The Livestock Conservancy, a national nonprofit dedicated to protecting endangered farm animal breeds from extinction, is conducting a North American poultry census. The census is the first in more than a decade and is expected to be the largest of its kind ever undertaken, with thousands of poultry breeders submitting information about their birds. This critically important project will enable The Livestock Conservancy to understand how different poultry breeds are faring in the United States and Canada.
The last poultry census was conducted by The Livestock Conservancy more than a decade ago, and now with the Federal National Poultry Improvement Plan (NPIP) no longer collecting breed-specific data, this will be the only effort of its kind in America. The data gathered will help to aim and extend vital breed conservation work where it is needed the most and will guide efforts throughout the 21st century.
“Although keeping chickens is on the rise, there are many historic breeds that we see slipping under the radar and are becoming in danger of disappearing altogether,” said David Anderson, the current President of the American Poultry Association.
But even with the resurgence of interest in keeping chickens, ducks, geese, and turkeys, there hasn’t been a way to easily tell just how many birds are on the ground.
“Tracking poultry numbers can be difficult” said Jeannette Beranger, the Livestock Conservancy’s head of the census program. “Birds aren’t registered like larger mammilian livestock, and they reproduce so frequently that counting every bird is practically impossible.” But the Conservancy will use a combination of individual breeders’ reports, hatchery numbers, show numbers, and a variety of other sources to make an educated guess at the population status of each breed.
Agriculture has become increasingly consolidated over the past century, to the point that only a few highly specialized poultry breeds are now used to produce nearly all of our meat and eggs. The justification for this model is to produce large quantities of food cheaply, but doing so has led to a genetic bottleneck in most of our farm animal species.
You may wonder what is a heritage turkey or do I have a heritage farm chicken in my flock of backyard chickens? In reality, rare, or “heritage breeds” make up a tiny fraction of the total population, but represent the majority of genetic diversity.
“Traits from these breeds like natural immunity, fertility, foraging and maternal instincts, and flavor can prove useful to both backyard poultry enthusiasts and commercial producers” said heritage poultry conservationist, author, and television personality P. Allen Smith. “Homesteads of any size can enjoy keeping a wide variety of poultry, and commercial producers may benefit from the genetics heritage poultry have to offer.”
Each month, about one breed of livestock, including heritage pigs, cattle, goats and sheep, out of the world’s approximately 7,600 is lost to extinction. The results from the North American Poultry Census will help ensure that the remaining breeds are properly accounted for, monitored, and maintained, adding their own unique traits to the earth’s biodiversity and to the security of the food supply.
“We have seen interest in raising poultry explode in recent years” said Bud Wood, president of Murray McMurray hatchery. “We ship thousands of chicks each week to poultry enthusiasts across America.” The resurgence in popularity of poultry keeping might just be the key to preventing extinctions, and the census aims to help us understand how strong the trend is. “People always say don’t count your chickens before they hatch” said Beranger, “but that’s exactly what we’re aiming to do.”