The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.

Why are there so many chicken breeds?

Polish RoosterWhy are there so many chicken breeds to choose from?  A lot of it is just looks.  Within the last century, dozens of types of chickens were developed with unique plumage that made them good bets to win a prize at the county fair, but these lookers are unlikely to be prime homesteading birds.  Not only is efficient egg-laying and meat production often ignored when breeding exhibition-quality birds, but chickens with feathered feet have a hard time scratching for their dinner, and those with fancy plumes can't glance up.  In general, fancy fowl tend to be eaten by hawks in short order, and they usually don't produce much compared to how much they cost to feed.  The serious homesteader will be better off giving these birds a miss.

The rise of fancy fowl is a relatively recent phenomenon.  In 1868, Charles Darwin (with the help of a "Mr. Tegetmeier") published a survey of the currently known chicken breeds, which included Game, Malay, Cochin, Dorking, Spanish, Hamburg, Crested or Polish, Bantam, Rump-less, Creepers or Jumpers, Frizzled or Caffre, Silk, and Sooty.  As you can tell, Darwin's descriptions were mostly categories rather than actual breeds as we consider them today, so it's not surprising that only thirteen types made the cut.

On the other hand, the relative paucity of chicken types in the late nineteenth century was also due to the fact that chickens were primarily a luxury item in temperate climates at that time.  Chickens didn't become an economical source of human food until the discovery of vitamin D in the early 1920s made it easy to keep flocks healthy and productive through the winter months.  With chickens suddenly becoming a viable alternative for small farmers, it's no surprise that many of the chicken breeds we know today (and others that have since been lost) were developed in the early part of the twentieth century.

Buff Orpingtons in the snowThe heyday of chicken breeding didn't last forever, though.  The discovery of vitamin D not only made chicken keeping more economical for the homesteader, it also allowed large chicken farms to raise thousands of birds at a time.  During the same time period, many Americans were moving off farms and into the cities, and while some ex-farmers bred miniature chickens (bantams) to take with them, others decided it was simpler to buy their eggs and meat at the store.  Before long, homestead-worthy chicken breeds were dwindling and being replaced by types of chickens that did well in the cramped quarters of factory farms.

The more recent surges in backyard chicken-keeping of the 1970s and early 2000s have mostly focused on the breeds that already existed, although the choices were reduced to those that had survived decades of backyard disinterest.  And while most of the chickens that were alive at the time Darwin was writing were probably scrappy farmyard birds with no pedigrees who fit the farms they'd been raised on, the modern homesteader looking to develop a productive flock has more choices but a harder time finding productive genetics.  That's why, despite the wide variety of chicken breeds out there, it can be tough to find a good homesteading bird.  Thrifty Chicken Breeds is all about tracking down that productive breed that can feed your family at a low cost.

I hope you enjoyed this excerpt from Thrifty Chicken Breeds.  If so, why not read the whole thing for only 99 cents?  Or stay tuned for another excerpt here on the blog tomorrow.

This post is part of our Thrifty Chicken Breeds lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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It seems to me that a breed is more or less what breeders agree that it is? A label more or less. As opposed to e.g. a objectively measurable characteristic.

So a mixed population of chickens could have a variable amount of breeds depending on who does the classifying.

Comment by Roland_Smith Tue Jun 10 14:04:23 2014
Roland --- Breeds are a technical thing, a bit like dog breeds. There are lots of mutts out there with variable amounts of certain breeds in them, but there are also lots of animals that have been bred to maintain various standards and stay within a breed, the same way you can have purebred types of dogs. So, it is pretty objective --- the breeds would be certain colors, certain shapes, etc., and would presumably have a common heritage.
Comment by anna Tue Jun 10 20:39:05 2014

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