Top 10 Rare Heritage Chicken Breeds (and Why They're My Favourites)
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 4 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 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 til 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 long lived breed, although my first birds are only 3 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 2 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
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 varies with strain and now we have roosters and hens that approach for attention. They can been 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 round white eggs fairly regularly and even more often in the summer. They have short legs and brick shaped body and 5 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 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 7 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 3 year old neice 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 with shiny things, and will peck at things that catch their eye, both males and females. They confident and nosy and are usually high in the pecking order though the 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 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 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 to 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.