Meet the Birds
Preserving Our Most Important Market Breeds
The Looming Extinction
Right before our eyes, dozens of our foundational poultry breeds are on the brink of extinction. These strains’ importance to America’s culture, food safety, and biodiversity is incalculable. Their loss would spell disaster for the future of the sustainable food system and serve as a lasting victory for an industrial poultry industry gone haywire.
While most remain unaware of the looming extinction of Standardbred poultry breeds in the United States, there is a small community working to combat this crisis. One man on the plains of the Kansas Prairie stands out as their greatest champion. Frank Reese, in his seventies, is the sole remaining commercial breeder of Certified Standardbred poultry in the United States.
His Good Shepherd Poultry Ranch stands as the last remaining stronghold for many of America’s most important market breeds of chickens and turkeys. We have assessed these to be the Plymouth Rock, New Hampshire, Rhode Island White, Cornish, Leghorn, Minorca, Bronze, Narragansett, White Holland, and Bourbon Red. Having only one commercial farm left in the country to protect these natural treasures leaves them extremely vulnerable. In order to provide a safe future for these breeds, we must drastically increase their numbers. To address this issue, we’ve started a nationwide conservation effort which will increase the 10 breeds’ numbers to 100,000+ birds spread out over hundreds of farms throughout the United States.
Help Us Save These Breeds
The Breeds – Chickens
Over nine billion chickens were produced in America last year. Most were all one kind of bird, the industrially produced Cornish cross F14 hybrid. This animal monocrop, unmatched in scale, is quickly spreading through the globe and endangering chickens both at home and far beyond our shores.
This was not always so. When America was discovered by Western explorers, chickens from all over the world quickly came to its shores. Local breeders used these birds to create some of the healthiest and most productive breeds ever seen.
Three of these American-derived breeds and three European-derived breeds make up the chickens chosen for our preservation program. Each has unique attributes that make it well suited to meet market needs. These breeds’ survival is crucial for creating a resilient and diverse future for the chickens of the world.
The Plymouth Rock, America’s first officially recognized breed of chicken, reigned as king of the United States’ broiler industry for over 100 years. Its reliability, adaptability, health, and quality kept it immensely popular until the rise of the Cornish cross hybrid in the mid-1900s.
While today, millions of striped birds in the United States are sold each year bearing the name of this iconic breed, true Plymouth Rocks are few and far between. This storied past and the many important traits the Plymouth Rock holds all make it crucially important to the future of Standardbred broiler production in the United States.
The New Hampshire is a beautifully red-feathered and fast-growing breed that epitomizes American innovation and quality. Prized for its rapid early growth, heavier breast development, and solid egg-laying ability, this newer breed was able to dethrone the Plymouth Rock as America’s #1 chicken in the 1930s.
The many important traits that made the New Hampshire popular in the past still make it a highly marketable and critically important Standardbred specimen. While today, many industrial hybrids such as the “Red Ranger” are regularly confused with the New Hampshire, true quality stock from this breed is very hard to find.
This unparalleled breed is one of the most important and endangered on our list. First developed in 1888 by Mr. J. Alonzo Jocoy of Peacedale, Rhode Island, they gained wide popularity in the early 1900s. A few decades later, these birds were quickly displaced by today’s industrial hybrids, with only a mere few hundred still in existence today.
Excellent carcass quality, fast growth, and reliable egg-laying ability make the Rhode Island White a uniquely productive Standardbred chicken. While all this already causes this breed to stand out, these traits, in combination with their white feathering, make these birds uniquely able to compete in a marketplace where white-feathered broilers have become the absolute norm.
The Cornish is probably the most misunderstood and endangered of all the important breeds in the United States. Its true history is lost in time, but it is given credit for development in Cornwall, England.
Originally a fighting bird, its short, bulldog-like body eventually became prized for its meatiness, superior breast size, and flavor. While the modern-day “Cornish cross hybrid” and the so-called “Cornish game hen” (just a young Cornish cross) have some genes derived from the Cornish, they could not be more different from their partial ancestor.
The Cornish is a very slow-growing bird and a poor egg layer, which is not marketable in itself, but when crossed with other Standardbred birds, it helps to greatly improve the carcass quality and breast size of the resulting offspring. These crosses are healthy and highly marketable heritage birds, which can better compete against the industrially produced “Cornish cross” and “Freedom Ranger” F14 hybrids that dominate today’s broiler market.
The Leghorn is the most important breed of egg chicken for human use around the world. Derived from the light breeds originating in rural Tuscany, these small-bodied birds are excellent egg layers, active foragers, and elusive to predators.
In recent years, the Leghorn has been so radically changed through hybrid breeding that it has become unrecognizable. The pure Standardbred Leghorn, which has provided eggs and meat for hundreds of years, is just about lost, except for a few small flocks.
While today’s industrial hybrid egg layers are overbred, calcium starved, and greatly unhealthy specimens, the Standardbred Leghorn can act as a truly balanced and healthy foil to these modern-day egg-making machines.
The Minorca is one of the oldest breeds of fowl in existence. Originating from the Mediterranean region, they gained in popularity here in the late 1800s and remained popular up until hybrid commercial egg layers took over the market in the mid-1900s.
Today, it is very hard to find quality Minorca of any variety. The historic Buff Minorca is near extinct, and this could happen to what is left of the Black and White Minorca varieties as well.
Whereas most large-bodied chickens are not good egg producers, the Minorca is able to produce eggs in abundance and to be used for meat production. This ability to serve both purposes as well as its adaptability, health, and natural vigor all make the Minorca crucially important to the future marketing of Standardbred poultry.
The Breeds – Turkeys
The turkey, a true American Icon, is not what it used to be. While the turkeys of antiquity were robust and healthy animals, today’s intensively bred Broad Breasted White turkeys struggle to walk and cannot even reproduce without the aid of artificial insemination.
Long before the founding of the United States, the Incas kept domesticated turkeys, while tribes further north hunted their wild brethren. When Europeans came to America, they brought the turkey back with them. These domesticated European birds were then brought back to the United States and crossed with the local wild population. It is from this healthy and robust population that all of today’s Standard breeds originate.
Our program will focus on conserving four Standardbred turkeys, which possess a robust history, important attributes, and crucial market considerations that make their survival critical to the future of America’s most quintessential fowl.
The Bronze is the patriarch of all American turkey varieties in existence today. Carrying the genes of every other breed on our list, this bird holds the key to preserving the American Standardbred turkey. A great forager with a strong immune system and tolerant of extreme cold, quality and resilience have helped the Standard Bronze stand the test of time.
This breed of turkey is likely the second oldest on our list. A natural mutation from the Bronze, it was developed by turkey farmers in the Narragansett region of Rhode Island in the 1800s. Beautiful silver and buff feathering, cold tolerance, and delicious flavor all make this historic bird very worthy of protection.
The history of this noble breed stretches hundreds of years back, when it naturally mutated from the Bronze, much as the Narraganset did. Historically disfavored due to its white feathering, this attribute now makes it essential in the modern marketplace which favors white feathered birds. A healthy and robust bird with great potential and a storied past, we must conserve the White Holland to meet the needs of today’s picky consumers.
This is the newest breed of turkey that we are seeking sponsorship for. Developed in the early 1900s, this chestnut-red bird’s slow growth and slightly smaller stature make it more heat tolerant than the other turkeys on our list. Notably, the Bourbon Red was chosen by Marian Burros of the New York Times as the tastiest turkey in America, sparking a resurgence of interest in Standardbred turkeys throughout the United States.