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Backyard heritage chickens: a flock of birds well suited to an urban setting may be just what you're looking for.



Over the past few years, the age-old tradition of raising backyard poultry has regained its mainstream status. For centuries, chickens were a backyard staple, providing pest control, entertainment, and fresh eggs and meat. Today, hobbyists, foodies, farmers and families across the country are raising chickens in their city, suburban and farmhouse backyards.


As more folks clamor to add poultry to their urban or suburban landscapes, the question has become: What kind of chicken should I get? Not all chickens are the same, and not all are well suited for backyard or urban production. Heritage chicken breeds offer a number of excellent attributes for backyard production, such as natural foraging abilities, longevity, self-sufficiency, natural disease resistance and more. These are the breeds of our ancestors and their ancestors before them, and with a little research you can find a heritage chicken breed that will fit your lifestyle.


Status: Critical

The Nankin is one of the oldest known true bantams, meaning it's a naturally small fowl that has not been miniaturized from a larger breed. While the Nankin is one of the smallest recognized breeds of chickens, it doesn't suffer from a Napoleon complex. In fact, the breed's calm, personable and sociable demeanor makes it an excellent option for the backyard flock or 4-H project. Historically, Nankin hens were used to brood the eggs of chickens and game fowl such as partridge and quail. This made them quite popular on English game farms. The broodiness of the breed is still evident today. Nankins are a great option for those wanting a cost-effective means to increase the flock size of other breeds. Incorporate a few Nankins into the flock and let them be your natural brooders.

Nankins are known for their rich chestnut hue. The breed can be found with rose combs or single combs, with both varieties having vibrant red wattles, faces and earlobes. The Nankin produces 90 to 100 small, creamy white eggs each year. Due to their relatively small size, the birds have a tendency to stay close together as a group, as there's safety in numbers.

Today, the Nankin is listed as a critical conservation priority in need of quality stewards to help the breed survive.


Status: Threatened

Want an excellent egg layer that also makes a great meat chicken? Try the dual-purpose Java. Considered the second oldest breed of chicken developed in the United States, the calm, sociable Java is seldom aggressive, making it a nice option for the backyard or urban flock. Javas were originally used as market fowl, making them the typical "Sunday Dinner" meat chicken. Their black feathers helped indicate whether the birds had been properly plucked by the seller. While their meat is superb, the Java is also an excellent layer, laying up to 150 large, dark-brown eggs each year.

Javas come in three varieties: black, mottled and white. The Black Java is noted for its beetle-green feathers, which put off a brilliant green sheen, while the Mottled Java is noted for its ornate, busy coloring.

The Java's body type is one of its most distinguishing characteristics. They are rectangular, with a long, sloping back. In fact, Javas have the longest backs in the American class of chickens. Javas should also have a single comb with the first point not too far forward on the comb. A threatened breed, the Java's role as an ideal homesteading fowl makes it a great option for future stewards.


Status: Watch

An American original, the Dominique breed was the first chicken breed developed in the United States. Historically, the Dominique was a yard chicken and provided meat and eggs even through the lean times of the Great Depression. Today, its natural foraging abilities, easy keeping nature and good egg production qualities make the Dominique an ideal choice for the homestead chicken or urban dweller. Get your recipes ready--this breed lays 230 to 275 medium brown eggs each year.

The Dominique is a medium-sized chicken with a black and white barred coloration. The barred feathers serve to make the bird less conspicuous to predators. Hens tend to have a darker coloration than males. The Dominique has a rose comb with a short, upward curving spike that is characteristic to this breed. The Dominique's tightly arranged plumage and low profile rose comb make the bird more resistant to frostbite than other chicken breeds, though the breed adapts well to a variety of climates. The close feathering also provides quality material for feather pillows and feather beds.

Another neat characteristic of the Dominique breed is the sex-linked traits that allow the chicks to be sexed as hatchlings. Cockerel chicks have yellow shanks and toes, while pullet chicks will show a grayish or blackish coloration in these areas. While the breed's numbers are on the rise, more stewards are needed to ensure the future of this versatile breed.


Status: Critical

A Canadian original, the Chantecler is the only breed of chicken developed in Canada. The breed was developed by Brother Wilfred Chatelain of the Cistercian Abbey in Quebec. In 1907, Brother Chatelain realized that all chicken breeds in Canada were imports from Europe and the United States. He set out to develop a dual-purpose chicken breed that could withstand the harsh Canadian winters. His mission was a success, and today the Chantecler is a great meat chicken and egg layer for the backyard flock, especially for those in cold climates.


The Chantecler can be found in two colors: white and partridge. Both varieties have yellow flesh and legs. The breed is known for having almost no wattle and a small cushion comb. These attributes help the Chantecler withstand frostbite and cold climates. The breed lays 120 to 180 large brown eggs each year. The breed is noted for being calm, gentle and personable. Today, the breed is a critical conservation priority, with an estimated global population of fewer than 1,000 breeding birds.

For more information about selecting a heritage chicken breed, or about heritage chickens in general, visit

Carolina born and raised, Jennifer Kendall resides in Raleigh, North Carolina, with her husband, Bassett Hound and Orange Tabby, and dreams of one day owning some of these heritage breeds.

Photographs courtesy American Livestock Breeds Conservancy
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Author:Kendall, Jennifer
Date:Jan 1, 2011
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