The Dorking Chicken and Other Classic Breeds
Heritage Chickens for Your Homestead
Reading Time: 11 minutes
By Christine Heinrichs – Most of the 200 breeds and varieties of chickens that were once common on farms are now considered rare. Including a breed that is part of our history in your poultry operation gives your flock a role in historic preservation and genetic diversity. The beauty and utility of these birds boggles the mind. Learning about the Dorking chicken and other classic chicken breeds can help you decide which ones will work for you.
Decide what kind of operation is appropriate for you. If roosters are not allowed then you can’t breed your birds, but you can have fresh eggs and show chickens. If you are starting out, you may wish to limit yourself to a single breed. Once you are confident about the basics of husbandry, you can advance to the nuances of selective breeding.
Learn how to build a chicken coop to keep them safe and which chicken feed is best for them. As you watch your chickens, your eye is developing for the fine points of body type, comb, feather color and condition, skin color, and other breed characteristics. You’ll soon know what to look for in the breeds that have found a home in your heart.
Both the Society for Preservation of Poultry Antiquities (SPPA) and the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy (ALBC) list breeds that are of concern due to declining numbers.
They include chickens, waterfowl, and turkeys. ALBC’s Conservation Priority Lists are on its website, http://www.albc-usa.org/. ALBC lists chickens, ducks, geese, and turkeys. ALBC also has lists for other livestock: asses, cattle, goats, horses, pigs, rabbits, and sheep.
Old English Game Chicken
The Old English Game is perhaps the single most recognizable breed. Its familiar shape and plumage make it an icon of chickens. The Old English Game is the one most frequently portrayed in art, both formally and in folklore and fairy tales. The American Poultry Association Standard of Perfection heralds it for “leading us right back to the misty beginning of the human race… For hardiness, vigor, and longevity, no breed excels the Game.”
The APA includes Old English Games in the catch-all category of All Other Standard Breeds, rather than the English class. Although it takes its name from its English background, its Game heritage prevails over national boundaries. Its predominant characteristic is its fighting background. Old English Games and Modern Games are the only breeds required to be dubbed (have comb and wattles trimmed) for exhibition. That harks back to the Game history, although cockfighting was outlawed in 1849 in England. Fighting birds are dubbed to remove this target for an opponent to attack and hold on to during a match.
OE Game expert J. Batty, in his 1973 book, Understanding Old English Game Large and Bantam, testifies that they have been, in his experience, economic, at least to the extent of paying for themselves. He says they lay quite well and that a yearling male makes an excellent roasting fowl. “Regretfully, only the best birds can be kept for the following year!” he says.
Old English Games rate high as a dual-purpose chicken breed. Until the 20th century, OE Games were renowned for their fine meat and egg production, although Henderson’s Chicken Breed Chart rates them as poor layers.
For exhibition, roosters should weigh 5 lbs. and hens 4 lbs. Until the middle of the 19th century, Old English Games were even smaller. Breeders at that time crossed them with the Oriental Games—Asil, Shamo, and probably Malay – to increase their size and strength.
For exhibition, the APA recognizes Black, Black Breasted Red (BBR), Spangled, Blue Breasted Red, Lemon Blue, Blue Golden Duckwing, Blue Silver Duckwing, and Self Blue color varieties. Fanciers raise many other color varieties, including Brown Red, Birchen, Crele, Light Gray, Red Pyle, Red Quill, and Splash. Both large fowl and the small and useful bantam varieties are raised, bantams in a cornucopia of color varieties.
Dr. Batty’s book includes a chart of 23 color varieties. Chick color is an unreliable predictor of adult color. He recommends allowing stags, cockerels before they are a year old, to mature at least to one year before culling them. “At six months of age, it may not be possible to see how a bird will develop,” he writes. “Every bird bred is not a winner.”
Any color variety may have muffs and/or tassels. Muffs are feathers around the throat. Tassels, sometimes called topins, are feathers growing from the back of the head behind the comb. Like other games, OE Game feathers are hard: narrow and short, with closely knitted web and little fluff. Feathers on muffed birds are fluffier. Take care dubbing tasseled birds, as their combs are fine and twisted at the base. Regardless of what kind of feathers their heads are sporting, legs and feet are always clean of feathers.
Hennies are varieties in which the roosters resemble the hens in plumage. Ideally, the henny rooster is identical to the hen in plumage but larger in size. “He sounds like a rooster, but looks like a hen,” says Craig Russell, president of the Society for Preservation of Poultry Antiquities. Henny roosters may vary from the ideal plumage — a rooster might have a cock-like sickle, hackle, or saddle feathers.
Longtime breeder Dick Demasky, New Hampshire, praises them as “wondrous.” “The Old English Game is not only very beautiful, but is quite useful as well. They are very hardy and almost disease-free. They are wonderful rustlers and just about take care of themselves when on a good, varmintless free range,” he wrote in the SPPA Bulletin. “The mothers are excellent setters and nannies.” The game qualities translate well into protection for chicks, by both roosters and hens.
Dominiques are considered the first American breed. The Dominique Club of America champions them, http://www.dominiquechickens.org/. Their French-sounding name hasn’t always caught on with those who are otherwise devoted to them. Your grandmother may have called them her Dominikers.
Dominique chickens are the rock-solid, dual-purpose bird, comfortable as roasters or fryers at 7 lbs. for mature cocks and 5 lbs. for mature hens, and steady, reliable layers. Henderson’s Chicken Chart awards them three eggs, the Good Layer category. They are a brown egg layer.
Their slate-barred feathers are the color pattern known in other breeds as cuckoo. That color pattern may have provided protective camouflage for them when they found their own living by foraging in the barnyard. Dominiques are still good foragers.
Although their origins are clouded in history, the International Correspondence Schools Reference Library on Standard-Bred Poultry (1912) says they were plentiful in the United States by 1820 and were documented on Ohio farms by 1850. ICS cites Rose Comb White Dorkings and Black Javas as being among their forebears.
Other 19th century writers, such as Lewis Wright in The Illustrated Book of Poultry (1880), credit the Rose-comb Cuckoo Dorking and the Scotch Grey, with the comb of a Hamburg. Harrison Weir in The Poultry Book (1912) cites the Dorking chicken influence but notes that Dominiques have only four toes and yellow, rather than white, shanks. He quotes T.F. McGrew’s opinion that Hamburgs had substantial influence.
Mr. Russell credits Cuckoo Dorkings and Hamburgs with giving rise to the Dominiques, with the yellow skin and legs coming from Javas in the 19th century.
Their barred feathers are similar in color to Barred Rocks. The black/slate varies in shade, and the barring is irregular. The males have longer sickle feathers. Their bright yellow legs stand out. Getting the rose comb perfect is a challenge to breeders. It may lack the required spikes or the spikes may be misshapen. Tail angle in both males and females can be difficult to perfect. Dominique tails should stand at a jaunty 45-degree angle.
They are good mothers but gentle with humans. “Once the chicks arrive, they become a bit more territorial, but I encourage that in the birds,” says Dominique breeder Monte Bowen, Kansas. “A hen that won’t protect her clutch is not worth too much.”
Ah, the Dorking chicken – the classic breed, historically the Five-Toed Fowl on England, the meat bird of the English-speaking world. This exceptional breed has star status at historic sites such as Virginia’s Frontier Culture Museum and Massachusetts’ Plimoth Plantation. Both sites allow free-range chickens, which suits the Dorking chicken well. A new breed club, the Dorking Breeders Club, welcomes members to support the breed.
Its reach is global, with advocates in Australia and New Zealand as well as Europe and North America. This breed will connect you and your flock around the world. Both large fowl and bantams are raised. It is one of the few breeds for which both single and rose comb varieties are recognized for exhibition. Its long association with England places it in the English classification for exhibition. Three colors were originally recognized in 1874: White, Silver-Gray, and Colored. Red was recognized in 1995, but is considered the color variety with the longest history.
Cuckoo Dorking chickens, with black and white barred feathers like Dominiques, achieved APA recognition in both single and rose comb varieties in 2001. In its long history, many color varieties have been developed and have their advocates, including spangled, Japan, red speckle, penciled, black, and fawn.
The Dorking chicken breed is clearly the breed that accompanies Mercury in Roman mosaics. Five-toed chickens with Dorking plumage are described by Pliny and Columella, Roman writers of the first century AD. Other historians set the date later, to 1066 with the Norman conquest. They take their name from the English market town in Surrey. A breed with such a long history is inevitable of historical interest and discussion. The Dorking chicken exerts a powerful attraction.
The Dorking chicken breed is a dual-purpose bird, hefty as meat birds at 9 lbs. for a mature rooster and 7 lbs. for a mature hen. Their white skin is unfamiliar to American consumers, an area in which breeders can help educate them.
“As a breeder selling these actively as table fare, I have had no objections to the white skin,” says Joseph Marquette of Yellow House Farm, New Hampshire, who has chosen the Dorking chicken as his primary roasting breed. They lay well, earning a three-egg rating from Henderson, although their eggs may be tinted instead of strictly white.
The Dorking chicken takes six to seven months to come to market size, producing a 3 1/2 – 4 1/2 lb. carcass. At $6 per pound, around $25 per bird, Mr. Marquette sold out every bird this past year.
“I stress that this bird will be multiple meals,” he says. “This aspect is very important, as it requires consumers to reconnect with traditional cookeries, which are often uncomplicated and refreshing. By wasting nothing and getting every last drip of stock from the carcass, one 4-lb. rooster can go a long way in the kitchen. Customers often tell me that I have ruined them for factory-style chicken product.”
No list of heritage breeds would be complete without a crested breed. Polish and Crevecoeurs also have crests. The crest is not only feathers – the skull actually has a knob on it.
Houdans are an Old French breed that became popular as a dual-purpose production breed in the U.S. in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The original color variety, which is still most common, is Mottled. A White variety has been developed and is recognized, but remains less common. Solid black, blue mottled, and red mottled have been raised in the past, but none are currently reported. Please contact SPPA if you hear of any.
Feathers decorate their faces. The ones below the beak, around the throat, are the beard, and the ones on the rest of the head, below and around the sides of the eyes, down to the beard, and over the earlobes, are muffs.
The V or horn comb, required for exhibition in the U.S., is unusual. In England and France, the leaf comb, shaped like butterfly wings, is still recognized. Leaf combs are the result of the V comb crossed with a single comb. Lewis Wright’s Illustrated Book of Poultry shows a prominent leaf comb.
Houdans share their crests with the Polish and their fifth toe with the Dorking chicken, a result of their heritage from both breeds. They lay large chalk-white eggs. At 8 lbs. for a mature rooster and 6 ½ lbs. for a hen, they are also meat birds. The quality of their meat commends them to gourmet menus. It is fine-grained, white, and juicy. The delicate bones reduce the proportion of bone to meat. All around, it is a fancy bird with a delightful appearance that is a serious producer.
Houdans are good foragers but are amenable to being kept in confinement. They are considered non-sitters, so plan on keeping another breed that will hatch eggs and raise chicks. They are good winter layers.
Houdans have suffered from excessive crossing with Polish, to increase the size of that irresistible crest. Some birds have so much crest they can hardly see. Along with the increased crest, crossing with Polish has reduced Houdans’ size. Devoting a flock to maintaining Standard size and keeping the crest in proportion is a worthy goal. Mr. Marquette is experimenting with crossing his Houdans with a white Dorking rooster, to increase their size. His goal is hens that weigh five pounds by six months of age.
“The biggest overall issue is that there are not enough of them,” he says. “We need more people breeding them.”
The feathered faces require some extra care. The birds need easy access to fresh water without getting their feathers wet. If they get dirty, they should be washed and dried so that it doesn’t interfere with their ability to eat and drink. Mr. Marquette provides one-gallon chick waterers for all his Houdans.
“This keeps their crests clean and dry,” he says. “In the winter, it is necessary to empty the waterers at nightfall so that they don’t freeze and crack.”
The national breed of Cuba was developed by crossing the Pheasant Malay, which has a pea comb, with European fowl. Historically, Spanish explorers brought Asian game fowl with them to Cuba, via the Philippines, in the mid-19th century. They were developed as fighting birds, but maintain the dual purpose chicken production qualities. Cuban development of the breed stressed exhibition qualities, but never lost sight of their utility for production of both meat and eggs.
They share with other game breeds their hardiness and resistance to disease. Hens are good setters and mothers. Gradual development makes early hatching advisable to give the males enough time to grow a full tail and the pullets time to gain weight. Its fighting temperament makes it comfortable on free range and well able to fend for itself, but unwilling to accommodate close quarters.
Experienced breeder Horst Schmudde finds they nearly nourish themselves when kept on sufficient free range. This is a bird with big ideas.At 6 lbs. for a mature rooster and 4 lbs. for a hen, their fine-grained white flesh is praised by those fortunate enough to have it on their plates. They are respectable layers of white eggs, although Henderson’s chart accords the breed only a single egg. Breeders report high fertility rates.
Cubalayas have the upright stance typical of Oriental Games, with a graceful silhouette more like a Sumatra. The back descends to the ground in a sweeping line. The long, wide tails divide down the middle to earn the description “lobster tail.” Sickles and coverts often drag on the ground.
Their small spurs are dome-like and grow into multiple spurs. In any other breed, this is a serious defect, but in Cubalayas, it’s desirable.
The APA recognizes three color varieties: Black Breasted Red, White and Black, but as with other games, fanciers raise many other colors. The Cenizos is ash-colored; the Indios Cenizos is ash-colored breasted red; Giros de Plata is silver duckwing and Giro Carey, golden duckwing.
Despite a somewhat fierce look, they are gentle and friendly with people. Long-time breeder Claus Twisselman, Delaware, wrote in the SPPA Bulletin in 2001 that it’s not uncommon for a breeding rooster to jump into his lap while a hen waits to be petted. He says they are naturally tame. “They are a pleasure to look at, they are nice to have around and are very smart,” he wrote.
If you’d like some help choosing the right breed for your homestead, you can find it among friends by joining the SPPA. Dues are $15 annually: send to Dr. Charles Everett, 1057 Nick Watts Rd., Lugoff, SC 29078 or online at http://poultrybookstore.com.
Have you had the Dorking chicken or any of these other classic breeds amongst your flock? We’d love to hear from you!
Originally published in the April/May 2009 issue of Backyard Poultry and regularly vetted for accuracy.