flyers, a 2’ fence will keep them confined nicely. They are on the lazy side, so in a pen, they mostly just hang out around the feeders and wait for treats. They love to be cuddled and carried.
Due to their exquisite feathering, they are very cold-resistant. They are best suited for northern cool climates, but in the South, you can keep them from overheating by simply having a water sprinkler going at all times so they can cool off in the water. They like playing in the sprinkler, or fountain.
For an avian pet, you could do a lot worse than a Cochin chicken.
6. Araucana Chicken
Believe it or not, there are three breeds of chickens that lay Easter Eggs that are already colored. They are the Easter Egger, the Ameriaucana, and the Araucana chicken. If you haven’t had the chance to see the beauty of an Aurancana egg, you’ve really missed something. Medium-sized eggs, come in iridescent colors of blue, lavender, pinkish, and gray. The colors are random, but blue is predominant.
If the eggs aren’t enough to get your attention, the stately upright stance and assertive personality should be.
They are somewhat hard to come by, due to difficulties with breeding. Araucanas were bred in the US in the 1930s. They used two varieties of chickens from the Andies Mountains in Chile, the Colloncas, and the Quetros.
The Quetros are what supplies the genes for the head feather tufts, but it is also a lethal gene that causes a high mortality rate in chicks. That’s why they are hard to come by. A lot of breeders don’t want to go to the trouble of breeding chickens that have such a low reproductive rate.
With their upright stance and alert personalities, Auancanas resemble game birds. They are great to watch because they are very active. The most striking feature about them is that they are, “rumpless”, meaning they have no long tail feathers like other breeds. This adds to their upright appearance. They are curious, love to forage, and pay close attention to their surroundings. They love to explore, so if you have neighbors that may not like chickens in their yards, you’ll want to keep them in a fenced run.
Not good layers at all, you’ll be lucky to get 1 or 2 eggs a week per chicken, and only in late spring and summer. But they will be beautifully colored, medium-sized eggs. Only about ⅓ of these will hatch, and only about ⅓ to ½ of the chicks will survive to adulthood. The ones that do will eventually weigh around 5 lbs, an average-sized chicken.
The cons aside, Araucanas tolerate cold very well and thrive in hot environments. Active foragers, they are pretty self-sufficient. They are a bit skittish, but friendly for the most part, and get along with other non-aggressive breeds.
7. Marans Chicken
Aside from their striking appearance, Maran chickens are famous for laying chocolate-brown eggs. They are not great layers, producing only around 150 eggs annually per hen. But chocolate brown eggs?… Wow. If you’ve ever read Ian Flemings James Bond novels, Marans eggs were Agent 007’s favorite eggs.
As for pronunciation, well…. The bird is from France, so in typical French fashion, the “S” is silent and you have to roll the ‘R’. In the US, the pronunciation is all over the place. Usually, it is just, “Muh – Ran”. However you say it, they are wonderful birds.
They are tough, have a good disease and parasite resistance, and even do well in very wet climates. They do equally well in cold, or hot environments. They like to forage and are somewhat active. They are probably one of the most gentle chickens I have ever seen, even the roosters.
I have had a few Marans in my day, and the one thing that really makes them stand out is that they are absolutely the cleanest chickens there are. They will not soil the nest boxes or coop. I even trained one to stay in the house and use a litter box for a while. If I were ever to have a chicken for a pet, this would be the one. They learn tricks very quickly and love to show off.
8. Sebright Chicken
This is one of the oldest small, Bantam breeds known. It was named after it’s creator, Sir John Saunders Sebright, of Great Britain. It is a true Bantam breed, with no larger variations. They average no more than 1-½ lbs when fully grown.
Sebrights may be small, but they more than make up for that in appearance, with beautifully accented orange-brown plumage. This breed is kept exclusively for ornamental purposes.
They have a friendly disposition but are not very cuddly. They will happily take food from your hand and let you pet them, but do not like being picked up or held. They get along well with other non-aggressive chickens.
They are one of the worst egg-layers of the chicken world, only producing around 60 eggs annually per chicken, and about ⅓ of these will not hatch. Sebrights hate brooding, and would much rather be out searching for insects, grubs, and anything else edible they can find. The chicks have a high mortality rate. If they make it to adulthood, they are somewhat hardy, but they are very susceptible to Marak’s Disease, which can be devastating to a flock.
Unlike a lot of other chickens, Sebrights are good flyers, and must be kept in a confined, covered space, or they will literally, “Fly the coop.” They are very curious and brazen. When possible, they prefer to roost in trees at night, rather than a coop. They can be very Hard-Headed…er, Independent, and take a firm hand to control them. Not exactly a great breed for beginners, but since they are small, they are great if you have limited space, and don’t mind putting up with their quirks.
What constitutes Heritage chicken breeds?
The official definition is:
A chicken hatched from a Heritage egg produced by parents recognized by the American Poultry Association (APA), and meets their strict Standards as Heritage breed chickens. The breeds must have been established prior to the mid- 20th century, must mature no sooner than 16 weeks of age, only mated naturally (no GMO birds allowed), have an average lifespan of longer than 6 years, and have a documentable lineage.
The designation of a Heritage chicken breed has several purposes. The first is to protect the genetic purity of older breeds that have been replaced by modern birds. Modern breeds grow faster, lay more eggs, and have short lifespans.
There are many outstanding breeds developed in the past, and it would be a shame to lose them. Think of them like antique cars. Who wouldn’t jump at the chance for a ride in a 1957 Chevy Belaire, a ‘55 Mercury, or ‘64-½ Mustang? Or maybe a Model T or Model A Ford? Think of Heritage breeds as Classic chickens.
The APA is brutal in its enforcement of recognition. There are lots of breeds, like the Marans, that are recognized as Heritage chicken breeds in other countries, but not in the United States (although that could change shortly…).
Other breeds, like the Ameraucauna, meet all the criteria to be recognized as a Heritage chicken breed, except that they were not recognized as a separate species from the Araucana until the 1970s. The American Poultry Association is also very picky on what colors they recognize and prefer the natural colors of the original breed.
It is worth noting that a Heritage egg’s parents must be recognized, naturally mated Heritage chickens, as well as the grandparents, and so on… There has to be an established lineage.
The slow maturity requirement is to weed out modern ‘broiler’ breeds created by mating a Heritage bird with another breed, creating a crossbreed. Again, it is to protect the breeds’ genetic purity as much as possible.
Heritage reed chickens are non-specialized, meaning they are not the best for any particular purpose, like egg-laying, or meat, but are adequate for either. Not the best egg-layers, but good enough for most individuals. Not as good for meat as modern ‘broiler’ breeds, but good enough if you just want a fresh chicken for dinner. They are known as Dual Purpose breeds.
Complete List of Heritage Chicken Breeds
It would take an entire website to describe every one of the recognized Heritage Chicken Breeds.
I have tried to provide an overview of some of the more interesting birds.
Here is a mostly complete list of all the Heritage Chicken Breeds, so you can look them up if you want:
- New Hampshire
- Jersey Giant
- Rhode Island Red
- Plymouth Rock
- Black Rock
- Old English Game
- Marsh Daisy
- Belgian d’Uccle
- Jungle Fowl
- Scots Dumpy
- Scots Grey
There may be some other recognized breeds because the chicken fanciers are always lobbying for recognition of their breeds. It keeps the hobby new and fresh. One of the best places to keep track of what’s happening in the poultry world is the Heritage Poultry Conservancy.
They have information on trends, upcoming events, conservation programs, stewardship, education, and a great blog. They stay current on all things Chicken…