By Tasha Greer
Polydactylism is a genetic mutation that results in extra fingers or toes. In most cases, it’s a natural accident. However, for the ancient chicken breed called the Dorkings, it’s a defining breed characteristic.
In fact, this delectable five-toed breed even made (ancient) history for their delicate and distinctive meat quality. A prominent agricultural writer and historian during the reign of Julius Caesar, named Lucius Junius Moderatus Columella, documented the unique deliciousness of the Dorkings in his collected works De re rustica or “On Rural Affairs”.
But please don’t be daunted by their ancient pedigree or repute as a refined table bird. Dorkings also make incredibly sweet polydactyl pets for almost any backyard flock.
Dorking-like chickens date back to at least when Julius Caesar ruled the Roman Empire. However, the details of their precise origin is unknown.
It’s possible that they were bred in Italy before they were taken to England. Alternatively, they may be near relatives of the five-toed, Belgian and French breed, the Ardennes/Ardennais.
Today, they are known as an English breed, named after the market town of Dorking. The name Dorking comes from the Saxon word ‘Dorchingas’. The town was settled by the Romans around 43 A.D. and gained renowned as a market center for the surrounding villages due to the fine five-clawed fowl sold there.
Despite their ambiguous origins, chickens similar to our modern day Dorkings were popular for nearly two thousand years before they became endangered by the rise of the factory farmed broiler. Now this ancient landrace breed needs a renaissance to ensure its future.
Dorking Breed Characteristics
All Dorkings have five toes. Like the dewclaw in some dog breeds, the extra toes don’t seem to have any special utility. However, Dorkings born without the additional digits are generally believed to have inferior meat quality.
As such, historically, chicken buyers used the fifth toe as a mark of distinction to help them pick out the tastiest chickens at market. At one point, five-toed chicken meat was so highly prized that breeders sold only dead birds. That way buyers couldn’t use live chickens sold for meat as breeding stock to start their own flocks.
Key Body Features
A boxy body, well-developed breast, extra meatiness around the wishbone, and short legs with plump thighs are all considered distinguishing qualities of a Dorking. White flesh and high meat to bone and offal ratios are also key.
White, clean legs are considered essential for most color options. However, in some color variations dark legs are also common.
These birds have short, hard body feathers that are relatively easy to pluck. Roosters and hens also have elongated tail feathers. Those features may be the result of crossbreeding with Old English Game birds.
Most Dorking breeders agree that either the single comb or rose comb is an acceptable quality for a Dorking even though the breed standards don’t yet include all the comb/color combos. For single combs, these can be medium to large in size and may be floppy.
Color and Comb Varieties
In the first edition of the American Poultry Association (APA) standards of perfection, in 1874, three varieties of Dorkings were accepted: the White, Silver Gray, and Colored. The White variety was accepted with a rose comb, while the Silver Gray and Colored were accepted with a single comb.
In 1995, both the rose and single-combed Red variety of Dorkings were admitted. The red color is believed to be the original and oldest color. But it’s now rare.
In 1998, the Cuckoo variety was also accepted with a rose comb. Additionally, bantams of the Rose Comb White, Single Comb Colored, and Single Comb Silver Gray varieties are also accepted.
There also many other Dorking colors available from specialty breeders including various shades of cuckoo, birchen, gray and golden mixes, and black.
Full-Size and Bantams
Full-size Dorkings can be bought from hatcheries and specialty breeders. Bantam Dorkings are typically only available through poultry forums and breeder directories if you’re willing to search for them.
How much do Dorking chickens weigh?
- Pullets: 6 lbs.
- Hens: 7 lbs.
- Cockerels: 8 lbs.
- Cocks: 9 lbs.
Bantam Dorking weights can vary significantly.
But the following is a rough idea of an average weight.
- Pullets: 28 oz.
- Hens: 32 oz.
- Cockerel: 32 oz.
- Rooster: 34 oz.
Historically, family-friendly chicken breeds were beloved as a meat source because they stayed close to home and came when called. That made them easy to pick up and kill for fresh eating. Not having to wrangle them on to the chopping block also kept the meat tender.
Today though, chickens like the Dorkings, that stand at our feet waiting to be picked up, seem more like pets than dinner. And Dorkings do in fact make great pets!
They are one of the friendliest, sweetest breeds I’ve kept. Yet, for homesteaders who want to raise meat birds the way pre-industrial farming families did, the Dorking’s docile disposition really does set them apart as a standout option.
They only lay about 100-150 medium-sized white to cream colored eggs (and less if they go broody). But they can sit their own nests and raise their own young. That way you won’t need to incubate eggs or brood your own meat supply.
Dorkings also like to stay close to the house or follow you around the homestead. That makes them wonderful yard foragers to keep down pest and insect pressure in the areas you inhabit. It also makes it easy to toss them your table or harvest scraps.
Caring for Dorkings
Dorkings are good yard foragers that don’t stray far from the coop (or ancient courtyard). Beware, they are powerful scratchers. Don’t let them loose in your just planted garden. Under your olive grove, or in your backyard orchard, they make for wonderful pest control and weed and seed gleaners.
This breed does much better on a mixed diet of foraged foods, table scraps, whole grains, and some supplemental feed rather than just pellets or crumbles. Offer them free choice chicken feed along with lots of fresh forage and your homestead leftovers.
These birds were bred for moderate climates. They can withstand some cold and some heat. But in cold or hot climates, you’ll need to offer them ways to stay comfortable with heat sources and deep bedding or cool water and lots of shade.
Also, single combed birds will be more susceptible to frost-bite in sub-freezing climates.
Dorkings love to free range. Keep in mind though, they aren’t fast runners. They rarely fly. They’re also more people oriented, than predator aware.
To keep them safe, you will need to plan for predator protection. Nighttime predator proof shelter, electric fences, protected runs, or supervised foraging in a fenced backyard will be necessary for their safety.
This breed is not ideal for confinement in small coops. Their lengthy tail feathers, dangling spare toes, and light feathering can be hazards in close quarters. Give them proper spacing of a few feet per bird at night on the roost. Also, give lots of room in the run or time to run in the yard whenever possible.
Roost and Nest Recommendation
Due to their short legs, this breed has a notable propensity for foot injuries from high roosts. Roosts lower than two feet are ideal. Also, offering easy ways up and down to elevated nest boxes is important to avoid injury or increased risk of bumblefoot.
Their extra toe is also a hanging hazard that can get caught up in things like nets or bale twine. Keep the roosting and nesting areas clear of potential entanglements.
Dorking roosters are generally docile and even friendly. Though, as with any rooster, some can be territorial, protective, and unwelcoming to strangers.
Hens are very submissive to roosters. They also have light feathering on their saddle area and tender skin on their backs. Stick to a ratio of 1 rooster to 10 hens to limit damage and keep your layers healthy.
Dorking hens are likely to go broody in the right conditions. If they do, they tend to be good, nurturing mothers who will raise out their young for longer than average.
To increase the odds for broodiness, offer several private nesting areas for them to choose from. Also, once they start to sit, keep sassier breeds away from the area so they don’t get bullied off their clutch of eggs.
The qualities that make Dorkings a desirable meat breed (like docility, light feathering, and tender skin) also make them more susceptible to the hazards of bullying. Keep them with other tender meat breeds such as the Crevecoeur, Sussex, or Delawares. Or give them extra space and escape routes so they can steer clear of more aggressive birds.
Pros and Cons of Raising Dorkings
Dorkings are one of my favorite breeds and I highly recommend them to anyone who has some space in their coop for these polydactyl darlings. However, they might not be ideal in every situation. Here’s a look at the pros and cons of keeping them.
- Extremely docile and friendly
- Unique, storied, and beautiful
- A wonderful heritage meat bird for foodies
- Great foragers that stick close to home
- Not the best layers
- Tender skin, light feathering, short legs, and extra toes are subject to injury
- Not ideal for a small coop
- Hard to find in most colors
Dorkings deserve all their ancient adoration. They also deserve a place on many modern homesteads today. But they’ll do best when given opportunities for protected foraging and are kept with other docile breeds.
Here are a few more things you might find interesting about Dorkings.
What’s the controversy over leg color?
As a landrace with an ancient history, the Dorkings have been bred in many different colors and comb-types. But only a few have made it into the standards of perfection. The colors that have been accepted already by the APA all have white legs.
Some breeders want to require that all Dorkings color and comb varieties have white legs, including those with dark feathers. Other breeders want to allow dark feathered Dorking varieties to have darker legs.
The reason this is such an issue is that birds with white legs tend to have lighter feathers. Birds with dark feathers tend to have darker legs. Trying to breed a purely dark feathered Dorking with white legs is hard to do. If white legs were to become a requirement, many of the existing Dorking strains available today would not meet the newly instated standards for perfection.
Perhaps someday there will be consensus. In the meantime, unless you plan to show your Dorkings, there are no rules to prevent you from trying all the feather and leg colors to decide which you like best!
Dorkings or Darkings?
Another fun fact is that the town of Dorking, that the Dorking breed is named for, was once called Darking. So, you may sometimes here Dorking chickens referred to as Darkings too.
Are Dorkings Winter Layers?
Now for one last bit of trivia, Dorkings are reputed to be good winter layers. I read this repeatedly across multiple websites. However, I have never seen a single winter egg from my Silver Gray Dorkings in North Carolina.
The reality is that some breed lines and color varieties likely do lay winter eggs in certain light and climate conditions. But some may not be selected for that aptitude or they may simply not lay well in your winter conditions.
If you specifically want Dorkings as winter layers, try to buy from breeders located near you who have laying records to confirm that their Dorking breeding hens routinely lay eggs in winter.
More to Love than Extra Toes
While their extra digits may be their mark of distinction, there’s a lot more to love about Dorkings than just their polydactylism. Why not turn back time and consider keeping this ancient landrace breed like the Romans might have?
Use them as a backyard meat flock that reproduces naturally, raises their own young, and comes when you call for easy fresh harvesting. Or just keep these pretty polydactyls as charming pets to help ensure this at-risk heritage breed continues to make history as one of the most ancient breeds still in use today.
Are you thinking about getting chickens or do you already have a flock? Learn more in this blogpost Raising Chickens: Beginner’s Guide (+ Pro Tips!)
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Tasha Greer is an Epicurean Homesteader and author of Grow Your Own Spices and Weed-Free Gardening.
Photos also contributed by Dylan P Barile, Ester Run Farm.