Don Schrider, West Virginia
The History of Bantam Chickens
The word “Bantam” is derived from a major Indonesian seaport on the western side of the Island of Java, Banten Province. This area was once very important to seagoing vessels as a port of call and as a place to locate goods and food for voyages. One remarkable item available at this port of call was chicken — to be precise, very small chickens which later became known as Bantam chickens. About a third the size of an average chicken, the chickens of Banten were spritely, spirited, reasonably fair egg layers, and bred true; offspring were grown to be the same small size as their parents.
The small and useful Bantam chickens were brought onto ships as a food source, but many made their way back to Europe, where they were embraced for their novelty. These small chickens came in a variety of shapes and colors and produced a variety in their offspring. But it was their small size and bold demeanor that intrigued sailors. When asked where these small birds were from, Banten soon phonetically became “Bantam.”
It is known that Bantam chickens were in many European cities by the 1500s. Their early popularity was largely among the peasant classes. History has it that Lords of the manors demanded the large eggs from the large chickens for their own tables and for market, while the small eggs laid by these miniatures were left to the peasants. Certainly, the spritely and bold carriage of the Bantam males made an impression, and it was not long before some varieties were cultivated.
In England, African Bantam chickens were known since at least 1453. This variety was also called the Black African, and later, the Rosecomb Bantam. It is said that King Richard III took a fancy to these little black birds at John Buckton’s inn, the Angel at Grantham.
Rosecomb Bantam chickens are often referred to as one of the oldest Bantam chicken varieties, the oldest of which is possibly the Nankin Bantam. Rosecomb Bantam chickens were considered exhibition birds with the intense beetle-green sheen of their solid black feathers, large white earlobes, and profuse tails.
As I mentioned earlier, the oldest breed of Bantam chickens in England have been considered to be the Nankin Bantam. Unlike the Rosecomb Bantam, there is very little written about the Nankin for the first 400 years it lived in that country. But we do know that Nankin Bantams were considered rare, even in 1853. Nankins were seldom valued for their beautiful beige plumage and black tails, but rather as sitting hens to hatch pheasants. Due to this use, they seldom competed for any awards. But this little gem is still alive and well today.
Between 1603 and 1636, the ancestors of the Chabo, or Japanese Bantam, came to Japan from “South China.” This area would have included today’s Thailand, Vietnam, and Indo-China, and the birds that came to Japan were most likely the ancestors of today’s Serma Bantams. It seems that miniature chickens moved around the Orient by sea. The Japanese perfected the little birds with high tails, such that their legs were so short as to appear that they had no legs as they walked around gardens. Royal decree that no Japanese ship or person could go abroad from 1636 to about 1867 helped refine this breed as well.
The Sebright Bantam seems to have been developed from around 1800. The breed is tied to Sir John Sebright, although in reality he and several friends had a hand in their development. We know that Mr. Stevens, Mr. Garle, and Mr. Nollingsworth (or Hollingsworth) all played roles in the breed’s development. They met each year at Gray’s Inn Coffee House, in Holburn (London, England), to “show” each other how closely they were coming to their ideal of a pigeon-sized chicken with white or tan feathers laced with black, like the Silver or Golden Polish. They each paid an annual fee, and after expenses for the Inn, the remainder of the pool was handed out as prizes.
Besides those English breeds — the Rosecombs, Sebrights, and Nankins — and those of the Orient — the Chabo and the Serama — there are many unique breeds of Bantam that have no large fowl counterpart. Breeds like the Booted Bantam, Belgian D’Uccles, D’Antwerps, Pyncheon and many others have no large fowl counterpart.
As more and more new breeds of chickens began arriving to America and England, from the 1850s to the 1890s, the unique miniatures attracted a lot of attention. From about 1900 until about the 1950s, breeders attempted to miniaturize all of the Standard-sized breeds. From the Leghorn chicken to Buckeyes to Plymouth Rocks and others, every Standard-sized breed was duplicated in miniature.
Bantam chickens have been used for hobby purposes for a long time. But are they “real” chickens? This question is one that was spread around many of us poultry-folk in the East Coast for a long time.
A real chicken is one that can do well at what chickens are meant to do — lay eggs, produce meat — like a Dorking or Plymouth Rock. In fact, I remember poultry judge Bruno Bortner calling an especially nice Dorking “a real chicken,” meaning it would be productive without pampering.
A decline has come to large fowl chickens since the commercial poultry industry split from the exhibition industry, and from about the 1950s on, they became less and less in demand. (Though the backyard poultry movement is starting to change this.) During the last 30 years, more Bantam breeds are appearing at shows. This is largely due to the fact that Bantam chickens are about a third the size of large fowl, eat much less, need smaller pens, and more of them can be easily transported due to the small size of the carrying cages needed. They cost the same amount of money to enter at shows and sell for about the same prices for quality. So all in all, Bantam chickens have a lot to offer as a hobby animal.
My first encounter with chickens came as a young child. My grandfather kept a flock of mixed Bantam chickens. He called them Junno Bantams, as in, “You know, Bantams …” I doubt that he ever received a “purebred” Bantam. His were an old landrace group from the mountains of Virginia. His Bantam hens laid well, set on their own eggs and ranged all day. He kept one group at his cabin, where they received feed and care every week or two, and were maintained this way for years. The males were bold as can be. One even took on a hawk that swooped in to attack the flock and lived to crow about it. The hens were fierce guardians of their broods. As I found out at age 3, never touch a “banty” hen’s chicks. The hen not only got her chick back, she ran me to the house and beat me as I tried to get in the backdoor!
It is only now, as the years have passed, that I have come to appreciate that my grandfather’s Bantam chickens were “real” chickens. They had more akin to the original birds of Banten than the many well-bred show specimens. His birds were survivors, and due to this, they were well-bred, even if they came in many colors. There are still some small flocks out there of similar Bantam chickens, like Kentucky Specks. To anyone whose flock fits that description, I hope you continue to keep them going.
As far show quality stock goes, for a number of years, really up until the last 20 years, the quality of most Bantam chicken breeds was often lower than that of their large fowl counterparts. It was common for Bantams to have low wings, or their proportions unbalanced. But the truth of the matter is that today’s top Bantam breeders are producing birds that have reached a pinnacle for type (the shape of the outline of the chicken). Myself and some of my most large-fowl-centric friends have found ourselves looking at a Bantam or two and exclaiming, “There’s a real chicken.”
Are Bantam Chickens Real Chickens? Yes!
For some, they are even ideal chickens. They take less space, will lay well, can be eaten, and can make wonderful chickens as pets. While their eggs are smaller and may not be as well received as large eggs, tell your friends and family that three Bantam eggs equal two large eggs. And yes, I have a friend who makes chicken pot pies out of their culled Bantam chickens. They even serve them as whole roasted chickens, one per guest. So while I will say my large fowl are my favorites, there is room for a few Bantam chickens around here, too.
Text copyright Don Schrider 2014. All rights reserved. Don Schrider is a nationally recognized poultry breeder and expert. He is the author of the third edition of Storey’s Guide to Raising Turkeys.
Originally published in the June/July 2014 issue of Backyard Poultry magazine and regularly vetted for accuracy.