The Rhode Island Red
Rhode Island Red Rooster – 70 cm x 60 cm painted paper collage and gold leaf on panel
The Rhode Island Red is possibly the most iconic and widespread chicken breed in the world. Starting around 1830, farmers near the town of Little Compton, Rhode Island, and also in nearby Massachusetts set about developing an excellent dual-purpose chicken for farm use. They began with the chickens that were already commonly found on their farms, chickens which were not any specific breed, but were a mix of many. A handful of varieties are thought to have been particularly influential in the development of the Rhode Island Red, each contributing different qualities and characteristics to the breed. These were probably the Shanghai, Java, Brown Leghorn, and Malay. In the nineteenth century, ‘Shanghai birds’ meant either Brahmas and or Cochins, both of which were commonly used in North America for meat and were imported in large numbers in the first half of the century. The Java was developed in the US as a meat bird and it is now nearly extinct. The Brown Leghorn is an Italian breed renowned for its excellence as an egg layer. Malays are large game birds with sleek, hard feathers. Malays were not common in North America at that time, although they were extremely popular in Europe. The Malay influence may have come from an imported English black-breasted, red rooster which gave the Rhode Island Red its distinctive colouring and the roosters their testy disposition.
The Rhode Island Red became very popular soon after its development and was commonly used as a utility bird on many farms in the U.S. in the nineteenth century. It was not exhibited until 1879, at which point it was called the Golden Red or Golden Buff. The bird acquired the name we know it by today in either Massachusetts or Rhode Island somewhere between 1879 and 1895, depending on who is telling the story. The Rhode Island Red was admitted to the American Standard of Perfection in 1904. A variety with a small, rose comb was standardized in 1905.
Rhode Island Red memorial erected in 1925 in Little Compton, Rhode Island (Photo ©Mackensen 2008, Wikimedia Commons)
Rhode Island Reds are classified as medium to heavy birds. Roosters weigh around 3.8 kg and hens approximately 2.7 kg. Both are excellent, flavourful stewing chickens. They are yellow skinned birds with long, rectangular bodies and yellow legs. Their beaks are reddish, their combs and wattles are red. The hens, which have a quieter disposition than the roosters, are excellent layers and can lay between 200 – 300 dark brown eggs per year beginning as early as six months of age. The Rhode Island Red’s overall colour is a deep, rich, mahogany red with some black in the wings and the tail of the rooster. They are hardy birds who are extremely adaptable and will eat almost anything. Rhode Island Reds were the preferred farm chicken in many parts of the world until the mid-twentieth century.
Illustration from the American fable The Little Red Hen circa 1918
It is hard to imagine how such an excellent chicken breed could become endangered. In truth, the Rhode Island Red has been the victim of its own success. The beautiful, deep red colour of the Reds made them popular with poultry breeders who bred only for shows with the result that many are bred purely for colour and appearance, but not for utility. The mahogany plumage which has made the breed popular with exhibitors has made them less popular as meat birds because of their dark pin feathers. Also, as agriculture became more specialized dual-purpose breeds fell out of favour. But as egg layers the little red hens were almost without equal, and it was their egg production capacity that came to be their most desirable trait.
Since the 1940s, the Rhode Island Red has been selectively bred for more efficient egg production, becoming smaller, lighter colored, and less broody as a result. (The Livestock Conservancy)
Modern, egg production-type Rhode Island Reds continue to be used in the creation of commercial hybrid laying hens such as red sex-links, Bovan Goldlines, and ISA browns. So, although the Rhode Island Red of the nineteenth century lives on in a sense, by focusing on limited traits such as egg-laying to the detriment of all else, the original large, hardy, dark red, dual-purpose farmyard chicken is almost gone. The breed is considered vulnerable in Canada and is on the ‘watch’ list in the US.
Rhode Island Red hen (Wikimedia commons)
Ark of Taste (www.fondazioneslowfood.com)
Dohner, Janet Vorwald: The Encyclopedia of Historic and Endangered Livestock and Poultry, Yale University Press, 2001
The Livestock Conservancy (www.livestockconservancy.org)