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The venerable Dominique: heirloom chickens.

I've always had an affinity for chickens. My mother tells me that when I was a toddler she caught me trying to share my bottle with a large Rhode Island Red rooster. I acquired n first hen when I was six, and have had chickens for most my life since then. Of the many different breeds and crosses I've tried through the years, I am particularly fond of Dominiques (often referred to by old timers as "dominekers").

I was first attracted to Dominiques by their historical significance, as they are one of the oldest of American poultry breeds. I'm a history buff and enjoy collecting artifacts, including varieties of heirloom plants and vegetables. The Dominique seemed a natural for that reason, but I've learned to appreciate their many other fine attributes.

An excellent table fowl

Because they are a medium sized breed (roosters are between six and eight pounds and hens average five to seven pounds), they are an excellent table fowl. They are productive layers of medium brown shelled eggs, and early spring pullets do a good job of laying through the winter. Their small rose comb is an asset in cooler climates since it is less prone to freezing, and also aids in their ability to lay eggs during frigid weather. Most strains retain their original broody instincts, but not to the point of being constant setters like Silkies or Cochins. In addition, they are very hardy birds that thrive in a free range environment.

An article I located in a reprint of the May, 1870 Agriculturalist, a popular farm magazine during the last century, gives this precise and insightful description of the Dominique.:

"Both single and rose combs are admissible, but should not be found in the same flock. At present the rose-combed variety is the favorite, although in no way superior, unless better bred. The color of the plumage distinguishes the Dominiques from all other fowls with similar characteristics of form. It may be described as blueish-gray, each feather having a light gray ground, barred crosswise with a dark slaty-blue penciling. The cocks have a proud carriage, full neck, and saddle hackle, and full tails, with well-curved sickle feathers. The hens are domestic and active. The cocks should attain a weight of five to seven pounds at eight or nine months old, and at full maturity of six to eight pounds. The hens should weigh four to six pounds. If bred without regard to size they run down to four pounds for the cocks, and three for the hens. This, some otherwise good breeders have allowed, by breeding too close, or too much for brilliancy of color. It deprives the breed of one of its chief recommendations - size and quality as a market fowl - and should not be practiced. We should add that a broad back, and full, deep breast, with short thighs, set wide apart, and well-tucked wings are essential points. The face should be coral-red, the ear-lobes red, and wattles of medium size, and not too meaty."

This is the oldest description I have found of the Dominique and I use it as my breeding standard. It is interesting to note that the author regarded Dominique fowl as old-fashioned even at that date. The single comb variety he mentioned later evolved to become our modern Barred Rock. Both Dominiques and Barred Rocks have clean yellow legs and yellow skin.

Rare, and scarce

Dominiques are considered a rare breed and not every hatchery will carry them. To avoid excessive inbreeding of their limited foundation stock, some breeders will cross their Dominique hens with Barred Rock roosters. This is a situation that is best avoided because the Barred Rock, while resembling the Dominique in plumage color, is a completely different style of bird and destroys the graceful lines and carriage of the Dominique fowl. Barred Rocks have Dominique blood in their ancestry, but were selectively bred to be a larger, heavier fowl.

Despite its rarity today, several strains of Dominiques continue to exist. The strains vary primarily in weight and conformation, but other traits such as egg laying ability and broodiness can be involved.

Visit a breeder

Catalog pictures aren't necessarily an indication of what you will receive when you order; from a commercial hatchery. The best way to acquire birds of the correct type is to visit a breeder. If this is not feasible, you can go the route I traveled and try "potluck" from various hatcheries or hobbyists until you find the strain you prefer.

My best birds came from some hatching eggs I ordered from a breeder in Iowa. I ordered the eggs to place under a setting hen, but the eggs were shipped more than six weeks after I placed the order and my broody hen had abandoned her nest. There I was with my special eggs and no way to hatch them. I placed the eggs in two cartons and kept them on the floor in a cool room, elevating alternate ends of the carton every day. At the end of a week, I still did not have a hen setting and I had to leave town for five days. I left the eggs in the bedroom, figuring that I would toss them out when I returned ($25 down the drain for 16 rapidly aging eggs).

A stroke of luck

As luck would have it, one of my hens decided to set during my absence. I gave her the eggs when I returned and she hatched eight healthy Dominique chicks. This I considered truly remarkable, since the eggs had traveled from Iowa through the U.S. mail and had aged two weeks at my home before being incubated. I credit this strong spark of life to the tenacious spirit of the Dominique breed and its steadfast determination to survive.

The eight chicks from the "miracle" eggs grew into four healthy pullets and four lusty cockerels and have become the foundation stock I'm using to build, my Dominique flock. I kept the best looking cockerel (a difficult choice, since they were all handsome), his four lady hatchmates, and about a dozen hens of varying ages from other strains of Dominiques that I had on hand.

Orphans survive

This year my first setting hen hatched 13 of the 14 eggs I gave her. The babies are doing great, despite the fact that their mama was kidnapped by an errant coyote when they were only three weeks old. I was very worried about them for the first couple of evenings following their mother's demise, as the nighttime temperatures had reached the low 40's and I had no heat for them. They huddled together in their unheated coop and kept themselves warm. They acted like grown-up, independent chickens and were particularly cute when I let them range on the lawn in the evenings.

Dominiques are ideally suited to free range. Their black and white barred plumage provides them with a natural camouflage that protects them from easy detection by hawks and foxes. Perhaps this is one reason that American pioneers took dominiques with them when they headed into the wilderness to create new farms. Dominiques are workers, scratching for bugs and ranging far to hunt their own food. They appreciate generous helpings of scratch grain in the morning and relish table scraps anytime, but will shun commercial pellets if they have access to free range.

Because I work away from home and have chronic predator problems, I generally keep my hens confined through the day, letting them have range in the late afternoon and evenings when coyotes are (hopefully) resting. Whenever I open the door to the hen house, I have to step aside because my liberated Dominiques charge from their coop like school children being dismissed from the classroom on a sunny spring day. They always head for two of their favorite places: under the pigeon loft to pick up grain scattered by my non-frugal Indian Fantails, and to the dusk-to-dawn light to search for bugs in the gravel at the edge of the driveway.

Suggested sources

Two reliable sources for Dominique chicks are Murray McMurray Hatchery (Webster City, IA 50595-0458) and Stromberg's (Pine River 4B, MN 56474). Stromberg's will also supply hatching eggs. In my experience, both firms consistently supply birds of correct weight and style.

You can also find specialist breeders listed in the back of poultry periodicals and newsletters, like the National Poultry News, (P.O. Box 1647, Easley, SC 29641-1647). Many of these hobbyists have excellent birds that will do well at poultry shows, if that is your inclination.

When you choose to raise Dominiques, you are making a significant contribution in preserving a rare and endangered breed that played an important role in our agricultural heritage. You will also find satisfaction in the fact j. that the Dominique is a working bird that earns its keep.

But maybe you're like me, and just enjoy seeing a piece of living history ranging around your farm or homestead.
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Author:Hart, Ed
Publication:Countryside & Small Stock Journal
Date:Sep 1, 1993
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