Breed Profile: Ancona Chicken
The Ancona Hen Proves Her Worth as a Self-Sufficient Heritage Layer
Reading Time: 5 minutes
By Tamsin Cooper
BREED: The Ancona chicken is named for the port from which birds of this breed were first exported from Italy to England in 1848.
ORIGIN: Chickens of this type were once the most widespread in central Italy, especially in the eastern Marche region where the port of Ancona lies. The original birds were patterned black and white in an irregular manner, and likely some with colored feathers. The Apennine Mountains separate this region from Tuscany and Livorno, from where Leghorn chickens were exported to America. Although Anconas bore similarities to mottled Leghorns, poultry experts noted differences that merited a separate classification.*
From Barnyard Fowl to International Popularity
HISTORY: Ancona chickens arriving in England in the 1850s were an unknown breed type. At first, many breeders considered them crosses of Black Minorcas with White Minorcas, especially considering their dark shanks, then later as mottled Leghorns. Early Anconas had irregular mottling, which was considered ugly. Males frequently bore white tail feathers and occasionally golden-red hackles and tail coverts. However, some breeders, living in cold and windy regions, took to the original “old style” breed for its hardiness and prolific laying, including in winter months. Others focused on improving the look by selectively breeding the darker birds to achieve a regular pattern of small white tips on beetle-green black feathers.
By 1880, the breeder M. Cobb had achieved this look and exhibited his birds. The breed gained in popularity and the breed standard, based on this new type, was drawn up in 1899, initially to much controversy. However, the new look was not found to diminish laying ability. Rose-comb and bantam varieties were developed in England and first shown in 1910 and 1912 respectively.
Around 1888, the first Anconas arrived in Pennsylvania, then in Ohio in 1906. The APA recognized the single-combed variety in 1898 and the rose-combed in 1914. At this time, the Ancona chicken became one of the most popular layers in the U.S. Like many heritage breeds, their population diminished in America and Europe after the rise of improved layers later that century. Renewed interest in heritage breeds has enabled remaining strains to recover in the hands of new enthusiasts. Breeders are also found in various European countries and Australia.
The Importance of Conservation
CONSERVATION STATUS: Anconas are on The Livestock Conservancy watch list and considered at risk by the FAO. In Italy, they are critically endangered: only 29 hens and six roosters were listed in 2019, a huge drop from 5,000 in 1994. However, there may still be unregistered flocks occasionally found in Marche farmyards. In the U.S., 1258 were recorded in 2015. There are also around a thousand in Britain and 650 in Australia.
BIODIVERSITY: The breed preserves ancient lines of rustic heritage chickens, which differ from the early Leghorn, although likely related. The lines have largely diminished due to loss of popularity, but hardy and useful traits merit their conservation.
ADAPTABILITY: Excellent self-sufficient foragers that fly to avoid danger. They are hardy and seemingly unaffected by poor weather conditions. However, like all chickens, they need access to dry, windproof, well-ventilated shelter, and large single combs are susceptible to frostbite.
Ancona Chicken Characteristics
DESCRIPTION: A lightweight bird with broad shoulders and ample wings held horizontally and close to the body. The large tail is held diagonally, slightly higher in males. Yellow legs bear dark shading or mottles. The smooth red face has large reddish-bay eyes, red wattles and comb, white ear lobes, and a yellow beak with black markings on the upper part.
The soft, tight plumage consists of beetle-green black feathers, approximately one in five bearing a small V-shaped white tip, giving a mottled feather pattern. White markings become larger and more numerous with each molt, so that birds appear lighter as they age. Ancona chicks have yellow and black down.
VARIETIES: Some countries have developed other colors: Blue Mottled in Italy and Red in Australia (which both bear the characteristic white mottling).
SKIN COLOR: Yellow.
COMB: Single with clearly defined points and anterior lobe, erect in the male, folded to one side in the hen without covering the eye. Some American and British lines have rose combs.
TEMPERAMENT: Alert, quick, and very flighty, they are highly active and noisy birds. However, they can learn to follow a person they know well and trust. They need space to range and may roost in trees.
Ancona Chicken Productivity
POPULAR USE: Once a highly acclaimed layer, now bred mainly for exhibition. In 1910, American poultry journals held numerous advertisements praising the laying ability of the Ancona chicken.
EGG COLOR: White.
EGG SIZE: Medium; minimum 1.75 oz. (50 g).
PRODUCTIVITY: Hens average 200 eggs per year and are excellent winter layers. Chicks grow and feather out quickly, pullets often starting to lay around five months old. Hens are fertile but tend not to brood.
WEIGHT: Hen 4–4.8 lb. (1.8–2.2 kg); rooster 4.4–6.2 lb. (2–2.8 kg). Modern British strains tend to be heavier. Bantam hen 18–22 oz. (510–620 g); rooster 20–24 oz. (570–680 g).
QUOTE: “… the Ancona is always on the move. If at liberty, they forage largely for themselves, ranging fields and the hedgerows from morning till evening, and keeping themselves warm with constant exercise. They do not sit about in corners, shivering in a north-east wind, but always seem busy and happy; and on many a winter day, with snow lying thickly on the ground, little paths have been swept for them to outlying manure-heaps in the fields, along which they scuttle with outspread wings and cheerful clucks, to spend hours in scratching, and then going back to their houses to lay …” Mrs Constance Bourlay, early major breeder in England, quoted in Wright’s Book of Poultry, 1911.
- agraria.org (online agricultural education)
- Il Pollaio del Re (former Italian poultry website)
- Tutela Biodiversità Avicola Italiana (Conservation of Biodiversity in Italian Poultry Breeds)
- The Livestock Conservancy
- Lewer, S. H., 1911. Wright’s Book of Poultry
*House, C. A., 1908, Leghorn Fowls. Exhibition and Utility. Their Varieties, Breeding and Management: “On the continent Black Mottles have been bred for many years. They are black splashed with white. The marking is quite different from that of the Ancona, even as the birds themselves are quite different from the Ancona in general characteristics of shape and style.”
Originally published in the April/May 2022 issue of Backyard Poultry and regularly vetted for accuracy.