Rhode Island Red chickens: The state bird

Rhode Island Reds remain one of the most popular breeds, for small and for commercial laying flocks. The Rhode Island Red is the official bird of the state of Rhode Island. John Crowther, described in Willis Grant Johnson and George O. Brown’s 1912 edition of Harrison Weir’s The Poultry Book as “a prominent breeder,” called them “the best all-purpose fowl of a practical and progressive people.”

They are the usual choice for commercial brown egg operations. The strains that are bred for industrial use are different from the old-fashioned ones. The industrial ones are smaller, lighter and less inclined to become broody. They will not meet the Standard of Perfection required by poultry judges.

Consider whether egg production or showing is your goal. Production RIRs, as sold by Purely Poultry, can lay up to 300 eggs a year. Exhibition birds that meet the APA Standard will lay fewer eggs but can be shown in the American Class at poultry shows.

RIRs were developed in Rhode Island and Massachusetts in the mid-19th century as a dual purpose farm and commercial breed. Red Malay Game and Red Cochin China roosters arrived on sailing ships in the seaport towns of Little Compton, Rhode Island and Westport, Massachusetts. Sea captains sold them to local farmers, who bred them into their flocks. Javas also arrived on those boats, contributing their rectangular body. Rose-Comb Brown Leghorns added to the mix to produce the “hardy red cock of a type that showed vigor” that was traditional in New England utility flocks of the second half of the 19th century, according to Dr. N.B. Aldrich of Massachusetts and W. J. Drisko, secretary of the Rhode Island Red Club in 1912.

In 1904 the single comb variety was recognized, followed by the rose comb in 1905. A pea comb variety was raised, but lost favor as not having good type or vigor. The original description of the plumage in my copy of the 1905 Standard was “rich, brilliant red.” The current Standard calls for “lustrous, rich, dark red.” These refinements are the kind of subtlety that only experience and working with poultry masters can confer. The Poultry Book admits, “It is difficult to describe the color of Rhode Island Reds.”

They soon gained popularity and have never been without a substantial following. Former APA President Dave Anderson recalled that the competition among breeders to achieve that rich, dark color undermined the vitality of the breed around the time it was admitted to the Standard. The dark color they sought was genetically connected to poor feather quality and slow growth. Champion birds with the desirable color had weak, stringy feathers lacking the width and strength of truly fine birds. They lost the quick growth and early maturity that gave them value as meat birds.

That pitfall was overcome by conscientious breeders who “put type and vigor on an equality, with color as second,” wrote Johnson and Brown. Today, Rhode Island Reds remain one of the most popular breeds, both as large fowl and as bantams.