Breed Profile: Plymouth Rock Chicken

Barred Rock Chickens Are a Popular Dual-Purpose Heritage Breed

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Breed Profile: Plymouth Rock Chicken

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Breed: The Plymouth Rock chicken is most commonly known in the original Barred variety, also known as the Barred Rock chicken.

Origin: Developed in New England (United States) in the late nineteenth century, primarily from Dominique and Asiatic fowl. Genetic analysis of the White variety genome has identified the paternal line as approximately half Dominique, a quarter Black Java, and the remainder mainly Cochin, Light Brahma, Black Minorca, and Langshan, while the maternal line was roughly half Black Java and half Cochin.

How New Englanders Developed a Versatile Breed

History: Barred chickens, with both rose and single combs, were common in the eastern United States in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In the late nineteenth century, breeders agreed on the rose comb for the Dominique standard. However, several breeders wanted to develop a larger version by crossing single-combed lines with various Asiatic types.

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Dominique with rose comb and Plymouth Rock with single comb. Photos by Steph Merkle.

The first birds displayed as examples of a Plymouth Rock chicken, at the 1849 American Poultry Show, do not appear to have developed into a stable breed. According to most sources, birds shown in Massachusetts in 1869 are the forerunners of the modern breed. These descended from a line starting in 1865 by a single-combed Dominique rooster on a Black Asiatic hen (either Cochin or Java). At the time, birds of different origins frequently intermingled or were crossbred, so it is likely that other Asiatic and European breeds contributed to the initial Dominique sires. This is borne out by genetic analysis.

The American Poultry Association (APA) accepted the standard in 1874, but the traits were initially difficult to achieve. Crossing in Asiatic breeds for size degraded the clarity of the barred pattern, although this was achieved by 1900. In addition, yellow skin and single comb are recessive traits, while the feathered shanks of Asiatic breeds have multiple genetic sources. Clean, yellow legs and the single comb had to be carefully selected to form standardized lines.

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Breed Standard illustrated in the 1920s. Image from the Province of Ontario Picture Bureau.

Rising Popularity

Occasionally, white chicks hatched from Barred parents. The white plumage gene is recessive, so if two parents carry it, they will occasionally give rise to all-white birds. These offspring bear only white genes, so the trait is consistently passed on. In this way, the White variety arose in Maine in 1875, and accepted by the APA in 1888. This line went on to form one of the bases of commercial strains.

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white-rock-pullet
White Rock cockerel and pullet © The Livestock Conservancy.

The Barred Rock quickly became popular and remained so until the 1950s, when commercial hybrids became established in the poultry industry. Plymouth Rocks are now regaining popularity in backyards and sustainable farms due to their hardy, docile, dual-purpose nature.

A Hardy Heritage Breed

Conservation Status: Recovering, according to The Livestock Conservancy Priority List.

Biodiversity: A composite breed with hardy traits from Dominique, plus contributions from Asiatic breeds. Black Java and Langshan largely contribute to the chromosome where genes for immune responses mainly reside.

Plymouth Rock Chicken Characteristics

Description: Large-sized with long, broad backs and moderately deep, rounded breasts. Their shanks and toes are yellow, as are the beaks of most varieties. The comb, face, wattles, and ear-lobes are bright red. Wattles are round, ear-lobes oblong, and both much smaller in the hen. Eyes are reddish bay and legs are unfeathered.

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Barred Rooster. Photo credit: INRA, DIST, Jean Weber.

The original barred plumage consists of regular, well-defined light and dark bars crossing each feather evenly, giving an overall bluish appearance. The barring is produced by a dominant gene that adds light bars to dark feathers. Roosters have two copies of the gene, while hens carry only one, making males normally lighter than females. For show purposes, breeders may maintain darker and paler lines, so that males and females of similar shade can be exhibited.

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Barred Hen. Photo credit: Kanapkazpasztetem/Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA.

Varieties: Originally Barred, from which the White derived. Other varieties arose from the crossing of various breeds carrying the desired traits: Buff, Silver Penciled, Partridge, Columbian, and Blue. These have gained acceptance into the APA, as well as bantam versions of all these colors plus Black.

Comb: Single, upright, ideally evenly serrated with five well-defined points, the front and rear points being smaller than the middle three. Medium-sized in male, small in female.

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Cockerel and pullets. Photo credit: David Goehring/flickr CC BY 2.0.

Performance Traits of the Plymouth Rock Chicken

Skin Color: Yellow.

Popular Use: Eggs, meat.

Egg Color: Brown.

Egg Size: Large.

Productivity: Around 200 eggs per year; fast growing to market weight of 6–8 lb. (2.7–3.6 kg).

Weight: Hen 7.5 lb. (3.4 kg); rooster 9.5 lb. (4.3 kg); bantam hen 32 oz. (910 g); rooster 36 oz. (1 kg).

A Great Backyard Bird to Be Around

Temperament: Calm, friendly, adaptable.

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Barred Rock hens. Photo credit David Goehring/flickr CC BY 2.0.

Adaptability: Perfectly suited to the backyard as they are cold hardy and good foragers. Chicks feather out quickly and hens make successful brooders.

Owner Quote: “Barred Rocks are one of my favorite chicken breeds. They are beautiful birds and they are one of the most friendly, personable, and inquisitive breeds I’ve met. I can always count on my Barred Rocks to be the first ones around when I’m shoveling dirt or turning over a log. They’re smart birds that make a great backyard addition.” Pam Freeman, owner of PamsBackyardChickens.com.

Sources

  • Guo, Y., Lillie, M., Zan, Y., Beranger, J., Martin, A., Honaker, C.F., Siegel, P.B. and Carlborg, Ö., 2019. A genomic inference of the White Plymouth Rock genealogy. Poultry Science, 98(11), 5272–5280.
  • The Livestock Conservancy
  • Scrivener, D. 2014. Popular Poultry Breeds. Crowood.
  • Leading photo by Lydia Jacobs.
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