6+ Facts About Heritage Chickens That Every Chicken Lover Should Know

Heritage chickens, bred to a standard by the APA, have unique characteristics and must meet specific rules to be classified as heritage. Their slow growth, natural mating, and outdoor lifestyle make them healthier, tastier, and more sustainable than commercial hybrids.

what is a heritage chicken

Heritage chickens are the aristocracy of the poultry kingdom. They are purebred to a standard set by the American Poultry Association (APA). They can claim a pedigree going back at least 70 years to the middle of the 20th century. Each breed has unique characteristics, but they also share properties. There are six facts about all heritage chickens that every chicken lover should know.    

To qualify as a heritage chicken, there are specific rules regarding the parents and grandparents and how the breeding process is carried out so that the resultant chick has all the characteristics of the breed in an undiluted form and adheres to the standards laid down by the APA.  

Chicken raising has grown phenomenally in the US in the last few years as people have become more aware of the benefits of healthy eating. Free-range chickens provide hormone-free eggs and meat, and with the work-from-home phenomenon now entrenched, people are keen to raise their own flocks. Heritage chickens are part of that new country-wide interest.  

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What Chicken Lovers Need To Know About Heritage Chickens

Several unique facts about heritage chickens separate them from the rest of the flock, and some of them may surprise you. 

Heritage Chickens Is A Concept Unique To The US

While the individual breeds of chicken may be found in many other countries, heritage chickens, by definition, are only found in the US because the term Heritage for chickens is defined by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy (now called the Livestock Conservancy), which was set up to ensure the survival of rare breeds of poultry and other livestock. 

Heritage Chickens Is A Specific Breed Of Chicken

The Livestock Conservancy gives a very clear definition of a heritage chicken.

  1. Heritage Chicken must be produced and sired by a breed recognized as an APA Standard breed before the mid-20th century. Heritage eggs must be laid by an APA Standard breed.
  2. Heritage Chicken must result from the natural mating of both grandparent and parent stock. No artificial insemination is permitted in the production of Heritage Chicken to ensure genetic purity.
  3. Heritage Chickens must be able to live a long, active life outdoors in a free-range setting. Hens should have a breeding life of 5-7 years, and roosters between 3 and 5 years.
  4. The heritage hen must be a slow grower In contrast to battery-raised chickens, taking at least 16 weeks to reach market weight. This encourages the healthy development of the skeleton, organs, and muscles.

Heritage Breeds Are Endangered

chicken breeds domestic 6+ Facts About Heritage Chickens That Every Chicken Lover Should Know
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There are 45 breeds that meet the requirements of the Livestock Conservancy to be defined as Heritage Chickens. The sad fact is that of these, thirty-six are considered to be endangered. Heritage Chickens were farmed with remarkable success until the mid-20th century and were a popular source of protein on all American tables.

Today, 90% of all chickens produced are commercially bred hybrids and are required to grow as quickly as possible for maximum meat production or as laying chickens to produce as many eggs as possible, irrespective of quality.

Heritage Chickens Are Better In Many Ways

what is a heritage chicken

In every way, Heritage Chickens are better than commercial or hybrid chickens. Because they are produced from a heritage egg sired by an APA standard breed chicken, the Heritage Chicken is bred to live an active and productive outdoor life.

 Because they grow more slowly, they are healthier, eat better, have greater resistance to infections and disease, and need fewer artificial supplements. For this reason, their meat is better, and their eggs are of higher quality than the mass-produced commercial products. 

Heritage Chickens Even Taste Different

best meat chickens

Heritage Chickens take longer to grow than hybrid battery-raised chickens, and while they have less breast meat, they have a far more intense flavor.

Because the meat of a chicken is a reflection of their lifestyle, and in particular what they’ve been fed, Heritage Chickens, raised outdoors, eating naturally, and free from artificial supplements and growth hormones, taste like the chickens your great-grandparents ate a hundred years ago.

Heritage Chickens Produce Tastier Eggs 

icelandic chickens

It’s also a fact that the eggs produced by Heritage Chickens, while they may be smaller than commercially produced eggs and more expensive because they are not as plentiful, are much tastier.  

Frequently Asked Questions

What Are The Best Heritage Breeds?

Your choice of the best breed to raise will depend on whether you’re raising Heritage Chickens for their meat or as egg producers.

  • The most popular egg-producing heritage breeds are Leghorn, Rhode Island Red, Barred Plymouth Rock, Australorp, and Orpington.
  • The best meat-producing heritage breeds are Cochin, Jersey Giant, and LaFleche.
  • Some heritage breeds are selected for their dual-purpose qualities producing both quality eggs and meat. These breeds include Light Sussex, Wyandotte, Orpington, Plymouth Rock, and  Brahma. 

Some heritage breeds are more suited to colder climates than others, producing eggs throughout the winter months, while others are better able to withstand the heat of summer. When choosing your heritage breed, it’s essential to know the characteristics of each.   

What Is The Difference Between Heritage And Hybrid Chickens?

All the hybrid breeds are the result of mating between two heritage breeds. Some examples of hybrids in the US are:

  • Cornish Cross (Cornish / Rock)
  • Amber (Rhode Island White / Rhode Island Red)
  • Black Star (Barred Rock / Rhode Island Red)
  • Gingernut Ranger (Rhode Island Red / Light Sussex)
  • Pearl Star Leghorn (Partridge Rocks / Sussex)
  • Dominant Copper (French Copper Maran / Rhode Island Red)
  • Blue Plymouth Rock (Barred Plymouth Roc Rooster / Andalusian Hen)
  • Copper Black (French Copper Marans / Rhode Island Red)

The hybrid bird has the possibility of inheriting the best traits of both heritage breeds and is chosen in preference by many chicken farmers because they are more productive, grow to market weight quicker, and as a result, cost less to rear and generate more income. 

The trade-off of this higher production is that the hybrid has a shorter productive life, the meat and eggs are of inferior quality, and they are more prone to infection. Another issue with hybrids is that they don’t breed true – in other words, mating a hybrid with another similar bird will not necessarily result in the offspring having the same characteristics. 

Next Steps

Choosing to raise Heritage Chickens will cost chicken lovers more, as their growth and development to adult size are slow, but there are many advantages. Your flock will be active, their foraging will save you from having to supplement their feed, and they will be hardy and healthy birds that live for years and give you a lot of pleasure. And you’ll be preserving a threatened species – the biggest plus of all. 

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