Buckeye Chicken: Mrs. Metcalf’s Marvelous Mongrels

Buckeye Chicken featured image

By Tasha Greer

When Mrs. Nettie Metcalf started raising chickens for extra spending money, she never imagined she’d become the first American woman to enter a new breed of chickens into the poultry standards. But when this unique breed, once called the “Metcalf Mongrels” by a neighbor, were accepted in the American Poultry Association (APA) standards in 1905, she made history.

Her beautiful dual-purpose breed does somewhat resemble the Buckeye nut they are named for in terms of color and plumpness. But unlike that poisonous fruit, Buckeye chickens aren’t just decorative. They’re a terrific source of delicious eggs and meat.

As natives of Ohio, the buckeye state for which they are named, these chickens are also well-adapted to both extreme cold and moderate heat.  

Buckeye front view

Buckeye Chicken History

Nettie Metcalf’s first-hand, and very spunky, account of what led her to create a new breed of chickens can be read on the American Buckeye Club’s website. As a quick overview, though, this breed came about from Nettie’s dissatisfaction with other breeds.

Nettie found the brown Leghorns too lean and didn’t like their seasonal laying habits. She liked the Black Langshan but didn’t appreciate the black pin feathers. She had good luck with the barred Plymouth Rocks. However, the feed to profit ratio was underwhelming.

In her attempts to breed a better chicken, she crossed the barred Plymouth Rocks with Cochins and ended up with fat, lazy fowl that didn’t suit her purpose. After that she mixed in black breasted, red game birds.

These were supposed to breed true to type. However, her poultry crosses expressed a wide range of different breed traits including the pea combs that had to have come from the Cornish/Indian Game birds. Those accidentally introduced pea combs would come to be one of the defining qualities of her breed.

Also, when Nettie began her breeding efforts, red chickens were rare. So, she selected for that color in her breeding program. By the time she’d perfected her chickens, the Rhode Island Reds (RIRs) had already become popular.   

Initially, Nettie was advised by other poultry people to categorize her red birds as RIRs when selling or showing them. And she did sell a fair number as “pea combed RIRs”. The problem was that some of the distinctive qualities of her flock, kept her chickens from meeting the breed standards for an RIR. That made selling them harder than necessary.

Ultimately, she applied to have her chickens accepted as a unique breed. After three years of proving her flock bred true to type, and showing that they were sufficiently distinct from the RIRs, the Buckeye was accepted by the American Poultry Association as a new breed.

Nettie Metcalf, not only made a name for her bodacious birds, she also earned her place in history as the first female breeder to have a breed accepted into the APA standards.

Buckeye Breed Characteristics

At first glance, Buckeyes still bring to mind the incredibly popular Rhode Island Red chickens. However, Buckeyes have unique features that also make them easy to distinguish.

The most obvious and noticeable trait is the single pea comb that sits nearly flush with the head. This feature is frostbite resistant and makes the Buckeye an even better choice for cold climates than the single comb RIRs.  

The Buckeye body shape is also distinct [1]. The RIRs look like rectangles on legs. Buckeyes, by contrast, have a more rounded shape, similar to the Cornish chicken breed. Even their beaks are slightly rounded.

In terms of feathering, RIRs and Buckeyes have the tight feathering of most American class birds. However, the Buckeye feathers hang a bit looser around the legs, like the Cochins used in the initial breeding process. That gives them a slightly fluffier appearance than the RIRs.

Between the feathering and body shape differences, the Buckeye has an overall stouter, fuller look. Additionally, because they have such heavily muscled thighs when they mature, they feel heavier than they look when you pick them up.

Buckeye feather barring
Buckeye feather barring

What Colors Are Buckeye Chickens?

At present, there is only one color option for the Buckeye breed. That’s the original dark red color, with barring on the back and a darker colored undercoat than the RIRs.

Historically, the RIRs were more of a golden red, rather than brown red. Whereas the Buckeyes were a rich mahogany, which also made them easy to tell apart at first glance.

Today, though, many RIR breed lines have the mahogany, dark red feathering similar to the Buckeyes. That may be in part because some of Nettie Metcalf’s chickens were originally sold as RIRs. Those early “Metcalf Mongrels” may have been bred into the RIR lines before the Buckeye breed was perfected and accepted as a new breed standard.  

Full-Size and Bantam Buckeyes

Buckeyes technically come in both full and bantam sizes. However, I couldn’t find anyone selling bantam Buckeyes on the forums. If you happen to know any bantam Buckeye breeders, please share that information in the comments.

How much do Buckeye’s weigh?

  • Pullets: 5.5 lbs.
  • Hens: 6.5 lbs.
  • Cockerels: 8.0 lbs.
  • Cocks: 9.0 lbs.

Temperament

Buckeyes are the preferred breed of many homesteaders and for good reason. Like us, they’re curious, independent, intelligent, adaptable, and able to look out for themselves. They are front and center for treats and feed. But they’re also willing to go out and get their own meals if allowed access to pasture.

Though confident, Buckeyes aren’t usually aggressive. When housed with bossier breeds, like the Plymouth Rocks and the Rhode Island Reds, Buckeyes may occasionally get bullied. But in most cases, their muscular frame makes them a formidable foe.

This breed is also noted for not being feather pickers even when they are at the top of the pecking order. Yet, they do still peck the combs of other chickens when they get irritated.

Caring for Buckeye Chickens

Buckeyes are a hardy breed and can adapt well to different climates and different housing and run types. However, they are very active and can be prone to health and behavior problems if you don’t give them enough space or entertainment when confined.

Overall, they are best used on protected pasture or in spacious runs.

Heat and Cold Protection

Buckeyes are one of the most cold-hardy chickens in the American chicken class. They will only require heat in extreme conditions. With deep bedding they can tolerate extended freezing conditions.

Buckeyes don’t mind snow or storms. They want out of the coop, no matter the conditions. In snowy weather, you may have to clear them a path to give them outdoor access so they don’t get snowbound trying to make their own.

Buckeyes can also take heat and humidity if you offer shade and cold water. They like to stand in kiddie pools on hot days to cool off.

Predator Protection

Buckeye chickens are very predator aware, alert, and intelligent. But they are also brave, adventurers and can sometimes get themselves in trouble. Make sure they know their boundaries to keep them safe.

Juvenile Buckeye
Juvenile Buckeye

As juveniles, Buckeyes will fly to freedom if you don’t offer them enough room and entertainment to satiate their spirit of adventure. Keep them on protected pasture or in an enclosed run until they size up. Once they mature, they are easy to control with fencing that’s 4 feet or taller. 

Learn more: Tips for Protecting Your Livestock from Predators

Roost Recommendation

Young Buckeyes like to roost high and will often aim for the rafters if you’ve got them. As they age though, because of their rounded shape and their meaty thighs, making them use low roosts, 18-24 inches high, will prevent leg injuries and bumblefoot.

Buckeye Roosters

Buckeye roosters are generally known to be mild mannered and easy to manage. But there are a lot of outliers with this breed. There are quite a few stories of Buckeyes attacking strangers and predators and becoming more aggressive as they age.

Be prepared to cull any aggressive roosters. Also, use caution when allowing strangers near your Buckeye roosters until you are certain of their disposition.  

A ratio of 1 rooster for every 10 hens works well for this breed.

Broodiness

The Livestock Conservancy rates Buckeyes as broody and being good mothers. Personally, in a mixed flock, with shared nests and daily egg collection, I haven’t had any try to go broody. You may need to offer extra nest boxes and slow down on egg collection to encourage broodiness for this breed.

Buckeye Egg Production

Buckeyes lay between 120-170 eggs per year on average. They take longer to get to point of lay than most other popular backyard chicken breeds. Expect to wait 6 months, or longer, for your first egg.

Though they’re later to start, Buckeyes have excellent laying longevity. Their eggs start out medium-sized and become significantly larger as the hens age. If you cull non-productive hens, you may not have to cull as early when keeping Buckeyes.

Some accounts indicate that Buckeyes lay well in winter. Mine don’t lay through most of winter, but they do start laying again earlier than other breeds.

As such, if you normally feed cracked corn to your flock as a warming device in winter, you may want to skip it for Buckeyes. Since their pea combs keep them warmer, they can be prone to winter weight gain when fed corn. And fat hens won’t be in good condition to start laying early.

Buckeye versus Duck Egg
Buckeye versus Duck Egg

Buckeye Chicken Meat Production

Buckeyes, particularly extra roosters, are also a very useful meat bird. They will take at least 6 months to get to a reasonable processing size. If you wait to process until 7 or 8 months, they’ll have significantly more muscling.

Buckeyes aren’t as easy to pluck as hybrid meat breeds, so plan to spend a little more time plucking. But the extra effort is worth it for their dark, decadent, and easy to carve carcass.

Pros and Cons of Raising Buckeye Chickens

If you need help deciding whether or not to try Buckeyes, consider these pros and cons.

Pros

  • Intelligent, Alert, and Active
  • Great laying longevity
  • Good meat production
  • Cold-hardy and healthy

Cons

  • Not ideal for total confinement
  • Long time to point of lay
  • 6+ months to processing for an ideal carcass size

Buckeyes are a fantastic dual-purpose breed for both egg and meat production. If eggs are your focus, though, other breeds will be better suited.

Buckeye Chicken FAQs

Here are a few more interesting things to know about Buckeyes.

Mad Mousers

Buckeye chickens are well-known for their ability to hunt and kill mice. Some people consider them as useful for this purpose as barn cats. Mine have all loved to race about catching grasshoppers mid-air. Sadly, they’ve also enjoyed far more lizard tails than I’d like to think about!

Dinosaur Drawl

Buckeye roosters are also known for their dinosaur-like vocal stylings. They can screech and roar. Their range of sounds is probably broader and more complex than most other chicken breeds.  

I’ve only kept Buckeye hens and they’ve all been on the quiet side of the chicken chatter spectrum. But the range of rooster sounds can sometimes be so unique and alarming that they might be problematic in some settings.

Mrs. Metcalf’s Buckeye Beauties

Mrs. Nettie Metcalf may not have set out to create a pretty pea-combed, cold-hardy homestead chicken that would stand the test of time. She just wanted a better broiler with enough egg production to keep her in pocket money. But her beautiful Buckeyes are definitely one of the best heritage, homestead breeds available today.

Buckeye pea comb
Buckeye pea comb

Are you thinking about getting chickens or do you already have a flock? Check out >> A Beginner’s Guide to Chickens.

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Tasha Greer is an Epicurean Homesteader and author of Grow Your Own Spices and Weed-Free Gardening.

Buckeye Chicken: Origin, Raising Tips, and More!

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