Delaware Chicken: A Dual Purpose Heritage Breed

Delaware Chicken featured image

By Tasha Greer

Before the Cornish Cross, the Delaware was the meat chicken of choice. Fast to feather, four months to fatten, and incomparable flavor made this breed the perfect pasture-raised poultry option. Then, as industrialization turned away from free-range foragers in favor of factory-fed eating machines, interest in Delaware chickens declined. 

Today, thanks to conservation efforts, Delawares have been brought back from the brink of extinction. These dual-purpose birds remain on the Livestock Conservancy watch list. Also due to limited breeding stock, many hatcheries refer to this breed as threatened.

Help keep them in the safe zone by raising these delightful, Ark of Taste heritage breed favorites for eggs, meat, and companionship at home.

Delawares

In the 1940’s, George Ellis the owner of Indian River Hatchery in Ocean View, Delaware crossed Plymouth Rocks with New Hampshires to create the Silver Sports.[1] Generally the offspring were silver. However, some of the offspring were mostly white with light barring on the hackles and wing and tail tips. This kind of coloring is referred to as Columbian.  

With the help of Edmund Hoffmann, a student at the University of Delaware studying poultry and working at Indian River Hatchery, the Columbian colored offspring were then crossed to create an entirely new breed.

This new breed was originally called Indian Rivers after the hatchery. Later, the name was changed to its place of origin, Delaware. Delaware chickens were accepted in the American Poultry Association (APA) with established Standards of Perfection in 1952.[2] There are currently no accepted color varieties or bantams for this breed.

Delaware Breed Characteristics

The Delaware may not have a long list of color varieties available like many other preferred backyard breeds. But their bright white feathers and delicate black barring on the hackles and tail feathers do make them distinctive. They’re long keel and muscular thighs also give them a perky, upright, and even noble appearance.

Meat Production

Beyond color and stature, there is a lot of variation of breed characteristics among Delawares today. Because the Delaware line fell out of favor in the 1950’s, many of the Delaware breeding lines available are recreations of those original experiments conducted at Indian Rivers hatchery.

The original breed emphasis was for meat production. Those birds grew fast and feathered quickly. That enabled them to be put on pasture at a younger age to begin developing good meat quality.

Their white body feathers and light feather density made for an easy to clean carcass without any of those pesky black pin feathers to mar the appearance. They also had large muscular thighs with superior flavor.

Additionally, they were moderate layers of large brown eggs and were occasionally broody. This made them a good option for natural reproduction of a breed intended as a broiler chicken rather than an egg layer.[3]

Dual-Purpose

Today, when you read descriptions of Delawares, you often find a different story. Rather than the 100-150 eggs they were once known for, you can find reports that these chickens lay as many as 250-280 eggs per year. Additionally, these birds are often listed as layers with a secondary use as a meat bird.

Ornamental

In the past decade, the revival of interest in the Delaware breed has also kindled new poultry clubs and more frequent appearances at poultry exhibitions than is typical for a backyard broiler. As a result, there are new lines with extra emphasis on show quality feathers.[4]

More intricate barring on the hackles and black tail feathers are an ornamental focus. Additionally, show-quality Delawares seem to have thicker feathering all around giving them a fluffier appearance than Delaware chickens bred for utility.

Active Foragers

What seems to remain true across the various bloodlines is that these birds are active, intelligent foragers. Despite their white color which would normally make them more predator attractive, these pretty pasture-lovers are very aware of their surroundings. They’ve even been known to fight back against predators.

Given their excellent foraging skills, some breeders are even focusing on making the Delawares a non-hybrid alternative to the Freedom Rangers (a mainstay for pastured meat production). In my experience, whether on pasture or in a confined setting, Delawares spend a significant amount of time scouting out food sources and are first to arrive for treats. 

Size

Although Delaware chickens generally size up to the weights listed below, and are quick to feather, their fattening rate varies by bloodline. Meat production Delawares reach harvestable weights between 3-4 months. More showy lines, or egg production-oriented, Delawares can take longer to be harvestable as a meat source.

How much do Delaware chickens weigh?

  • Pullets:  5.5 lbs.
  • Hens: 6.5 lbs.
  • Cockerels: 7.5 lbs.
  • Cocks: 8.5 lbs.

Temperament

Given their notable predator resistance, you might expect Delawares to be less friendly than other breeds. But Delaware fans almost universally note their friendly demeanors.

What they lack in cuddliness, they make up for by being attentive and curious about your actions. They are also easy to coax onto new pasture with a handful of scratch.

In a mixed flock, they tend to be independent, but not adversarial. They often avoid rather than engage conflict. They often roost last which may be a protective behavior or a way to avoid pecking order issues that get resolved on the roost bar. Or perhaps, they just want a few more minutes to forage.

Delaware with other chicken breeds

Caring for Delaware

Delaware chicken hardiness is another one of those things up for debate. This too has a lot to do with the fact that new breed lines have different priorities than historical breed lines.

Health

Among the fast-maturing meat breed lines, these birds are healthy and low maintenance in the near-term leading up to processing. They don’t have any of the circulatory or lung problems associated with hybrid broiler meat breeds.

Additionally, they can begin breeding and laying eggs as early as 16 weeks. Some owners even report earlier egg production.

Unfortunately, that kind of early maturation can come at the cost of health problems later in life. When not processed for meat, this breed often times out well before the 5-year mark. If your goal is to keep a Delaware as a long-time layer and pet, then you will want to focus on Delaware lines bred for their ornamental and moderate egg-laying quantities.

Feather Problems

As I noted at the outset, the feather quality of Delaware chickens will depend on the focus of the breeder. Ornamental Delawares may have better quality feathers than commercial lines.

Most large hatchery offered Delawares, though, tend to feather quickly. The feathers are also less dense and more loosely attached. As such, this breed is prone to feather damage on the saddle area due to rooster attention. They also lose feathers easily to pecking or mite picking.

Bare-backed and bare-butted Delawares are common in mixed flocks that contain breeds known to bully. They are also common in breeding flocks with too many roosters to hens. 

For meat production, this light, loose feathering makes them easier to pick when processing. But when kept as egg layers, breeders, or pets, damaged or missing feathers negatively impact their overall health. They can be prone to sunburn. They may also require more cold and heat protection than fully feathered birds.

Delaware Feathers

Weather Protection

Delawares are generally very heat tolerant due to their light color and less dense feathering than other breeds. Like all chickens, they will need some shade and cool water on hot days. But they don’t seem to require any special care even though they are muscular birds used for meat production.

Some owners report them to be cold tolerant. However, in my experience I would not rate them as cold tolerant. In my North Carolina climate, they pick center roost positions in winter between fluffier birds or sleep in the nest boxes to stay warm.

Their single red combs also range in size from small to medium-large and are subject to frost damage.

Roost Recommendation

Delawares are active birds with dense muscles. As such, unlike other meat or large breeds such as the Jersey Giants or Cochins, they aren’t as prone to roost injuries. Standard roost ladders or 2-3 foot bars are perfect for this breed.

Roosters

The number of roosters required for breeding Delawares will depend on how you keep them.

In confinement, one rooster to every 10 hens will allow for fertility while reducing the risk of damage from feather loss. For free ranging on larger pastures, you may need to increase the rooster to hen ratio to 1 to 6. Alternatively, you can just arrange dates in an enclosed space once every 5-8 days.

Broodiness

Some descriptions indicate that Delawares go broody at times. I haven’t had any of mine go broody. Additionally, because they are so active, they may not have the patience to sit a nest consistently for 21 days.

If they do go broody, I recommend that you have a backup incubation plan just in case they leave the nest unattended too often.

Chicken Feed

Delawares are excellent foragers and can find significant amounts of food if given enough room to roam. However, for faster development and to ensure ideal health, offer free choice feed during the day. These birds will often forage for a while, then stop in for some supplemental feed, before heading out to forage again.

Pros and Cons of Raising Delawares

If you need a little help figuring out whether Delawares are right for you, let me offer you some pros and cons from my experience.

Pros

  • Excellent foragers
  • Good Egg Production
  • Potential for Flavorful Meat Production (depending on breeder)
  • Good predator resistance despite color

Cons

  • Lots of variation from breeder to breeder
  • Light feathering on back and bottom
  • Not the most productive layer or meat bird
  • Not likely to be good mothers

Overall, with the right breeding, Delawares make a good-pasture raised meat chicken option. They can also be elegant, active companions for a mixed flock with a large run.  

Delaware FAQs

There are a few more things you might find interesting about Delawares.

Are Delaware Chickens Delicious?

Even though not all Delawares grow to harvestable weights quickly, this breed is known for its rich flavored, lean carcasses with good thigh density. I’ve processed a few extra cockerels that were particularly decadent. They are also one of the heritage chicken breeds listed on the Slow Food Ark of Taste.[5] 

Do Delaware Eggs Taste Better?

There’s a rumor that Delaware chicken eggs taste better. The theory is that Delawares have better digestion because they’re so well suited to feeding themselves on pasture. That, in turn, leads to them producing more complexly flavored egg yolks.

I can’t confirm or deny this rumor. What I do know is that any hen who eats a diverse diet, instead of just formulated feed, will have different color and flavor profiles in their egg yolks.

So, it stands to reason that active foraging breeds like Delawares, with access to pasture, might have more complexity and variety in their egg yolk color and taste. Whether this makes the eggs taste “better” would depend on what they ate.

Delawares aren’t sex links. However, red sex-links are created by crossing Delaware hens to New Hampshire or Rhode Island Red roosters.

Be Delighted by Delawares

You may have to do a little extra research to track down Delaware breed lines with the qualities you need in a homestead chicken. However, whether you want a broiler, a layer, a pet, or a potential show bird, breeders working to save this once nearly extinct breed are out there. And no matter which of their wonderful qualities you favor, Delawares are sure to delight!

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.

References:
[1] https://www.purelypoultry.com/delaware-chickens-p-635.html
[2] https://amerpoultryassn.com/accepted-breeds-varieties/
[3] https://livestockconservancy.org/heritage-breeds/heritage-breeds-list/delaware-chicken/
[4] https://dev-backyardpoultry.iamcountryside.com/chickens-101/delaware-chicken-breed/
[5] https://www.fondazioneslowfood.com/en/ark-of-taste-slow-food/delaware-chicken/

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