Rhode Island Reds: The Quintessential Homestead Chicken

Rhode Island Reds featured image

By Tasha Greer

Rhode Island Reds, referred to as RIRs for brevity, are an American class chicken with a strong affiliation with the free range, homesteading lifestyle. These large, lovely, and active birds are the perfect choice for protected pasture.

As excellent foragers, RIRs often require less formulated feed than other breeds to size up as a meat source and to lay well. They also make ideal chicken tillers for rotational grazing systems or to use for light weeding and fertilizing before sowing field crops. Plus, even though the RIRs are working-class utility chickens, they’re beautiful and can be family-friendly if tamed early.

Rhode Island Reds

Rhode Island Reds are one of the most well-known, dual-purpose, heritage chicken breeds of all time.[1]  While these birds aren’t production layers, some lines are renowned for being able to lay up to 300 eggs per year when fed formulated layer feed. Even on a diet of free-range pasture with access to supplemental feed, they can lay more than 200 eggs a year.

Rhode Island Red on pasture

Rhode Island Reds Breed Characteristics

Historically, RIRs were bred to be a rugged, red-feathered, meat breed. The RIRs began as a cross between Red Malay game chickens and Black Javas.

The Red Malays are large fighting bird with hard feathers and powerful thighs. They can stand three feet tall. They are also seasonal layers that only lay between 80-100 eggs per year.

The Black Javas are one of the earliest meat chicken breeds in the US, with excellent foraging abilities. While modern Javas can lay up to 180 eggs per year, the older lines used for RIRS were primarily meat breeds with lower egg production.

Red Malay/Java mixes made the start of a wonderful meat chicken with limited laying capacity. Those two breeds likely contributed the unique feather color, rectangular body shape, and large size associated with the RIRs today.

To improve utility even more, that original cross was then likely mixed with Italian brown Leghorns to increase laying production. Brahmas (then called Shanghai’s) may have also been mixed in to improve the temperament and increase fattening potential. There’s also a chance that some lines may have been crossed with the Buckeye lines, another red-feathered heritage chicken, bred using Plymouth Barred Rocks.

In sum, while the exact breeding history of the RIRs isn’t well-documented, those early RIRs started out as a meat breed that were then improved for better laying and temperament.

Egg Production

Today, since most people who raise dual purpose breeds favor egg production as the primary purpose, with meat utility being an added bonus, RIR hens have become some of the best layers of brown eggs available.

In the early stages of development, RIR hens were known to be broody. However, modern RIR hens, bred for better egg production, are no longer likely to become broody.

Additionally, many of the most productive hybrid cross laying chickens such as the Red Star sexlink hens are bred using RIR breed lines. Some chicken keepers use their RIRs as breeding stock for experimentation in hybrid crosses or starting new lines with good laying productivity, red feather color, and overall good health.

Feather Color

Early RIRs were likely lighter in color than what we see today. They also had harder, tighter feathers that made them more weather resistant against pelting rain and gusting wind.

Modern day RIRs have rich, dark red or mahogany feather coloring. Some tend almost toward black in certain light. Their feathers hang a bit looser than their ancestors due to the Brahma input. They also need more weather protection than earlier stock.

Today there are even ornamental RIR breed lines that have particularly stunning color and feather quality compared to earlier generations.

Comb Options

The first RIRs to be accepted in the American Poultry Association (APA) standards of perfection had large, single, red combs. They were entered into the standard in 1904. In 1906, rose combed versions of RIRs were accepted into the standard. The rose comb was imparted into the lines from the Brahma genetics.[2]

Today single comb RIRs are more common. In cold areas though, the rose combed hens will have better cold tolerance. Rose combed roosters still have large wattles that make them less cold-tolerant. Also, unfortunately, rose combed RIR hens tend to lay fewer eggs on average than single combed RIR lines.

Breed Line Variances

There are a few RIR breeders working to maintain the older genetic qualities of broodiness, meat utility, and pasture durability rather than favoring egg production and fancier feathering. The Livestock Conservancy[3] rates those heritage quality RIR lines as rare and in need of conservation.

If you can find them, and have room in your flock for a few less productive layers, consider keeping a few of those more heritage type RIRs.

Full-Size and Bantams

Rhode Island Reds of both comb options also come in full-sized and bantams. RIR bantams are hard to find but you can find them on breeder lists and chicken forums.

How much do Rhode Island Reds weigh?

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

Temperament

The exact temperament of Rhode Island Reds is difficult to pin down. Overall, they are easy to manage if you keep them on pasture or protected free-range situation. Large flocks of RIRs are also a favorite for farms practicing rotational grazing with cows and pigs. Yet, there are plenty of stories about aggressive RIR roosters. Also, there’s a lot of anecdotal examples of RIR hens bullying gentler breeds. 

Personally, I started with just hatched RIRs, Barred Plymouth Rocks, and Buff Orpingtons. Those three breeds got along terrifically. At that point, I thought RIRs were laid back and easy to manage.

My RIRs were also extremely personable. They’d come on the porch and knock on the door with their beaks to say hello throughout the day. They liked to be held and followed me everywhere when I was working outside.

Later, when I introduced several new chickens into my flock, my RIR hens were not equally welcoming to all the breeds. The RIRs accepted the Black Copper Marans and Buckeyes like instant family. They were terribly violent towards the Australorps, Welsummers, Lakenvelders, and Faverolles.

Ultimately, the RIRs calmed down enough to share pasture with those other breeds but never housing. I ended up having to keep two coops to keep the peace.

Rhode Island Red with Barred Rock
Rhode Island Red with Barred Rock

Caring for Rhode Island Reds

Rhode Island Reds are known for their ability to remain healthy even with less-than-ideal diets. That’s what makes RIRs so useful for homesteads producing their own chicken food formulas and allowing chickens to forage a fair amount of their diet.  

Heat and Cold Hardiness

Here in my North Carolina climate with temperature down to about 10°F in winter, I’ve had issues with frostbite on RIR rooster combs and wattles. I’ve also had a few RIR hens suffer heat exhaustion in hot, humid conditions even when given plenty of shade protection and cool water. I suspect their activity level and desire to forage makes them eager to go out of their safe zones even when conditions are too hot or cold.

Overall, I’d rate RIRs as best for moderate climates. In extreme cold or heat, you may need to consider confining them to areas that will keep them warm or cool, rather than allowing them to free range.   

Predator Protection

RIRs rate among the more predator resistant breeds. Their color gives them the ability to look a bit like a shadow in woodlands or tall grasses. That means they attract less attention.

They can also be ferocious when attacked. I had a 6-year-old RIR hen fend off a hawk for long enough for me to hear her cry and race out of the house to save her.

Like all chickens, they are still so tempting to predators that some daytime pasture protection and secure nighttime sleeping quarters are needed. Electric fences, livestock guardian dogs, or low predator pressure are necessary to be able to put them out on pasture.

Roost Recommendation

Rhode Island Reds are a sturdy breed with strong powerful legs that can take hard landings. They don’t have much difficulty jumping down from high roosts. They also frequently fly, rather than stair step down, from ladder type roost bars.

Given their heavy weight, they can be prone to foot injuries that can lead to worse issues like bumblefoot. In general, lower roosts reduce risk of injury. Note, though, that if you offer higher roosts, your RIRs will prefer them.

Rhode Island Red Roosters

RIR roosters today are also more docile than their ancestors. However, many will become aggressive in overcrowded situations, without enough hens to serve, and if they are not handled when young. Use caution when allowing children of visitors near RIR roosters.

A ratio of 1 rooster to 10 hens is ideal for this active breed. Lower ratios can lead to over mating and damaged hens. Also, avoid penning RIR roosters in with lightweight hens for the safety of the hen.

Feeding Rhode Island Reds

Rhode Island Reds are excellent foragers. However, they can only feed themselves if they are allowed access to large pasture that is fully loaded with high protein insects, seeds, and forageable greens.

To keep feed costs down while maintaining good health, give them a little feed or scratch in the morning to whet their appetite. Let them forage throughout the day. Then offer them free access to formulated chicken feed for at least an hour before they go in at night.

Match Care to Breed Type

As noted, depending on breeding goals, RIRs can have heritage qualities or be bred primarily for egg production. If the breeder does not emphasize the heritage breed qualities of being good mothers or being an excellent meat source in their descriptions, chances are the RIRs are bred for egg production with cull-worthy roosters and old hens being used as meat.

Production RIRs tend to require more predator protection, better climate control, and higher quality feed than heritage types. Make sure to match your care protocols to the qualities your RIR displays. Production layers can’t feed themselves on pasture and heritage types won’t do well without it.

Pros and Cons of Raising Rhode Island Reds

For rotational grazing or rural homestead living, RIRs are “the” chicken. But that doesn’t mean they are a perfect choice for every backyard flock. Here are some pros and cons to help

Pros

  • Good egg production
  • Useful as a meat source
  • Healthy and low maintenance on pasture

Cons

  • May not integrate well with other breeds
  • Not ideal for confinement
  • Not normally good mothers

Overall, if you want a smart, predator resistant, self-feeding layer with some meat capacity, for rotational grazing or part-day free ranging in safe areas, RIRs are perfect.

Rhode Island Red FAQs

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

Where do Rhode Island Reds come from?

You would think that RIRs came from Rhode Island, right? Well, they were certainly perfected there. However, their origins were probably in both Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Today though, the RIRs are the state chicken of Rhode Island and are most strongly affiliated with that regional location.

You may have also heard that there are Rhode Island Whites. They are an entirely different breed with completely different genetic backgrounds than the RIRs. They typically lay fewer eggs, tend to be smaller in size, and of course, don’t have the classic red feather color.

Rhode Island Red Buffs

The Quintessential Country Homestead Chicken

There are a lot of good reasons why Rhode Island Reds are considered the quintessential homestead chicken. The thing to keep in mind though is that homesteading has changed a lot since this breed made a name for itself.

They are still ideal on large, rural, and open pasture-type homestead. But they aren’t as quintessential for use in urban areas or in suburban developments. Let’s rebrand these red feathered beauties as the quintessential country or rural homestead chicken for clarity!

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

As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases.

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

References:
[1] https://livestockconservancy.org/heritage-breeds/heritage-breeds-list/rhode-island-red-chicken/
[2] http://afs.okstate.edu/breeds/poultry/chickens/rhodeislandred/
[3] https://livestockconservancy.org/heritage-breeds/heritage-breeds-list/rhode-island-red-chicken/

Rhode Island Reds pin image

Leave a Comment

Join me online