Classes, Breeds, Varieties and Strains

Dr. John Skinner
1988 APA Yearbook

with permission from
SPPA Bulletin, 2000, 5(4):7

Chickens exist in many colors, sizes and shapes. There are more than 350 combinations of physical features. In order to be able to identify and classify each of these we have established a system of designations known as classes, breeds and varieties.

A class is a group of breeds originating in the same geographical area. The names themselves indicate the region where the breeds originated, such as Asiatic, Mediterranean, American. The breeds of chickens in the Standard are arranged first according to their class, and then alphabetically by breed names within each class. Lesser known classes, breeds and varieties are at the end of the text.

Breed means a group, each of which possesses a given set of physical features, such as body shape or type, skin color, carriage or station, number of toes and feathered or non-feathered shanks. If such an individual is mated to one of its own kind these features will be passed on to the offspring.

Variety means a sub-division of a breed. Differentiating characteristics include plumage color, comb type or presence of a beard and muffs. Examples exist in almost all breeds. In Plymouth Rocks, there are several colors, Barred, White, Buff, Partridge, etc. In each case the body shape and physical features should be identical. The color is the only difference and each of these colors is a separate variety. Another example is the Leghorn breed where most varieties exist in Single Comb and Rose Comb with all features other than the comb being identical.

Strains are families or breeding populations possessing common traits. They may be subdivisions of a breed or variety or may even be systematic crosses. However, a strain shows a relationship more exacting than that for others of similar appearance. Strains are the products of one person or one organization's breeding program. Many commercial strains exist. Such names as DeKalb, Hyline, Babcock and Shaver are organizations that have bred specific strains of chickens for specific purposes.

Most of the breeds and the varieties we know in the U.S. today were developed between 1875 and 1925. During that time the emphasis throughout the poultry world was on breeds and varieties. Success was measured in terms of the excellence of individual birds. As the commercial egg and poultry meat industries developed, the emphasis changed from the individual bird to the average of the entire flock. This caused some breeders to adapt intensive selection programs based on the performance of certain outstanding families while others worked on breed crosses and crosses of strains within a given breed. Today the commercial poultry industry is based almost 100% on the strain approach. However, the foundation breeders are constantly looking for additional material for gene pools. This must come from fanciers and hobbyists who maintain the various breeds for personal and esthetic reasons rather than strictly for the production of meat and eggs.

Bantams are the miniatures of the poultry world. The word bantam is the overall term for the more than 350 kinds of true breeding miniature chickens. They exist in almost every breed and variety that we see in large chickens. In addition, there are some kinds of bantams that have no large counterpart. Bantams are complete miniatures raised primarily for exhibition, a purpose for which they excel. They are classified for show purposes by comb type, whether or not they have feathers on their legs, and by the game varieties. Bantams have the same requirements for shape, color and physical features as do the large fowl. They should weight about 1/5 of their large counterparts. Bantams are kept for their beauty, exhibition, and as pets. They can also be quite useful for the production of eggs and their meat is fine-grained and nutritious. Often bantams can be kept in areas too small for regular chickens.

The American Poultry Association issues a book called The American Standard of Perfection. This book contains a complete description of each of the more than 300 recognized breeds and varieties. Such things as size, shape, color and physical features are described and illustrated in detail. [Editor's note: Not all breeds or varieties are recognized by the Standard of Perfection. The American Poultry Association can be contacted at 133 Millville Street, Mendon, MA 01756, or phone 508-473-8769].

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