Breed Profile: Dominique Chicken

Dominique Chicken vs Barred Rock

Breed Profile: Dominique Chicken

Reading Time: 5 minutes

BREED: This is the earliest breed documented in America, although under various names, such as Pilgrim Fowl, Blue Spotted Hen, Old Gray Hen, Dominicker, and other variations of Dominique chicken.

ORIGIN: While their origin is undocumented, they were recognized by the early 1800s as a breed of common fowl. Experienced breeder and breed historian Mike Fields, on investigating various theories, concluded: “It is my opinion that our forefathers recognized superior qualities in a number of fowl and over time melded them into the American Dominique breed.” Before the twentieth century, the name “Dominique” indicated the cuckoo/barred pattern on any breed, but again the derivation of that name is long forgotten.

America’s Iconic Heritage Breed

HISTORY: Barred chickens of this type were common in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries on American farms, sometimes known as “Dunghill Fowl” for their thrifty foraging skills. They were rugged multi-purpose birds kept for eggs, meat, and feathers for pillows and mattresses. There were also breeders specifically developing the breed around the 1820s. Dominiques were shown at the first poultry show in Boston in 1849.

Up to the 1840s, they were the most popular farmyard bird. They began to lose favor when Asian imports became fashionable. Towards the end of the century, farms started to switch to the larger Plymouth Rock. Thus started their decline, despite recognition of their qualities by some: D. S. Heffron wrote in the 1862 USDA Yearbook of Agriculture, “The Dominique is the best fowl of common stock that we have, and is the only common fowl in the country that has enough distinct characteristics to entitle it to a name.” In 1874, the breed was accepted into APA standards, but only those birds with a rose comb. Since the single-combed variety was both numerous and popular among Dominique chicken flocks, the breeding population size was severely reduced. Single-combed Dominiques were integrated into Plymouth Rock stocks, whose breeding plans changed their characteristics toward different selection goals.

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Dominique chicken hens and rooster. Photo by Tracey Allen, courtesy of The Livestock Conservancy.

While Asiatic breeds became inevitably crossed into the bloodlines, enthusiasts sought out ancient lines to maintain the original bloodlines. However, as these breeders passed on during the 1920s, interest in the breed diminished. Dominiques survived the Great Depression of the 1930s due to their hardiness and thriftiness, allowing farms and homesteads to keep them on few resources. Farmers switched to higher-yielding Leghorns and hybrids in the post-war industrialization of production, hastening the decline of Dominiques.

By the 1970s, there were only four known flocks, fewer than 500 breeding birds. A few dedicated enthusiasts co-ordinated an effort to save the breed, together with these breeders. In 1973, The Dominique Club of America was founded to preserve and promote the breed. Interest grew, and with it the population recovered, until 2002. However, numbers started to wane again from 2007.

Dominique hens at the Homeplace 1850s Working Farm and Living History Museum. Forest Service (USDA) staff photo.

CONSERVATION STATUS: Reached “Critical” status at the Livestock Conservancy in the 1970s; now reduced to “Watch”. The FAO records 2625 head as at 2015.

BIODIVERSITY: Dedicated breeders have attempted to source ancient lineages, which evolved from early European breeds, adapting to free-range living in the various climates of North America. Therefore, this breed represents an important pool of genetic resources. Like many heritage breeds that have suffered a decline, lack of population has led to inbreeding, which reduces genetic diversity. There may be traces from Asiatic breeds, where these were crossed in to improve performance. As interest renewed in the last century, hatcheries rebuilt stocks from ancient lines, but some crossing with other breeds may have occurred to increase egg yield and body size. Equally, some broodiness and foraging ability may have been lost in hatchery birds through selection of plentiful layers.

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Forest Service staff photo.

Characteristics of the Dominique Chicken

DESCRIPTION: Medium frame with upright stance, they hold their bay-eyed heads high on an arched neck. The body is broad and full. Long, full tail feathers are held high. Males have an almost U-shaped back profile, while the females’ slopes from head to tail.

VARIETIES: All Dominiques have a cuckoo pattern of irregular slate-gray and silver barring. This gives them an overall slight bluish tinge. The irregular patterning is due to variation in the width and angle of bars on each feather. This means the bars do not line up in rings around the body, as in the Plymouth Rock. There are occasional white offspring. Bantams have also been developed.

The Dominique hen. Photo credit: Jeannette Beranger, © The Livestock Conservancy.

SKIN COLOR: Yellow skin, beak, legs, and feet.

COMB: Rose, with short upward-curving spike.

POPULAR USE: Dual purpose, but mainly eggs.

EGG COLOR: Brown.

EGG SIZE: Medium.

PRODUCTIVITY: Average 230 eggs per year; market weight 4–6 lb. (1.8–2.7 kg). Chicks mature and feather out fast and have sex-linked coloration. Female chicks have darker leg markings than males of the same strain. Females have one distinct head spot, while male head-spotting is more diffuse.

WEIGHT: Rooster averages 7 lb. (3.2 kg); hen 5 lb. (2.3 kg); bantams 1.5–2 lb. (680–900 g)

TEMPERAMENT: Calm and friendly, they make ideal homestead free-rangers and pets.

Rooster and hen at the Homeplace 1850s Working Farm and Living History Museum. Forest Service (USDA) staff photo.

ADAPTABILITY: These are hardy birds who feed well on natural forage, seeking out bugs, seeds, and weeds. This makes them easy and economical to keep. They like to range, but return readily to the coop to roost. The dappled pattern of their plumage helps to conceal them from predators.
They are well-equipped for cold weather, having tight and heavy plumage. The rose comb resists frost-bite, although its spike may freeze in extreme cold and drafts. They adapt equally to hot and damp climates, making them ideal for free-ranging in homesteads all over America.

Traditionally hens are excellent brooders and attentive, protective mothers. If readers wish to benefit from their foraging and mothering skills, they may find more suitable Dominiques through farmyard and exhibition breeders, rather than hatcheries, where these skills are not necessarily selected.

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

Dominique Chicken vs Barred Rock

The Dominique is by far the older breed, as the Plymouth Rock was developed in the late 1800s by crossing single-combed Dominiques with various Asiatic breeds. In modern times, Dominiques are found only with the rose comb, while the Plymouth Rock’s comb is single. Dominiques are smaller than Plymouth Rocks and their plumage differs. While Plymouth Rocks’ black and white barring lines up forming rings, Dominiques’ bars are paler (dark gray on silver) and irregular, forming a more erratic pattern. Males are lighter in color, which is accepted in the Dominique standard, but not in the Barred Rock. This obliges exhibition breeders of Barred Rocks to maintain darker and paler lines to be able to show males and females of the same color.

“… many hobby farmers have grown to love all the wonderful things that the Dominique has to offer as a productive egg layer and wonderful family pet with a friendly disposition.”

Dominique Club of America

Sources

Lead photo by Sam Brutcher/flickr.com CC BY SA 2.0.

Originally published in the February/March 2022 issue of Backyard Poultry magazine and regularly vetted for accuracy.

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