By Dave Anderson – Rhode Island Red chickens are striking birds with the contrast between the dark red body color, black tail with a “beetle green” sheen and the bright red comb and wattles. Their length of body, flat back and “brick” shape is both distinctive and attractive. Add to this its docile yet regal personality and superb commercial qualities (eggs and meat) and you have a flock of ideal backyard chickens.
The origin of Rhode Island Red chickens dates back to a fowl bred in Rhode Island in the mid-1800s; hence the name of the breed. According to most accounts, the breed was developed by crossing Red Malay Game, Leghorn and Asiatic stock. There are two varieties of Rhode Island Red chickens, single comb and rose comb, and to this day there is debate over which was the original variety.
The breed was developed, as were most of the American breeds, in response to demand for a general purpose (meat and eggs), yellow skinned, brown egg-laying bird. These birds quickly became a favorite of the commercial industry because of their laying capabilities and quick growth. Before long they also caught the attention of the exhibition industry and a club was formed, in 1898, to forward the breed’s interests. Rhode Island Red chickens were admitted to the American Poultry Association (APA) Standard of Perfection in 1904.
Over the years, great debates have raged over the correct shade of color required for Rhode Island Red chickens in exhibition. The desired color has evolved as can be seen by examining the APA Standard of Perfection. The 1916 edition of the Standard calls for “rich, brilliant red” for the male and rich red for the female while today’s version calls for “a lustrous, rich, dark red throughout” for both male and female. Many fanciers in the early 1900s described the ideal color as “steer red” similar to the color on a Hereford steer and today the desired color looks almost black when viewed from a distance of 10 feet or more. The one thing that most breeders and judges have agreed upon through the years is that, whatever the shade, it should be even colored throughout.
In fact, the virtually maniacal quest for the rich, dark red undercolor and surface color in the early 1900s almost led to the downfall of the breed. It turned out that the darkness of the red was genetically linked to feather quality – the darker and more even the color, the poorer the structure of the feather. Breeders and judges alike were selecting birds with excellent color but very thin, stringy feathers, many called them “silky,” that were poorly structured and did not carry the desired width and smoothness that sets apart an outstanding specimen. In addition, this “silky” feather was genetically tied to slow development so their desirability as a meat bird diminished as well. Fortunately, a handful of dedicated breeders “righted the ship” and today we have birds that possess all of the desired qualities.
When it comes to raising chickens for eggs, Rhode Island Red chickens were one of the most popular and successful production breeds in the mid-1900s when egg-laying contests were major events held annually throughout the country. There were many very popular national poultry magazines that regularly reported on these contests. The April 1945 edition of the Poultry Tribune contained a typical report that covered 13 contests throughout the country. Rhode Island Red chickens won 2-5-7-8-9th top pens overall. The April 1946 edition of the Tribune showed Rhode Island Red chickens won 2-3-4-5-6-8th top pens overall. This is amazing when you realize that there were multiple pens competing representing 20 different breeds/varieties including noted egg-laying Mediterranean breeds such as Leghorns, Minorcas and Anconas.
During this period, Rhode Island Red chickens were also one of the most popular breeds in the exhibition halls. A review of some of the old Rhode Island Red journals shows that there were often 200 to 350 large Reds entered by more than 40 exhibitors in the major shows such as Madison Square Garden, Boston, and Chicago.
As with many of the other popular breeds, it did not take long for fanciers to create bantam chickens, which are exact replicas of the large fowl but about 1/5 their size. New York State appeared to be a hot bed for the development of Red bantams and they were soon seen at most shows in the area. The bantams caught on and soon equaled the large fowl in numbers at most shows. At the APA 100th anniversary show in Columbus, Ohio in 1973, there were approximately 250 Rhode Island Red bantams on display. In modern times, the bantams have far exceeded the large fowl in popularity due to the high cost of feed and fancier’s ability to breed and raise so many more specimens in a confined space.
In October 2004, the Little Rhody Poultry Fanciers hosted a Rhode Island Red National show to celebrate the 150th birthday of Rhode Island Reds, the 100th anniversary of their admittance to the APA Standard, and their 50th year as the state bird of Rhode Island. I was privileged to be the judge for that show. It is an honor I will never forget. As I went about my duties, I couldn’t help but think about all the Red breeders, past and present, who contributed to making the breed what it is today. Many I knew and others I had only read about. I also thought of Mr. Len Rawnsley, one of the most admired judges of the past, who was selected to judge the Rhode Island Red Centennial show in Rhode Island in 1954. I met Mr. Rawnsley in my youth and never dreamt I would have been included in his company in Rhode Island Red annals. Once the show was over, several of us made a pilgrimage to the Rhode Island Red monument in Adamsville, Rhode Island; another unforgettable experience.
Well, that is a very brief history of the Rhode Island Red from their creation in 1854 to the modern day. There is probably more material written on the Rhode Island Red than most other breeds so the reader need only Google the breed to obtain more history and details. They continue to be a popular breed with both backyard poultry keepers and serious exhibitors. This is based not only on their excellent commercial qualities but also their docile personalities, hardiness, and great beauty.
Rhode Island Red chickens, either large fowl or bantam, are worthy of consideration by anyone looking for a new breed or variety. A word of caution – if an individual is seeking birds for show purposes, they should not buy them from a feed store and, if bought from a hatchery, make sure they specialize in exhibition stock. A major problem over the years is that many folks buy birds that are called Rhode Island Red chickens but are, in fact, a commercial strain that bears no resemblance to a show bird. They show these birds at local fairs and are disqualified because the birds lack breed type and color. This leads to resentment on their part and often hard feelings between the first time exhibitor and the judge or show management.
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