I am a homesteader, and I've raised about 40 rare chicken breeds. I love sharing information about these beautiful birds.
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 fifteen 5-week-old Partridge Chanteclers and Cuckoo Marans in 2007. By 2008, 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.
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 Celsius, and summer not much over +30 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
- 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 breed 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 medium chalky white eggs maybe 3–4 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.
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 2–3 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.
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 115–119g. 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 yoghurt 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.
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.
This is another friendly breed right from day old. The birds are a pretty brown colour, and usually, 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 modeled 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 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 even our three-year-old niece can handle them on her own.
They will go broody but not inconveniently so. They are a beautifully proportioned little bird 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.
1. Marraduna Euskal Oiloas
These are the best, my favourite, they are a great Spanish dual-purpose breed that is friendly, pretty and productive. They are an outgoing and friendly breed and will approach you every time near them. They are curious about shiny things and will peck at things that catch their eye, both males and females.
They are confident and nosy and are usually high in the pecking order though they have not been an aggressive bird here. They will tame up without any treats at all, though they love treats and are intelligent and soon spot them. They are a breed that will be right under your feet while the other breeds stand back.
They are striking and rare Mottled Marraduna or brown stripe colour with a large single comb. They lay large shiny pale brown eggs very regularly, and we haven't really seen any go broody, though others have. They forage well and can move quickly when needed. The roosters make good attentive guards on free-ranging.
Other Great Breeds
The following breeds are all great and certainly make it in the top 20!
- Wheaten and Cuckoo Marans
- Blue Andalusians
- Dark Cornish
- Blue Cochins
- Sicilian Buttercups
- Spangled Orloffs
What makes a breed work for you is an entirely personal choice. Even quantity versus colour of eggs will influence the breed you want. Or do you want them pet friendly right from the start? Or Do you want a vivid or unusual colour, or all colours of birds free-ranging at your place?
Ask the Breeder What Their Birds Are Like!
We've noticed the temperament of a breed of bird will vary a lot depending on the line or strain of the birds. That's their genetics and source as well as their handling. The easiest way to know what to expect is to ask the breeder you are getting the birds from.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
Comment on our article! What are your favourite breeds and why?
BOb green Nova scotia on May 10, 2020:
Thank god someone is getting back our heritage breeds. Factory chickens are tasteless and ruined. In canada the factory operations are trying to push heritage breeders right out? All the best
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Baba more on July 25, 2018:
Chook on October 14, 2017:
I want blue laced Wyandottes! Now!
Tony on July 03, 2017:
I have never seen uglier Dorking roo like this. Is bad, away from standard.
vivbijok1 on June 15, 2016:
Hi have just read your article thank you. I noted you mentioned sicilian buttercups, the reading I've done says they are extinct. Have they been rediscovered or breed up again, they are a breed I'm really interested in. One complication is I'm in Australia , thanks again for a great article viv
Heather on February 24, 2016:
Please remove my photo from your website immediately. This is copyright infringement.
The Kid on July 12, 2015:
Dominiques. They are vigorous foragers, excellent mothers, and easily handled
aa lite from London on October 28, 2012:
What a great collection of breeds. I've never been exactly fond of chickens up till now, and unusually don't really like eggs (chicken ovulations as Kryten calls them in Red Dwarf), but suddenly I really want to have a farm and chickens!
Skeffling (author) from Wiarton, Ontario, Canada on March 30, 2012:
I love my chickens, they are great pets that provide breakfast too. I love to see and hear them free ranging round the garden! I hope you get your dream soon! Have fun shopping and thanks for stopping by!
Eiddwen from Wales on March 28, 2012:
Oh how I love to have chickens/hens;it is my dream to buy a country home with land;for my rescued donkeys ;cats;dogs;goats;hens;and I could go on and on and on.
I am compensating at the moment by looking round shops for ornamental hens and chicks for my patio.
An up up and away here.
Take care and enjoy your day.
YogaKat from Oahu Hawaii on February 19, 2012:
Thanks for sharing this very informative and interesting hub. I came across this hub while doing research for a hub I am writing on Kauai chickens. Fighting cocks got loose from their crates when Hurricane Iniki hit the island in 1992. In the wild they interbred with rural hens . . . who had also been freed during the storm. Feral chickens are now everywhere on this island! I am off to research more on fighting cock breeds - perhaps like the rural hens - they are just a mixture of many breeds.
Skeffling (author) from Wiarton, Ontario, Canada on September 11, 2011:
Hi Guy, thanks for reading! It is cool to compare them and this list is the best of what we have had!!
Cold and damp can be an issue for frost bite, but the relative humidity of the air will drop in the winter with the temp drop. We found in a colder winter (a few days of -25C) the Andalusians suffered the most, and the odd Marans rooster that wanted to roost outside. I think the Pennies, the thickest bulk where all the points are in the back of clavell comb actually has a better blood supply than some single combs as it is wider. The very tips may be lost of the horizontal clavell points and the main tips, but no worse than any other single combed birds we have had.
Make sure you have the most sheltered spot, out of wind, but light ventilation so they don't steam up or get too damp in there from breathing out and respiration. We had a cold one last year and I had uninsulated moveable tractors inside an open barn, and the only roos to show any real frosting were by the big cow door and had more draft, read, wind.
Wattles can freeze as the water runs down them. If you can do nipple waterers that may be best so there they get less on them (but who can keep water liquid at -25!). Out in the prairies they just heat the whole barn. I did vaseline their combs and wattles once, but the protection only last a few hours IMO.
You may be surprised how well they do, the black pennies are bulky, meaty and very vigorous. Hope this helps.
Guy on September 11, 2011:
I like your list and like you, after starting with 3 breeds I got a huge variety to learn more by comparing breeds and have had 24 different breeds. I only have 3/4 acre in the suburbs but few close neighbors. I still have 14 breeds but only 1-6 of most except Black Penedesenca which I have decided to concentrate on and breed.
My question is about Penes and frostbite. It gets much hotter here (easily 40 C.) but just as cold as you (-23) but also very humid. Have you had problems with roos combs and wattles? I think the combination of cold and humidity will be a problem for me. My birds were young last winter so no problem then.
Skeffling (author) from Wiarton, Ontario, Canada on June 04, 2011:
Thanks for commenting! Yes for each chicken breed we have at least 2 roosters! That's a lot of crowing but we have lots of space and the neighbours that can hear, love the sound of roosters - good thing! I think we have been very lucky to have all these rare chickens. It is so cool to compare them!
Roosters on June 03, 2011:
I am VERY jealous after reading this hub! I wish I had enough room for so many breeds. Although it might upset the neighbours :)
Skeffling (author) from Wiarton, Ontario, Canada on May 19, 2011:
Great selection you have there! All pretty good layers, mild mannered, cold hardy and not to mention pretty. The extra rooters would all be useful too!
I am glad you enjoyed the article. I hope it's not too late for others still choosing, not that you are ever done choosing ;-)
Juliet on May 19, 2011:
Thanks so much...that is just the information I was looking for a while back...behaviour and personality observation of these great breeds. So far we have had Buff Orpingtons, Silver Greys and now Partridge Chanteclers and love them all!
Skeffling (author) from Wiarton, Ontario, Canada on May 11, 2011:
That is great! That is what I was hoping for, to help those who are wondering about these breeds! The heritage breeds are deserving, unique and beautiful! Though once you start trying them, be warned, you will want more, lol!
PrettyPanther on May 11, 2011:
I LOVED this hub! We will be choosing from heritage breeds for our next batch of chickens, so I particularly enjoyed your perspective.