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Rhode Island Red Chickens: Heritage Breed and Production Layer

When the Rhode Island Red was first developed, it quickly became one of America’s favorite chicken breeds. Raised to be both an egg layer and superior table bird, they were popular with farmers and backyard keepers alike. With the desire for fowl that could lay a large number of eggs, the heritage breed was “improved” in the 1940s, so today, two distinct types exist, the old type heritage. and the newer production birds.

Key Takeaway

  • Two types – heritage and production
  • Good egg layers
  • Heritage variety are also table birds
  • Suitable for beginners
  • They can be noisy, so not good for close neighbors
  • Heat and cold resistant

Background and History of the Rhode Island Red Breed

The Rhode Island Red was first developed in Rhode Island and Massachusetts in New England.

The breed can be either single or rose combed, and there is much debate over which came first, although it was probably the rose comb variety. The rose comb comes from Red Javas that were used in the creation of the breed.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the birds have a deep red plumage, but even the correct coloration has been a bone of contention among breeders. Today the fowl are generally a deep, rich, chestnut red, almost black. This influence comes from the Malay, one of the birds used to create the breed, and why they are so hardy.

Early records say that Captain William Tripp of Little Compton, Rhode Island, was responsible for bringing a Black Breasted Red Malay rooster back with him from one of his voyages to England in around 1854. 

Captain Tripp added the rooster among his flock and waited to see what would happen. His little experiment was a success, as the offspring produced were better layers and also suitable for the table. 

His success led to a partnership being formed between Captain Tripp and Mr. John Macomber. The men wanted to create a “better chicken breed.” There exists no record of exactly which breeds the men used, but the criteria were to produce a bird with a good egg-laying ability that was also flavorful.

This resulted in birds of varying shapes, colors, and sizes until eventually, another breeder, Mr. Thompkins, standardized the breed we recognize as the original type of Rhode Island Red. 

Before the name Rhode Island Red was chosen, the chickens were called either “John Macomber fowls” or “Tripp fowls.” The final name was given either by Mr. Isaac Champlin Wilbour of Little Compton, Rhode Island, or Mr. Jenny from the Southern Massachusetts Poultry Association. 

The single comb Rhode Island Reds were accepted into the American Poultry Association in 1904. In 1906 the rose comb variety was also admitted. 

As happened with many breeds, these lovely dual-purpose birds were “improved” around the time of WWII to become more productive egg layers. This resulted in them being effectively split into two groups, heritage, and production.

The new production kind lost their broodiness and much of their suitability as a table bird. The two types of large fowl still remain to this day, although true heritage birds are now harder to find and are currently on the Livestock Conservancy Organisation’s watch list.

Bantam versions were also created and are recognized by both the APS in 1904 and the American Bantam Association. 

Temperament and Behavior of the Rhode Island Red Chicken

Rhode Island Reds have an exuberant personality. They are curious, confident, active birds and don’t get panicked easily. 

Space Requirements – They do need plenty of space. Opinions on the exact amount vary, from a minimum of four square feet to a minimum of 15 square feet per bird. I recommend giving them as much as possible, for although they will tolerate a degree of confinement, they can become rather bossy and overly assertive towards each other and their flock mates.

Make sure the nest boxes are the right size for just one individual bird otherwise they all try to pack themselves in together. 12 inches by 12 inches should suffice. 

It is best not to mix them with more docile breeds such as Orpingtons, Polish, or Cochins, as they tend to be quite near the top of the pecking order and can pick on less assertive chicken types. 

Friendliness – They enjoy human interaction and look for treats when you enter. They aren’t generally thought of as suitable for kids, as they are not docile enough to become lap chickens, and roosters can be pretty protective of their hens and have something of a reputation.

Providing those new to chicken keeping are careful around their roosters and offer their birds the right environment and suitable flock mates, Reds can be a good choice of chicken for a beginner to keep.

They are great foragers and do well free-range, which is excellent for reducing feed bills. It is still essential that they are provided with the appropriate food type for their age and use to remain healthy. 

Broodiness – Rhode Island Reds are not particularly broody, but they do become so from time to time. They are good sitters and make attentive mothers. 

Noise Level – If you’re looking for a quiet chicken breed, then Reds may not be for you, as they have a loud egg song and can become quite talkative and even rowdy at times. Should you have neighbors close by, then it could be wiser to find a less vocal breed.

Rhode Island Red Breed Specifics and Traits

The two types of Reds do have a few differences, which we will highlight below.

Type – Heritage Rhode Island Reds are dual-purpose birds, and are good for both laying eggs and providing meat. While the production fowl are better for giving high egg yields.

Appearance – Their single or rose comb is bright red with defined points. A rear leader spike is present on rose combs. The earlobes and wattles are also red. 

They have reddish-orange eyes, a reddish, horn color beak, and yellow skin, legs, and feet with the occasional hint of red on their shanks and toes. Their legs are clean with no feathering. 

Their body is solid with a rectangular shape. They are well proportioned and hold their heads high and tails at around 45°.

Feathers are tight and sit close to the body, which comes from their Malay ancestry.

Size and Weight – Production-type birds are generally smaller with paler plumage than the old heritage variety, although the heritage type has become heavier and taller than it was historically. 

The average weight for roosters is 8 ½ lbs. while hens are 6 ½ lbs., bantams weigh 2.1 lbs. for a rooster and 1.9 lbs. for a hen. 

Color – It would seem sensible, due to their name, that they are a red color. The most desirable color for a Rhode Island Red was hotly debated by breeders for many years, ranging from a red buff through to almost black. 

Today they are a deep and shiny chestnut red, often with black feathers in their wings and tail. This can be marked down as a fault in show birds and is known as “smutty.”

Hardiness – The breed is both cold and heat tolerant, and given the proper protection, they can do well in below-freezing conditions or take the heat at over 100°F.

They require somewhere warm to shelter in winter and someplace cool and shady to retreat in summer. This means providing a good shelter that is draft-proof, insulated, and well ventilated. Additional heating may be required in very cold climates while the birds roost at night.

Flight – Due to their large body size, Rhode Island Reds make poor flyers. This is in some way to their detriment, as if they are attacked by predators as they are not really able to fly away. They are noisy, however, and sound the alarm at the first whiff of danger. 

Health and Disease

There are no particular health problems associated with Rhode Island Red chickens. They are known to be robust and vigorous fowl. 

All chickens suffer from mites and lice from time to time and this should be regularly treated against, preferably as a preventative measure, rather than a cure. Intestinal worms should be watched out for carefully and correct medication given. 

If you’re using your hens for eggs, they should be provided a layers feed and provided with added calcium by way of crushed oyster shells.

Insoluble grit is necessary for all chickens to help them digest their food properly. 

When permitted to roam free-range, they augment their diet with all kinds of insects and plants that are often beneficial and produce better quality eggs and meat.


While the heritage type of Rhode Island Red is a good layer of between 150 to 250 eggs a year, the production birds will lay more, around 250 to 300 eggs per year.

They start to lay from around 18 to 22 weeks of age. This can vary with the season. 

The eggs themselves are of medium to large size and light brown in color. 

Where to buy 

Heritage stock can be purchased through breeders. A list exists on the Livestock Conservancy Organization’s website. They can also be purchased from a hatchery. Be aware that not all hatcheries provide all types of the breed, so if you want a specific type, make sure to ask about it.

We recommend Cackle Hatchery, which raises all types of Rhode Island Reds. The prices illustrated below are meant as a guide and the availability of chicks is seasonal. Prices are per chick and vary according to the quantity ordered. Sometimes a minimum order quantity is required.

Exhibition Type – Unsexed = $8.95

Female = $19.95

Male = $19.95

Production Type – Unsexed = $2.20 to $3.10

Female = $3.10 to $3.95

Male = $1.55 to $2.40

Bantams – Unsexed = $3.75 to $4.05

Female = $10.00

Male = $3.50


Many owners of Rhode Island Reds say they are their favorite type of chicken. They are quite entertaining, and all have their own, individual personalities.

Caring for the breed is relatively straightforward and providing their basic needs of water, food and shelter are met, they usually thrive, being hardy and healthy.

This makes them a viable option for beginners. Still, they are not the best-suited chicken for children, particularly the roosters. Although, there are always exceptions to the rule!

For a homesteader looking for a good all-around bird that will free-range, tolerate all kinds of weather conditions, and provide plenty of eggs and good meat, then you couldn’t really go wrong with Rhode Island Reds.

Even though the heritage type doesn’t lay as many eggs as the production birds, they do lay for more years, so in the end, can turn out to be the better choice.

Hens love you to make a fuss of them and give them the occasional treat, but they are also very self-sufficient.

Questions and Answers

  1. Are Rhode Island Red chickens friendly? Yes, the hens seem to enjoy the company of people, although they are not lap chickens. Roosters can sometimes become aggressive and protective of their hens, particularly during the breeding season.
  1. Are Rhode Island Reds good backyard chickens? If you don’t have any close neighbors and can give the chickens the space they need not to pick quarrels with each other, then yes, they can be good backyard chickens as they offer both eggs and meat.
  1. How many eggs does a Rhode Island Red chicken lay a day? Chickens don’t always lay an egg each day. Heritage type Reds will usually lay between three and four eggs per week in their prime years, while production types can lay between four to six eggs a week.
  1. How long do Rhode Island Red chickens lay eggs? Most chickens will begin to lay in their first year of life, but maximum output generally starts when they are one year old, and they continue to lay well until they are between three and five years of age. The older the hen, the fewer eggs she will lay each year.

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