Backyard Chickens

Dual Purpose Breeds

The Rhode Island Red chicken is one of America's best known breed of fowl. It is a dual purpose bird, recognised not only as a table bird but also for its ability to lay a good number of quality eggs. It is also popular as an exhibition bird.

Rhode Island Red Hen

The Rhode Island Red chicken is the state bird of Rhode Island. Only three USA state birds are a species not endemic to the United States.


The Rhode Island Red was developed in the New England states of Rhode Island and Massachusetts. It gets its deep colour and hardy constitution from the Malay fowls which played a part in the development of the breed. Shanghai, Java and Brown Leghorns were other breeds that were used to develop the Rhode Island Red. Both single and rose combs were common, another influence from the Malays. A black-breasted red Malay cock is on display at the Smithsonian Institution as the 'father' of the Rhode Island Red chicken. A monument was erected to the Rhode Island Red in 1925 in Adamsville which is part of Little Compton, Rhode Island. A second monument was erected in 1954 commemorating the farmers who grew and developed Rhode Island Reds in their commercial enterprises.

The American Poultry Association admitted the single combed Rhode Island Red to its Standard of Perfection in 1904. Rose combed birds were accepted in 1905. After the 1940s the Rhode Island Red was selectively bred for better egg production, becoming smaller, lighter in colour and less inclined to go broody.

Many modern hybrid breeds have Rhode Island Reds in their ancestry. The New Hampshire is one breed that owes its existence to the Rhode Island Red.

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The Rhode Island Red chicken varies from rust coloured to a maroon almost bordering on black. Black colouring in the main tail and wing feathers is acceptable but exhibition birds should not show black (smuttiness) in the body feathers. The plumage of birds exposed to long periods of sunlight may fade. The feet are yellow and the beaks a reddish-brown. The eyes are a reddish orange.

Cocks weigh in at 8 1/2 pounds and hens at 6 1/2 pounds. Although there should be no difference, the rose comb variety is often slightly smaller than the single comb variety.

Rhode Island Reds are tough and resistant to disease. They are good foragers. Although they will continue to lay quite well during cold weather, the tips of the combs may suffer from frostbite. They are excellent layers and may produce 150 to 300 eggs per annum. The eggs are light to dark brown. Because it is such a good layer and also because the pin feathers are so dark, it is favoured more as a layer than a meat bird.


Rhode Island Reds have basically stable temperaments. They are friendly and docile, especially with people they know. Some become aggressive towards young children particularly if they have been teased or provoked. They will accept being confined to a yard although they do well on free range too.

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Rhode Island Reds will go broody although this trait has been partially bred out of the best egg-laying strains.


The old type Rhode Island Red is listed by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy as 'watch', meaning that there are fewer than 2,500 annual North American registrations. The preservation of old or 'heritage' breeds is important because of their hardiness and genetic diversity. Rhode Island Red breeders have sacrificed size (it is now smaller), its dark colour and its broodiness in their bid to develop a better egg-laying chicken.

The 'old-type' Rhode Island Red is promoted by Slow Foods USA as having a beautiful rich flavour best released by stewing.

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