Endangered Chickens
Endangered Chickens

Endangered Chickens

Nearly Half of the Historic Breeds of Chickens Reported Endangered

Note: The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy (ALBC) is now known as The Livestock Conservancy (www.LivestockConservancy.org)

Thirty-four breeds of chickens are threatened with extinction, according to a report on the status of purebred chickens recently published by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy (ALBC). In an ALBC census of purebred chickens, 70 breeds were reported being maintained by poultry breeders. Nearly half of these are endangered: twenty breeds teeter on the brink of extinction.

The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy monitors the populations of livestock and poultry breeds through periodic censuses. “These censuses show us changes in breed populations. The numbers alert us to breeds that are loosing ground and need attention to prevent them from becoming extinct,” says Marjorie Bender, ALBC’s Research & Technical Program Manager and co-author of the recent census report, Counting Our Chickens. “It was very troubling to find so many breeds endangered. Our current agricultural system does a super job of producing an abundance of inexpensive food, but it doesn’t pay enough attention to the long term need for genetic diversity.”

As with most of US livestock and poultry production, only a few genetic lines of chickens are used to supply the eggs and chicken products to supermarkets. Consequently, other breeds decline and their unique characteristics can be lost if there is not thoughtful conservation. “While these breeds might not be commercially important today, there is no assurance that we won’t need them in the future,” says Bender. “Agriculture changes, and we may yet need the genetics these breeds have to offer. ALBC’s recent turkey research shows that the old-time varieties have stronger immune systems that are needed when they are raised outdoors on range. The same could well be true of the chicken breeds that are currently endangered. It’s only wise to steward our genetic resources. Extinction is forever.”

Endangered Chickens

ALBC directs special attention to breeds unique to America. “We have a special responsibility to conserve American breeds,” says co-author Dr. Robert Hawes, emeritus professor of Poultry Science at the University of Maine. “Breeds like the Buckeye, Delaware, Holland, Java, and Jersey Giant, to name a few, were once valuable sources of meat, eggs and farm income. These breeds are in great need of breeders if they are to survive.” These breeds have unique traits, which can be used to advantage. For instance, the Jersey Giant is the largest American breed of chicken, weighing up to thirteen pounds for cocks and ten pounds for hens. They are modest layers of large brown eggs but were primarily developed for meat production and the production of capons. This breed is a good choice as large, late season roasting chickens. Their long growth cycle could be an advantage to market gardeners that use growing chickens to control weeds, turn compost, and enhance soil fertility with their manure, all before producing an outstanding table bird. While smaller than the Jersey Giant, the Delaware breed is a fairly fast growing chicken with the advantage of mostly white feathers, which results in a carcass free from pigment spots.

They are ideally suited to filling the niche of producing meat and brown eggs from a single backyard flock. The Java is one of America’s oldest breeds of chicken and an ancestor to the Jersey Giant and other American breeds. It is a hardy breed and an active forager. While laying fewer eggs than the Delaware, the Java is ideally suited to the homestead flock where the production of meat and eggs with little labor and few inputs is desired.

The ALBC report also raises concerns about the decline in the number of hatcheries that breed and sell purebred chickens. A decreasing market for chicks to independent farmers and backyard producers coupled with restrictions on shipping chicks by overnight express make the hatchery business less attractive to newcomers. “As hatchery owners approach retirement, many find there is no one to continue their businesses, forcing them to liquidate their breeding flocks and close their doors. This renders these endangered breeds even more vulnerable,” says Bender.

According to Dr. Hawes, “The challenge of today is to maintain the genetic variability of the entire poultry species and so protect this heritage for the future.” The list of endangered chicken breeds provides direction, but individuals do the real stewardship. Bender suggests several ways people can participate in conservation, “People can fuel demand for rare chicken breeds by purchasing products produced by rare breeds. Ironic as it may seem, eating rare breeds creates a market demand and ensures their survival.” Products from rare breeds, however, are not easy to come by. Supermarkets don’t carry rare breed products. People need to seek alternative sources, often going directly to the farmer, to obtain these special and delicious foods. Farmers markets, farm stands, and community supported agriculture markets (CSA’s) are all possible avenues. One can find local sources of poultry and other products by using the internet.

For those with a little land and a longing for the country life can help with conservation by raising one of the endangered breeds for the pleasure of home use, market production, family education, or exhibition. “That’s how I got my first chickens,” said Don Schrider, ALBC’s communications director, former secretary of the American Brown Leghorn Club, and a poultry breeder himself. “There’s nothing quite like doing it yourself.” Schrider encourages people to consider choosing a breed that originated in America and is a part of our agricultural heritage. Counting Our Chickens and other ALBC publications can assist individuals in locating chicks and breeders.

Counting Our Chickens: Identifying Breeds in Danger of Extinction by Marjorie E. F. Bender, Robert O. Hawes and Donald E. Bixby.