Chickens have always held an intricate place in American history. Pioneers settling the Wild West depended on their flocks’ eggs and meat to feed their families. Farmers’ wives sold their hens’ daily efforts for “egg money.” A chicken in every pot was promised as a sign of America’s growing prosperity.
If it weren’t for the humble chicken, America might have developed into a totally different nation than the one we know today.
But it’s not just any chicken that helped our country grow. The humble dual-purpose bird not only helped feed a growing America but also played a pivotal role in the growth of American poultry keeping.
And one of the chief chickens that influenced America is the British Redcap.
The Definition of Dual Purpose
One of the world’s original dual-purpose birds, the Redcap chicken originated in northern England, where this standard fowl became one of the most profitable types of poultry a farmer could raise. A highly proficient forager, the Redcap required very little in the way of feed yet managed to produce between 150 to 200 eggs per year.
In addition to its high rate-of-lay, the Redcap also developed delicate yet delicious flesh, making the breed doubly useful as a layer and as a table bird.
Although it’s unknown when the Redcap arrived in America, its spread throughout the U.S. is well documented. By the mid-1800s, the Redcap chicken was being shown in poultry exhibitions and was serving as the foundation fowl for egg-production flocks.
By the 1890s, immense flocks of Redcaps could be found across the country, kept by both egg farmers and poultry enthusiasts.
While the Redcap was taking America by storm, the story back in England was altogether different. Despite its fabulous forage conversion rate and its high egg production, the Redcap fell out of favor with British farmers and fanciers.
By 1900, the Redcap was virtually extinct in its native country. Inexplicably, America followed suit a few years later, and this previously valuable breed all but vanished.
The Redcap Today
While still extremely rare, the Redcap has slowly begun its journey to recovery thanks to dedicated chicken enthusiasts. The breed is classified as critically endangered by the Livestock Conservancy, meaning that there are less than 500 individual birds in the U.S. and less than 1,000 total worldwide.
In the United Kingdom, the Derbyshire Redcap Club encourages the rearing and protection of the Redcap. In the U.S., commercial hatcheries such as McMurray and My Pet Chicken are working to help in the breed’s recovery.
The Remarkable Redcap
There is much more to the Redcap than its amazing foraging and egg-laying abilities. Its most distinctive feature is actually the one that gives the breed its name: its prominent rose comb.
This nubby comb can extend backward over the bird’s head—like a red cap—to a length of 3.5 inches and a width of 2.75 inches.
Another notable Redcap feature is that, even though the chicken lays white eggs, the earlobes are red, a trait typically associated with brown egg layers.
And Redcaps possess another noteworthy characteristic: longevity. If raised in a favorable environment, Redcaps can live up to 10 years or longer. These cold-hardy birds prefer free ranging to confinement, fly well, and are very active (but shy) around people.
There is only one variety, with deep-red to black feathers tipped with spangles. Adult males reach a weight of 7.5 pounds, while adult females reach 6 pounds. Redcap hens do not go broody and, due to their long lifespans, lay longer than other large-fowl hens.