This trio of North American chicken breeds is at risk of extinction in the United States and beyond.
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that we lose approximately two domestic animal breeds to extinction every single week, with more than 300 breeds of poultry, cattle, donkeys, goats, horses, pigs, rabbits, and sheep vanished in the past 15 years.
To help conserve disappearing breeds, the Livestock Conservancy compiles an annual Conservation Priority List, calling attention to the breeds facing the possibility of extinction in the U.S. The parameters by which breeds are evaluated vary according to the species, but five main classifications exist:
The 51 chicken breeds currently listed are further divided into three groups: North American breeds, breeds imported before 1900 and breeds imported after 1900. Of the breeds developed in North America, three chickens are classified as Critical, with fewer than 500 birds remaining in the U.S. and less than 1,000 total in the world.
Developed in Cuba in the 1800s, the Cubalaya originates from cross-breeding Malay and Sumatra chickens with European gamefowl. The resulting bird was triple purpose: meat, eggs and sport.
The Cubalaya is known for its “lobster tail”—its plentiful tailfeathers angle downward with an elegant drape. Another remarkable feature is that the Cubalaya does not develop spurs, quite a plus for both chicken owners and the breed’s flock mates.
Despite its pea comb, the Cubalaya is not cold hardy but rather thrives in warm climates. It forages actively and is best suited for free-ranging flocks raised on acres of grass.
The Cubalaya is slow to grow: it reaches adulthood at about 3 years old, although it can reproduce at 6 months of age. Hens lay approximately 150 rounded eggs per year. Cubalaya chicks are very friendly and will eat from their human’s hand from Day 1.
They are also curious and fearless and do not comprehend the dangers predators pose until taught by older birds.
Cubalayas come in many color varieties but only three—White, Black and Black-Breasted Red—are recognized by the American Poultry Association (APA). The Black Cubalaya is extinct in the U.S. and found only in Cuba.
Wheaten Cubalayas, though not officially recognized, are very popular due to their cinnamon color and tame disposition towards humans. They do not get along with other chicken breeds, which seem drawn to attacking the Cubalaya’s ornamental tail. While raised for meat and eggs in Cuba, in the U.S. the Cubalaya is mainly raised as a show bird or pet.
Read more: Learn more about the Cubalaya, a versatile and historic breed of bird.
Despite its name, the Holland chicken was developed at the Rutgers Breeding Farms in New Jersey. In the 1930s, people wanted white eggs—believed back then to have a finer, more delicate flavor than brown eggs—but America’s small farms preferred to raise dual-purpose birds, which typically lay brown eggs.
To satisfy this need, the agricultural scientists at Rutgers decided to develop a heavyweight, well-fleshed bird that produced white eggs. The base bird used for this project originated in The Netherlands and, after much cross-breeding with White Leghorns, Lamonas, Rhode Island Reds and New Hampshires, the White Holland came to be.
This variety—now sadly extinct—was soon followed by the Barred Holland, developed by cross-breeding White Leghorn, Brown Leghorn, Australorp and Barred Plymouth Rock chicken breeds. The Holland was recognized by the APA in 1949.
The Holland is the perfect bird for backyard flock owners. It is cheerful, calm and friendly, and enjoys interacting with humans. Like the Orpington, it is cold hardy but may suffer frostbite on its single comb in extreme weather.
The Holland is low maintenance, quiet and forages well. Holland hens lay approximately 220 eggs each year; they also tend to go broody. By raising Hollands, flock owners help conserve what is considered to be America’s rarest chicken.
Like the Holland, the Java chicken got its name from its base breeding stock, believed to have originated near Java in Indonesia.
The Java is America’s second-oldest of all chicken breeds, developed around or before 1835. The Java was brought to England from America in 1885, an important fact because some poultry breeders mistakenly claim their birds’ lineage comes straight from the island of Java via England, not knowing (or purposely ignoring) that the breed originated in the U.S.
This breed served as a base bird itself, playing a crucial role in the development of the Jersey Giant, Plymouth Rock and Rhode Island Red.
The Java is an active forager and is best suited for a free-ranging flock, although it tolerates confinement. Java hens go broody and are excellent mothers, but the chicks tend to be excitable before settling into the calm, friendly temperament for which the breed is known.
Java hens are quite cold hardy and lay well into winter. They produce about 180 eggs per year and continue production for years.
Java roosters are similarly cold hardy but their single combs need to be protected from frostbite. Javas tend to flock tightly together, but they also get along well with other breeds. They come in four color varieties: the Black and Mottled are recognized by the APA while the White and Auburn are not. The latter two are being bred by conservation farmers hoping to get these varieties recognized and out of danger of going extinct.