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Top 10 Rare Heritage Chicken Breeds (and Why They're My Favourites)

I am a homesteader, and I've raised about 40 rare chicken breeds. I love sharing information about these beautiful birds.

Free-ranging beauties running to greet me.

Free-ranging beauties running to greet me.

Just a Few Breeds (or 40)

I want to share our experience raising some of the best rare breeds. We have had about 40 rare and heritage chicken breeds in the last four years. We started with 15 five-week-old Partridge Chanteclers and Cuckoo Marans. The next year we got 100 "Rarest of the Rare assortment" chicks and left the choice to McMurrays hatchery. After scouring Feathersite, Hendersons Breed Guide and getting the highly addictive Storey's Guide to Poultry Breeds book, we decided to choose our next year's chicken breeds ourselves.

The great thing about having so many great breeds is we could compare their behaviour to us and other chickens, the unique traits and sounds they make, eggs, growth rates, and other idiosyncrasies. We have been lucky to have and find homes for some of the best and most beautiful and rare chickens.

Some of our rainbow eggs.

Some of our rainbow eggs.

What We Look for in a Rare or Heritage Chicken Breed

These favourites were chosen for their friendliness, hardiness, beauty and the beauty of the eggs. If a breed is not as good in one area, it makes up for it in another area. We like to be able to have the extra roosters for the table, want a rainbow of eggs and want cold-hardy, friendly pet chickens with personality! Our winters typically don't get much colder than -25 degrees Celsius, and summer not much over +30 degrees Celsius—to give you a frame of reference for hardy.

I like most chicken colours. Lavender (self blue) and blue and wheaten are lovely, and I find the pencilled partridge pretty, the duckwing of the Dorking and Welsummer, and a lovely glossy black with a beetle green sheen in the sunshine! And the spangled and mille fleurs (thousand flowers) are beautiful, too!

The following are our top 10 breeds (in descending order):

  • Black Penedesenca
  • Black Sumatra
  • Ameraucana: Wheaten and Lavender
  • Lavender Orpington
  • Partridge Chantecler
  • Wyandotte: Blue Laced Red and Silver Pencilled
  • Welsummer
  • Silver Grey Dorking
  • D'Uccle: Lavender and Mille Fleur
  • Marraduna Euskal Oiloas

10. Black Penedesenca

These are heavy Spanish chocolate (and pink) egg-laying meat breeds that roost no higher than waist-high. They mature fast and pullets start to lay earlier than any breed we have. They lay an XL speckled to plain matt dark egg, sometimes covered with a white coating that makes them look pink.

The roosters are energetic and magnificent with their big wattles and Clavell comb. One rooster can easily handle 10 hens. They are not the friendliest breed we have which is fine as we keep them for the great meat and biggest chocolate eggs we get and they lay well. Maybe 1 hen in 8 will approach for attention. We have had them go broody, and they will lay eggs in the ground. They like their food and will chase each other around for treats like chicks do. Ours love fruit!

9. Black Sumatra

These are an intelligent "one-person" chicken, like a cat. They lay three to four medium chalky white eggs a week on average. Black Sumatras are talkative and chatter and make noises no other breeds do. Their flights at knee height across the barnyard alarm the other birds and are a constant source of amusement for us. They can be flighty in the coop and do move fast. Some don't become tame until laying age; others come running as day-old chicks.

They are beautiful looking, like little crows, with their dark faces, slender shape and tiny comb. These are a long-lived breed, although my first birds are only three years old. They are cold hardy but quiet and look miserable in winter and crave attention then. They go broody, or the roos get amorous when the thermometer tops 30 degrees Celsius.

They have pretty strong predator avoidance instincts and have been known to roost in trees on fine nights. They are considered undomesticated but are certainly the most intelligent breed we have. Our hens are high on the pecking order, but neither sex is aggressive or antagonistic to the other birds.

3 True Wheaten Ameraucana Pullets

3 True Wheaten Ameraucana Pullets

8. Ameraucana: Wheaten and Lavender

Beautiful elegant looking breeds that are calm, and docile when free-range. The Wheaten Ameraucana eggs are a pale blue and Some of the wheaten eggs are darker almost a green colour. The richly coloured roosters are gorgeous. The Lavender roosters almost glow blue.

The Wheaten Ameraucanas are easy to sex at about two to three weeks of age and Lavenders impossible til about two months or more. The hens are graceful and endearing and are mild-mannered to other chickens. We have found them more flighty in confinement and perfectly friendly though occasionally timid when free ranged.

Lavender Orpington and Lavender Ameraucana Roosters

Lavender Orpington and Lavender Ameraucana Roosters

7. Lavender Orpington

We have only had these in Lavender, but the hens are big, quiet, polite birds. They like their treats but would never snatch them off you. They are curious enough to approach and just patiently wait. The roosters are vigilant, excellent alarm callers for free-ranging.

The hens lay enormous pale brown eggs almost daily, all winter, and we have had double yolkers of 115–119 g. I believe these do go broody but ours haven't yet. We haven't tried these at the table, but even the hens are hefty when picked up for a cuddle.

6. Partridge Chantecler

They are a super cold-hardy dual-purpose Canadian Breed. They are beautifully marked and well camouflaged for free-ranging. They have small wattles and a tiny pad of a cushion comb. They bred from a combination of breeds.

The Brown Leghorn in them means they are great layers all year long (even with no additional light) of medium pale brown eggs, and the Partridge Cochin ancestry has given them thick down and broody traits. They are the broodiest breed we have. Up there with Silkies! The Dark Cornish influence means they are a tasty breed for meat, though not the biggest or fastest-growing.

Friendliness and calmness vary with strain and now we have roosters and hens that approach for attention. They can be greedy with food and love flicking yogurt all over! They are usually the last to roost of all and will come down off the roost for attention. The hens can be a little more inclined to spar and peck when egg collecting if broody, though not all do.

Blue Splash and Blue Laced Red Wyandotte pullets

Blue Splash and Blue Laced Red Wyandotte pullets

5. Wyandotte: Blue Laced Red and Silver Pencilled

Both strains from Mcmurrays are very friendly, even from being tiny chicks. The Silver Pencilled are bolder and are less likely to wait for eye contact before launching onto your knee or pecking your toes in flip flops. The Blue Laced Red are more polite but still very attentive and friendly, though the males can be bolder.

They both lay larger large brown eggs, sometimes freckled too. They lay well through the winter and are a great cold hardy breed with their rose comb and thick down. Occasionally they go broody here, but we have never let them sit. They are reasonable meat birds but mature a little later than some we have here.

A pretty Welsummer Hen

A pretty Welsummer Hen

4. Welsummer

This is another friendly breed right from Day One. The birds are a pretty brown colour, and usually, but the photos you see do not do them justice. The hens are friendly and attentive and come running for treats. Their eggs are a shiny speckly chocolate brown colour laid fairly regularly.

The roosters are a spectacular Chestnut colour, and rumour has it the breed the Kellogg's Rooster, Cornelius, was modelled after. In our experience, the roosters can handle a larger group of hens and have lots of energy like the Penedesencas.

3. Silver Grey Dorking

These are a gentle, peaceful, good-natured meat breed. They are prized for their tasty white meat and are a gourmet favourite. They lay around white eggs fairly regularly and even more often in the summer. They have short legs and brick-shaped body and five toes. They make a quiet squeaking peeping noise when foraging that I have heard from no other breed.

Mild-mannered, they can be shy but are easy to tame picking them up once or twice does the trick. They love to forage and free-range and are a most relaxing breed to watch dustbathing or lazing in the sunshine. Ours have caught mice and snuck into the vegetable garden. With other mixed breeds, they are often near the bottom of the pecking order but get to roost high. For a heavy bird, it amazed us they will roost seven feet plus. The roosters are extremely noisy if there is a threat and are great at warning the flock.

2. D'Uccle: Lavender and Mille Fleur

These are the only bantams on our list and the best because these endearing little chickens are full of personality. They chatter and talk, and like to get on your head, shoulder or your knee if sitting. Generally, they are polite and wait for eye contact but not always! Ours will respond to their names and come running or reply, and these birds love attention from people. They are small enough that even our three-year-old niece can handle them on her own.

They will go broody but not inconveniently so. They are beautifully proportioned little birds with heavily feathered legs and a cheeky beard and muffs. They can be secretive layers, and ours like to lay in the big hens' feeder. They lay fairly big white eggs for a bantam and lay frequently, unlike some lines of D'Uccle.