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Traditional American Poultry

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By Craig Russell

February 7, 2013

Traditional poultry keeping and traditional poultry are little remembered in modern North America. Books written for the small flock owner during the past 50 years have been little more than scaled-down versions of commercial programs. If you want poultry in your back yard, consider an old time breed, kept the old fashioned way.

Colonial flocks are often described as undistinguished mongrels, dismissed as Dung Hill chickens. It’s an unfair characterization that was asserted by self-styled experts, often academics and government officials, in the latter 19th century. Their contention that most early chickens were simply dung hill mongrels was considered laughable by the Old Timers.

This group of Dominiques owned by Adria Weatherbee are very true to the traditional breed. They have the flatter, more cushion-like combs, unlike the more modern ones with whose combs are more prominent and spikier. The rooster is also the correct stockier build. Photo courtesy of Adria Weatherbee.
This group of Dominiques owned by Adria Weatherbee are very true to the traditional breed. They have the flatter, more cushion-like combs, unlike the more modern ones with whose combs are more prominent and spikier. The rooster is also the correct stockier build. Photo courtesy of Adria Weatherbee.

Games were very common as utility fowl in the early days. Dung Hill was a term that Cockers, cock fighters, used to describe chickens that were not Games. It did not necessarily imply a mixed origin.

Promotion of recently created breeds in which the writers had an economic interest played a role in the way breeds were portrayed after the 1870s. According to the old time poultrymen, the literary changes preceded any actual changes in the habits of typical poultry keepers.

Post Civil War Poultry

Prior to the Civil War and in the years directly following it, poultry books proclaimed Dominiques, Dorkings and Games as popular breeds. Dorkings and Games were generally considered the best table fowl and were used to produce an early market cross. Dorkings were crossed with Brahmas to produce another popular market hybrid. But by the late 1800s, writers were claiming Dominiques were too small, Dorkings were not popular, Games were tough, and that Americans preferred chickens with yellow skin.

Nevertheless, Games, Dominiques and Dorkings, in that order, remained the most common chickens on diversified farms and with small flock owners in many rural areas. In and around towns, folks who wanted to have something different from their neighbors had a little bit of everything.

Rocks and Leghorns were the dominant commercial breeds by the late 1800s. Hamburgs, Polish and Spanish had dominated egg production from the 18th century until the late 19th century, when Leghorns became the dominant commercial egg breed. On the meat side, commercial poultry operations had gone to Rocks, with Wyandottes playing an important secondary role. Around major Eastern cities some large operations retained Black chickens, the Javas and their descendants, the Giants. Others raised Dorkings for British and French immigrants who wanted a five-toed, white-skinned fowl.

Natural Incubation

Folks like Bruce Lentz, one of the old time stringmen, and poultry master Young John Criner liked the modern composite breeds and the egg breeds well enough. They agreed with the experts that for large commercial operations, modern composites were hard to beat. For small scale and home production, however, they gave the edge to history’s chickens, which had been selected for countless generations. In the case of Dorkings and Games, they had occupied that niche for centuries.

A light grey Spangled Tasseled Old English Game cockerel. Photo courtesy of Craig Russell.
A light grey Spangled Tasseled Old English Game cockerel. Photo courtesy of Craig Russell.

They found particular humor in the experts’ suggestion that home production should be avoided, or, if attempted, only with an incubator because hens were not dependable. Hens who raise their own broods keep a small flock going. The Old Timers knew that dependability depended on the hen and that undependable hens were more common in the “improved” modern breeds selected for low levels of broodiness.

The old breeds with natural levels of broodiness not only went 100 percent broody but had been selected for dependability, manageability and at least three cycles in a season. This was true of all the old standbys.

Today’s Dominiques do not have the same level of broodiness as their forebears because they are largely descended from a 1920s’ attempt to turn them into a thoroughly modern breed.

The traditional breeds not only reproduced their own kind naturally but they were normally pressed into service to produce the next generation of the egg breeds and increase the production of other poultry such as ducks, geese, guineas and turkeys. Despite hens’ stealing a nest under a shed or in a corner somewhere, such reproduction was far from random. Hatching rooms often were established in the corner of a barn or poultry house.

My grandmother had a small chicken house specially designed for hatching operations. In other operations, the hens were allowed to hatch in the main house with a crate or cage in front of their nests to allow them to eat, drink and exercise but not permit other hens to disturb them or lay into their clutch. Chickens with a normal or enhanced broody instinct will eventually set without any particular enticements.

To successfully accommodate a broody hen, a clutch of nest (artificial) eggs of wood or glass was introduced to stimulate the broody response. The hen was left on the nest eggs for 24 hours, to make sure she was serious about hatching. Hens that needed to be moved to the nest were moved at night and left for 24 hours to settle.

A Muffed and Tasseled Black Breasted Red Old English Game pullet. Photo courtesy of Craig Russell.A Muffed and Tasseled Black Breasted Red Old English Game pullet. Photo courtesy of Craig Russell.
A Muffed and Tasseled Black Breasted Red Old English Game pullet. Photo courtesy of Craig Russell.A Muffed and Tasseled Black Breasted Red Old English Game pullet. Photo courtesy of Craig Russell.

To set eggs of a particular breeding, or several hens at the same time, hens might need to set on the nest eggs longer, until the desired clutch of fertile eggs could be collected or their sister hens were ready to join them. With several families hatching at the same time, breeds could be combined. Those hens that were still in good condition and weight could receive another setting of eggs. The exchange of new eggs for chicks was usually made at night.

Not only was hatching well organized, the breeding programs of traditional poultry keepers were relatively simple, they were effective and they are still unsurpassed for small flocks.

Traditional Advantages

AModern commercial methods do not lend themselves to the care and management of self-perpetuating flocks. For those interested in producing quality poultry and eggs at home, for preservationists and exhibitors, traditional breeds and methods have the advantages of resilience, beauty and natural reproduction.

The Old Timers I knew growing up were concerned about the loss of traditional knowledge. Small flock owners can help preserve the old breeds and those traditional methods in their barnyards today.