Delaware Chicken Breed Spotlight

The Delaware Chicken is a Favored Heritage Chicken Breed

Delaware Chicken Breed Spotlight

By Christine Heinrichs, California – The Delaware chicken is a 20th-century creation, developed specifically for the growing broiler market in the 1940s. They’re so pretty, they were recognized by the APA for exhibition (in 1952), in those years when production was as significant as beauty. Timing is everything, though, and the Delaware chicken’s usefulness was soon eclipsed by the industrial focus on the bottom line. The Cornish-Rock cross replaced it in commercial flocks. Its composite background as a cross-bred bird undermined its popularity in the show ring, and poultry keepers stopped raising it. It all but disappeared.

Fortunately, because it was the result of crossing two Standard breeds, it can be and has been re-created. A few breeders are taking on the challenge and finding eager followers for this vigorous, fast-maturing breed.

Between the World Wars, the poultry industry was changing, as was American life. People were moving from the countryside, where every farm family had its own flock, to urban life in the cities. They still needed eggs and chicken meat to eat, so the poultry industry began its transformation into a modern industry. The USDA and university extension services got on board, bringing research techniques to poultry breeding. Crossing breeds was a popular way to solve common poultry inconveniences such as: separating males from females early, ideally right after they hatch; eliminating black pinfeathers that were considered unsightly on the yellow skin of the dressed carcass; faster growth and maturity. Breeders crossed all the popular breeds of the time: Rhode Island Reds, New Hampshires, Plymouth Rocks, and a Cornish. Crossing a Barred Rock male with a New Hampshire female produced a barred chicken that grew faster and was more vigorous than its parent Plymouth Rock.

Not every chick grew up barred, though. George Ellis, owner of Indian River Hatchery in Ocean View, Delaware, noticed that a few sports were a variation of the popular Columbian pattern. The Standard definition of Columbian plumage is silvery white, with black feathers on the neck, cape, and tail. Ideally, the saddle has a black V-shaped stripe on the back. Ellis’ sports had barred feathers on their necks, wings, and tails, even less likely to show up as black pinfeathers on the dressed birds.

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The complicated underlying genes were not understood when Ellis was breeding his birds back in the 1940s. Back in the 1940s, Edmund Hoffmann was studying poultry at the University of Delaware. He took a job working at Indian River Hatchery. He worked with Ellis, with the goal of developing a line of Columbian pattern males to breed with New Hampshire and Rhode Island Red females, resulting in the Delaware chicken.

Breeding New Hampshire or Rhode Island Red males on Delaware females produces sex-linked chicks, Delaware pattern males, and red females. The first homozygous Delaware chicken was such a fine example of the line Ellis was seeking to create that he called him Superman.

That all makes sense to large production farms, but ultimately, all-white chickens edged out these complications. Commercial white Plymouth Rock females bred to white Cornish males became the basis for the industry. The Delaware chicken, after all that careful breeding and selection, was relegated to a historical footnote.

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That didn’t mean that it wasn’t a very useful breed. Its fine meat has prevailed as its best quality, but it is truly one of the favored dual-purpose chicken breeds that is a good brown egg layer. It’s a good choice for small production flocks. New breeders are re-discovering it.

Leslie Joyce of Oregon is working with birds from Kathy Hardisty Bonham in Missouri. The color is good, but the tail needs to be broader. “I love my ‘Kathy’s Line’ birds,” she said, “Though they are still a work in progress.”

Ms. Joyce finds the males protective and good flock leaders. She watched her breeding cock go after and chase away a hawk, one of many chicken predators that threatened the flock. Although they are brave and free-range happily on her pasture, they don’t fly over the fence and leave home. And the chicks are the cutest ever.

“I like that big-headed bird,” she said. “Delaware chicks are tiny fat balls of fluff. They have a funny, serious look. They are classic chicks.”

Poultry judge Walt Leonard of Santa Rosa, California is impressed with Ms. Joyce and other breeders who are working with the re-created Delaware chicken and the birds they are raising. He’s mentoring Kim Consol, whose Delaware hen took Reserve Champion Large Fowl at the National Heirloom Exposition in Santa Rosa in 2014 and Reserve Champion American at the Nor-Cal Poultry Association Show in Red Bluff in 2015.

The new Nor-Cal show attracted about 750 birds. APA president Dave Anderson judged the American class. He found Ms. Consol’s Delaware hen excellent, placing her at reserve behind a White Rock. Mr. Leonard’s New Hampshire was below them.

“It was a small show but there were some good birds,” he said. “If you have top notch people showing, a small show can be harder than a large show. That male I have is pretty good and in good condition. I just got beat.”

The Delaware chicken breed that he has judged have good bodies, large but not afflicted with pinched tail.

“The New Hampshires that were used to re-create them had really wide open tails, almost too open,” he said. “They got the size early on.”

The color is the problem.

“It’s a complex color pattern,” he said. “You need to keep everything white in between, get the dark colors where they should be, with the middle being clear. The gray always wants to go somewhere else.”

Breeding separate male and female lines may be needed to define that color precisely. Ms. Consol is applying her eye to her flock to cull rigorously and get the color right.

She first ordered Delaware chickens on a whim from Kathy Bonham in 2013, when the birds were in the fourth generation of being re-created. She was charmed by them.

“I loved their friendly nature and wonderful foraging ability on pasture, so I decided to breed them,” she said. “The contrast of white with the black pattern makes them beautiful as well.”

Raising a chicken breed that reproduces itself well appeals to Ms. Joyce. She considers the chicks the local feed store sells mutts. They are adequate for her laying operation, 120 birds producing 30 dozen a week for the local food buying club and the rest for a short list of customers who like her eggs. But they aren’t the chickens she wants to breed. Delaware chickens breed true, meaning their offspring resemble their parents in predictable ways. Her Delawares are good broody hens and good mothers.

The pale brown egg isn’t as eye-catching as the exotic blue and green that show up in her laying flock, but she detects a slightly better flavor in the Delaware chicken eggs.

“I think their eggs are a little yummier,” she said. “It could be the way they process the fat that makes the yolk creamier.”

Ms. Consol looks to her chickens for both meat and eggs. She’s delighted with the Delawares’ eggs but wants to improve their meat.

“If I can get them maturing a bit faster, I think they will be an excellent option to Freedom Rangers, for farmers who want to raise pastured meat birds that can reproduce,” she said.

All those qualities make the Delaware chicken the breed that best suits Ms. Joyce. “That’s the proof that your chicken can be a chicken,” she said. “That’s more important than cranking out a million chicks.”

“I think they would be fine for suburban backyards,” Ms. Consol said, “If people can give them some space to free range and be aware that they do like to dig a lot!”

Christine Heinrichs is the author of How to Raise Chickens and How to Raise Poultry.

Originally published in the August/September 2015 issue of Backyard Poultry.

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