Rhode Island White Chickens–A Threatened Heritage Breed

12 Week Old RI Whites

How we ended up with four Rhode Island White “Starter” chickens is the typical story of if your head is hard enough, beating it against the wall eventually works. After a few Google searches, I finally found four local sellers who hatched their own chickens. The first three I called didn’t answer, and had no voicemail. The fourth answered on the first ring, and promptly put me on a waiting list for chickens which would be ready for sale in a week. I made the cut, and drove up to the community of Battleground to pick them up.

Did he have the chickens! The first group I saw was a flock of a few hundred Rhode Island Whites, which were a special order from a hatchery. My chicks were part of an “overrun” set of hens, which were the result of an excess production of chickens, that the hatchery did not want. During my drive home, I had time to think about why chickens that look this fine are threatened as a breed. I came up with two good reasons.

The first is that correlation does not equal causation, a common mistake among our poorly educated population. Consider the following parody:

All Cats are Gray at Night

All White Chickens Look Alike

They don’t, except on a superficial level. Similarly, just because the words Rhode Island appear in Rhode Island Red chickens and Rhode Island White chickens, that the whites are only a white version of the reds. They aren’t. Whites are a well documented breed that is the result of crossing three different breeds that was introduced in 1888. Rhode Island Reds were developed by a number of breeders using a large range of different brown chicken breeds. The names are the result of geography, not merely genetics.

The larger issue is that Big Chicken, and Big Ag in general, ruins everything it touches. The myth that industrial production is more “efficient” than local food production finally took it on the nose this past summer, as even politicians are lamenting how expensive their crudité has gotten. Dudes, try shopping somewhere other than the supermarket–a farmer’s market, maybe.

At any rate, the big decline in Rhode Island White numbers in the 1960’s corresponds with the corporate takeover of food distribution that occurred at the same time. In this case, correlation can be proven to be causation as well, with independently verifiable evidence. Now that the system of Big Chicken is beginning to show its weaknesses, from Bird Flu caused by overcrowding and poor sanitation, to high prices brought on by equally greedy corporations, like Big Oil, will local production step in and fill the void? Is that flock of hundreds of Rhode Island Whites a sign or an aberration? History, in the long term, favors the sustainable, in whatever form it may take.

Author: southernfusionfood

Writer, Woodworker, and Happy Eater

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