Wait, there are heirloom chickens?! Of course there are! Just as farmers the world over developed their own locally relevant strains of fruits and vegetables, the same is true of livestock. Some birds were raised for eggs, while others were raised for meat. Others might have been hybrids. Or show birds. A chicken in Canada doesn’t face the same challenges as one raised in Spain. A free ranging chicken is very different than one developed to tolerate confinement.
Referred to as heritage breeds, there are dozens of chicken breeds that have been handed down through the generations. Just as with the myriad of heirloom seeds, the majority have been lost to time as big agriculture created a monoculture.
If you eat an egg, more likely than not, it was laid by a Rhode Island Red, the chosen bird of the egg industry. In chicken plants across the country, these medium white birds are pressed in with thousands of their fellows, fed an industrial diet, and pumped full of medicine to try to combat the unsanitary conditions they’re raised in.
As in so many other industries, the advent of mass production of chickens and eggs concentrated the business into the hands of a few. Whereas before, any homestead would have included chickens, people stopped keeping the birds themselves and these precious heirloom chickens mostly died out.
But not all. The Livestock Conservancy tracks and protects the remaining heritage breeds in the US, keeping lists of the most endangered and educating people about the value of genetic conservation. I speak of chickens here, since that’s what we have here at Paper Crane, but of course, the same goes for livestock breeds of all sorts, cows, goats, pigs, etc.
Our chosen breed is the Jersey Giant. These birds were developed in New Jersey in the late 1800s and are the largest chicken breed out there. In choosing our chickens, we knew a bird developed in the Northeast would be cold hearty. This was important to us as our birds would be outside through the New England winter. We liked the Giant’s large size, under the theory that that would help deter predators. We also liked them for their docility. Our oldest child was barely taller than the chickens their first year. We wanted to avoid potential ugly encounters. Besides, weren’t they cute?
Do you raise chickens? What breeds? How did you choose them? Do you move them for the winter? Share your chicken encounters.