Baseball, Apple Pie & Rhode Island Red Chickens

By Kate Hunter, Virginia

Rhode Island Reds are an unmistakable breed of chicken, even by non-poultry fanciers. They are one of the most popular breeds in the United States for good reason. The originators of the Rhode Island Red sought to create a breed that could lay a decent number of eggs, yet dress out pleasantly for the table.

The Rhode Island Reds are great layers of brown eggs and are considered by many to be the best layers of the dual-purpose breeds, raised for both eggs and meat. They can lay 200 to 300 eggs per year beginning as early as 6 months of age. The hens of this breed weigh in excess of 6 pounds and the roosters in excess of 8 pounds. The Rhode Island Red is known for its strength and its ability to lay continuously with minimal feed and housing. Rhode Island Red hens are generally quiet and rarely broody. Some roosters may seem more aggressive than those of other breeds. Few dual-purpose breeds can match the egg production of the Rhode Island hen.

Heritage Rhode Island Red
The heritage Rhode
Island Red. Photos by Kate Hunter.

History of the Rhode Island Red

“Rhodies,” as they are affectionately called by backyard chicken enthusiasts and farmers alike, started in Massachusetts and Rhode Island in the 1880s and 1890s. They are as American as baseball, but were developed by breeding the Malay, a lanky Asiatic bird thought to hail from northern Pakistan, and the Cochin, from Shanghai, with the Java and brown Leghorn chicken breeds. Rhode Island Reds come with single and rose combs.

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The single-combed Rhode Island Red was accepted into the American Poultry Association’s Standard of Perfection in 1904 and the rose-combed were acknowledged a year later in 1905.

The Rhode Island Red’s appearance matched with its production ability helped the breed to grow quickly and become one of the most popular breeds in America. Since the 1940s, the Rhode Island Red has been bred specifically for increased egg production, which has resulted in a smaller, lighter-shaded, and less broody chicken than the “old-sort” Rhode Island Reds, which are bigger, darker, and more broody. As farmers seek to enhance the Rhode Island Red to meet increasingly demanding industry standards, the heritage type are becoming less common.

Rhode Island Red APA Breed Standards

The American Poultry Association holds standards in all areas of the Rhode Island Red including its shape, color and weight.

The Rhode Island Red has a moderately large comb set firmly on the head. With the single comb, there should be five points that are higher in the center and the rose combs should be covered in small rounded knobs. Their beak is medium length with a slight curve. Their faces are clean with soft, wrinkle-free skin, large prominent eyes, medium wattles, and oblong ear lobes. The Rhode Island Red’s head is fairly deep and medium in size, usually flat on top. The neck is mid length and full feathered. The male Rhode Island Red’s hackles are very prominent, but not closely feathered and cover the shoulders. The female has a full, well-rounded breast. The Rhode Island Red’s backs are carried horizontally and are broad leading to a medium length tail that should be carried at a twenty degree angle on males and a 10-degree angle on females. Any more is considered an undesirable trait according to the APA’s Standard of Perfection.

The male’s saddle is broad and should blend into the tail with medium sickles extending slightly beyond main tail feathers. The Rhode Island Red’s wings are fairly large, carried horizontally and the fronts are covered by breast feathers on the females. Overall the body and fluff of a Rhode Island Red is full and oblong with the feathers carried closely. The broadness of the back gives the Rhode Island Red its characteristic brick shape. The Rhode’s legs are set well apart with smooth thighs and shanks. Their four toes are straight, well spread, and medium in length.

As for color, the Rhode Island Red has a bright red face including the comb, wattles and ear lobes. The beak and the bay of the eyes have a reddish tint. The plumage is a lustrous red with a slight ticking of black around the neck at the tips of the neck feathers only.

The front of the neck is supposed to be a rich dark red, but we are seeing many Rhode Island Reds lacking these feathers or, as in the males, having a greenish tint, lacing, or stripes in these neck feathers. This is not a desirable quality by APA standards. The neck feathers should be a rich, dark-red color that should be seen on the saddle, breast, body, fluff, back,and undercolor as well. Overall, the plumage, including the wings, should be a lustrous, rich, dark red except where black is specified without contrast in color between any of the sections of the body so everything blends together well in a high sheen giving a glossy effect to the bird. The main tail on an APA Rhode Island Red should be black and have greenish black sickles on the males. The Rhodies legs and toes should be yellow tinged with reddish horn. Even more desirable is a line of pigment down the sides of the shanks and extending to the tips of the toes.

The APA’s standard for weight of a Rhode Island Red rooster is 8.5 pounds  and a hen should weigh 6.5 pounds. A cockerel should weigh 7.5 pounds and a pullet should weigh in at 5.5 pounds. Some breeders will purposely increase the weights of their Rhode Island Reds by a pound to produce a more substantial egg, but that would be a disqualifying feature to the APA standards.

The weights for an APA standard bantam Rhode Island Red is a lot lower than that of the large fowl. The roosters should weigh in at 34 ounces and hens at 30 ounces. Bantam cockerels should weight 30 ounces and pullets 26 ounces. It is acceptable to exceed the weight limits in bantam Rhodes by two ounces, but four ounces or more will be a disqualifier. The weight should be kept as close to the standard to maintain the characteristic brick shape.

Some breeders feel it is best to hatch bantams between March and mid-April to get the smallest birds and claim hatching bantams in December or January leads to birds that are far too large to hold up to the Standards of Perfection.

Instant disqualifiers for Rhode Island Reds to the American Poultry Association’s Standard of Perfection include any white feathers showing on the outer plumage, any stubs or feathers between the toes, diseased birds, white ear lobes, wry tail feathers, down on the shanks, crooked backs or beaks, lopped combs, feathers having any problems with their quills, side sprigs on the comb, and wings that do not fold well or slipped wing as it is best known.

Production Versus Heritage

As seen from examining the American Poultry Association’s Standard of Perfection, there is an obvious difference between the Rhode Island Reds they describe and the Rhodies on the market today. This is where the distinction between a production, or commercial, Rhode Island Red and a heritage Rhode Island Red comes from.

A production Red is a hybrid of New Hampshires and Rhode Island Reds, among other breeds including Leghorns. Most chicken enthusiasts are not aware of how far expelled from the first model the breed has gone. There are a couple of devoted breeders of the heritage Rhode Island Reds, but most Reds available are not of the heritage type and not just because of appearance either. By definition, heritage chickens have adjusted to differing climates, enabling them to have a productive outdoor lifestyle and reproduce naturally. Most of the production Reds are not bred in such a fashion and would not be able to carry the term “heritage” with their name.

The American chicken industry was founded on five breeds of chicken, one of which was the Rhode Island Red because of its production abilities. The industry moved toward increased quantity rather than maintaining quality breed standards and began breeding birds based on higher egg production and faster growth rates. In doing so, the business that made Rhode Island Reds acclaimed in the first place, now parted ways with the APA standards for this breed. Around the late 1930s up to 1944, the heritage Rhode Island Reds were replaced by a lighter colored chickens lacking the dark tail feathers of their predecessors because they were able to lay up to 275 eggs per year; whereas, the heritage type was said to lay between 150 and 175 eggs per year. This was the conception and the motivation for development of the production Red and the foundation for the everlasting debate as to who is the real Rhode Island Red.

Kate Hunter is a repurposing guru and an expert on organic farming. When she’s not working on the family’s organic farm, Hunter Farm, she makes and sells natural beauty products and upcycled clothing in her Etsy shop Turnip Mims. Kate keeps up with politics and the latest on sustainable farming. She is a mother of three and spends her time baking, taking pictures, canning, reading, writing, farming, and raising heritage breed chickens, of course.


The Red Club Chronicle by The Rhode Island Red Club of America; The Rhode Island Red Journal by A. G. Studier; The Livestock Conservancy; The American Poultry Association

Standard-bred Rhode Island Reds, Rose and Single Comb: Their Practical Qualities; the Standard Requirements; how to Judge Them; how to Mate and Breed for Best Results by Dwight Edward Hale[/paywall]

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