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Plymouth Rocks: An American Classic
The Extraordinary "Ordinary" Chicken
When most people think of a typical chicken, they tend to imagine a plump, white hen scratching around in a barnyard. They think of a bird that does double-duty as a laying hen and a meat bird, and one who might reasonably lead a brood of chicks around the farm.
There is only one breed of chicken that ticks all of these boxes of "normalcy", and that is the plymouth rock--an all-American breed that was developed in the United States in the mid-1800's. Up until World War II, when cornish cross and leghorns began to usurp them, plymouth rocks were the most kept and bred variety of chicken in the United States, populating family farms and backyard coops from coast to coast and everywhere in between.
The Secret of their Success
For plymouth rocks, it's not hard to see why they held dominance over the American poultry market for so long. Although smaller than the cornish cross chickens we're used to today, they are nonetheless hefty birds when they are full grown--the roosters especially. The hens are dependable layers, producing a fair amount of large, brown eggs for their keepers, and because broodiness has not been completely bred out of them, they will occasionally rear chicks to add to the flock. They bear confinement well, but are also willing to free range, and their personalities tend to be docile and even friendly*. Throw in the fact that you can use them to produce sexlinked chicks (something I'll discuss later), and they are all around the perfect utility bird for a small operation that needs their chickens to do several jobs at once.
*all chickens are individuals and may develop their own personalities that conflict with the breed norm. It is impossible to guarantee that any chicken will be especially friendly or docile based on its breed.
Diverse and Beautiful
Like most breeds of chicken, plymouth rocks come in a wide variety of colors, including partridge, buff, white, blue, silver penciled, and--of course--barred. Barred rocks are perhaps the most common, their striking black-and-white stripes setting them apart from other chickens. Newcomers to chicken keeping are often dazzled by the "zebra striped" chickens, and children in particular seem to find them fascinating. Seasoned chicken keepers appreciate the "almost sexlink" quality of barred rock chicks, the lighter feather color of cockerels making them easy to spot at just a week or two of age. The other color varieties are just as striking, each in their own, unique way. A white rock rooster looks almost artificial with this gleaming, snow-white feathers and vibrant red comb and wattle, while a partridge rock hen is a work of art with her intricate patterns of brown and black etched on each individual feather. One could hardly be blamed for wanting to have a specimen of each color variety in their flock, representing the diversity and beauty of the plymouth rock breed.
Although there are exceptions to the rule, plymouth rocks are generally intelligent, docile, and calm birds, which is a big plus considering their size. The roosters tend to be diligent and watchful, finding food for their hens, keeping a lookout for predators, and maintaining peace in their flock. Hens tend to be friendly, active foragers, and--when the mood strikes them--doting mothers. They would be a good choice if you were striving for a flock of pet chickens, or raising chickens for educational purposes, but as always--chickens are individuals. Both the friendliest and the nastiest birds in my flock have been plymouth rocks, so for best results, seek out a local breeder with good stock to ensure you're getting the best shot at friendly, well-tempered birds.
Using Plymouth Rocks to Breed Sexlinks
One of the most fascinating traits of barred plymouth rocks is their gender-specific barring. Barred rocks themselves are not sexlinked, meaning you can't tell female from male by coloring alone when they hatch, but because their barring gene is connected to the chromosomes that determine gender, you can use barred rock hens to breed sexlinked chicks. These hybrid chicks will inherit the barring gene from their mother only if they are males, and since barred chicks hatch out with a distinctive white dot on their heads, this makes males easy to spot on day one. This is an incredibly useful tool for those who want to hatch out their own chicks, but need to be able to distinguish male from female as early as possible.
To breed sexlinks from barred rocks, all a breeder needs to do is put barred rock hens in a breeding situation with a non-barred rooster. Almost any color will do, but fair warning, some colors are dominant and will "cover up" the barring, making them unsuitable. For guaranteed success, you can use any red rooster, such as rhode island reds, new hampshire reds, etc. These roosters have a color gene that is recessive to the barring gene, making them excellent candidates for sexlink projects, and their own productive natures--large bodies and abundant eggs--mean their chicks will grow up to be solid producers as well. I have successfully bred sexlinks by crossing a barred rock hen to an exchequer leghorn rooster, but the resulting offspring are much leaner than you probably want if you plan to raise the birds for meat.
So how does it work? Well, unlike with human beings where females are XX and males are XY, it's basically reversed in chickens. The chromosome that determines whether the chick with be male or female is present in the mother, not the father. With barred rocks, their distinctive coloring is actually attached to the chromosomes that doubles up in males, which is why males are "double barred" and lighter in color. In hens, there is only one copy of this gene, which she will pass on only to her male offspring. Her female offspring will inherit the "odd" chromosome that doesn't have the barring gene, and thus, will not be barred unless they inherited a barring gene from their father.
If I've made your head spin, don't worry. You don't have to know how it works exactly, only that it does. If you cross a red rooster with a barred hen, you'll get sexlinked chicks: the females will be black, while the males will have a white dot on their heads. If you have some other color variety of rooster, like a black copper marans, a welsummer, or even a splash ameraucana, you could try that, too. I have successfully bred sexlink chicks from an exchequer leghorn/barred rock cross, and I plan on breeding "blue sexlinks" in the near future by crossing barred rocks to ameraucanas. Odds are if you've made it this far already, you probably won't mind a little experimentation!
One final point to make on the subject of sexlinks, in case it isn't obvious, is that the sexlink trait won't continue in a second generation. This means you can't take a sexlinked rooster and breed him to a sexlinked hen and get more sexlinked chicks. For this particular combination, you need a barred hen and an unbarred rooster, and of course, your sexlinked chicks will be the opposite. You will have a rooster with a copy of the barring gene, and a hen with no barring. Breeding them together will produce a lovely but unpredictable mix of barred and unbarred chicks with no bearing at all on their gender... Although hypothetically, you could select from the third generation males and females that would once again work for a sexlink breeding combination, since some of those hens would be barred and some of the roosters wouldn't be.
Are Plymouth Rocks Right for You?
It's hard to imagine anyone who wouldn't benefit from having plymouth rock chickens in their flock, because the breed is so incredibly versatile and has such a good temperament. About the only situation in which they wouldn't be ideal is if you are planning on focusing exclusively on just eggs or just meat, and you want your birds as efficient in these tasks as possible. As a dual-purpose breed, plymouth rocks are fair at both jobs, but would be outperformed by breeds developed specifically for their individual task.
Plymouth rocks may also be too "ordinary" for some adventurous chicken keepers. Although they are not as popular as they were in their heyday, they are still a fairly common variety of chicken, and if you want something more exotic and rare, they may not do it for you. You can compensate for this by opting for a more uncommon color type, such as silver penciled or blue, but the standard white or barred rocks may be too ho-hum for the connoisseur of rare chicken breeds.
Ultimately, if you want a chicken that is good at producing both eggs and meat, is happy to free range or be confined, has a good temperament, and will occasionally go broody, then plymouth rocks are exactly what you need.
Breed: Plymouth Rock
Origins: United States
Egg Color: Brown
Body type: Heavy
Purpose: Dual purpose
Feather type: Slightly loose feathered
Personality: Docile, friendly, even-tempered
Bears confinement: Yes