Rhode Island Reds are among the most common chicken breeds, famous for their egg-laying, delicious meat, and attractive features. There are two types: industrial or "production" birds and heritage. Chicken breeders bred production birds from heritage "old stock" to be prolific egg-layers. On the other hand, Rhode Island Red "heritage" birds are good egg-layers but are more prone to be broody, protecting their eggs, sitting on them to hatch them. Heritage numbers have dwindled to less than 2,500 registered birds in the U.S. and less than 10,000 worldwide.
When choosing breeds for your small-farm chicken flock, picking from the hundreds of breeds and varieties can be challenging. Your choice should be based on the purpose your birds will have. Will you be raising them for eggs, meat, or both? Also, consider your climate and your particular needs. If you give farm tours or have children, you may want an especially friendly breed. If you live in the North, consider a winter-hardy or "heavy" breed, a larger bird with a thicker body that can better withstand the cold.
Rhode Island Reds tick off many boxes for first-time chicken keepers. Read on to learn more about this terrific bird.
Size and Appearance
Considered large or heavy birds, Rhode Island Reds have a red coat of feathers with shining black tail feathers highlighted by hints of green. They sport a bright red wattle and single comb with spikes or a rose comb. They have orange-red eyes and reddish, brown beaks. Their feet and legs are usually yellow. They have four toes. They have a proud stature.
Industrial birds are a little smaller with slightly duller plumage. All chicks are tiny, adorable orange, tan, and red fluffballs, whether they are industrial or heritage.
Rhode Island reds are dual-purpose birds, suitable for meat and eggs; however, they are most notable for their egg-laying. They are among the best heavy breeds for laying eggs, producing roughly five to six brown-colored, large eggs per week. You can expect about 200 to 300 eggs per bird in a year.
As hens age, their eggs get larger. A heritage bird will lay closer to 200, while an industrial bird will lay about 300 per year. Rhode Island Reds will also keep laying no matter the weather—cold winter or hot summers.
Generally, the eggs and meat quality of heritage birds and production birds is the same if the feed and conditions are the same. The flavor of heritage chickens is considered richer because the birds are free rangers. Their food is often varied, and their taste reflects their different diet choices. Meanwhile, grocery store chickens all taste the same.
Rhode Island Reds take longer to reach butcher size, about 4 to 5 months, versus a Cornish Cross that takes about 8 to 10 weeks. Rhode Island Reds have tougher meat and need more feed than the Cornish breeds that tend to be meatier and more tender.
Origins and History
Rhode Island Reds are more common than Rhode Island Whites. The breed was developed in Rhode Island in the 19th century. They are the official Rhode Island state bird. They have been famous for prolific egg-laying and overall hardiness for over a hundred years. They are still champion egg layers today.
Non-industrial heritage strains of Rhode Island Reds are considered "recovering" by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy. They are a good choice for those who want to focus on restoring a heritage breed population.
Temperament and Behaviors
Rhode Island Reds are suited for confinement or free-range. They are active yet also somewhat docile and calm. Some owners describe Rhode Island Reds as "curious and loving," although some have had bad luck with the industrial or production lines. Stick with heritage lines, and you should be okay.
Roosters can be on the aggressive side. This breed may not be the best choice for people with other pets or children due to its unpredictability. Some maintain these birds are less friendly than other breeds. Some feel they insert themselves at the top of the pecking order and may bully other breeds. But if you plan on raising a flock comprised solely of Rhode Island Reds, the group should be fine as long as you don't have too many roosters. The golden ratio is one rooster for every 10 hens.
Although heritage birds may want to raise some chicks, production birds are not prone to broodiness. If you have non-broody birds, you will have solid egg production.
Rhode Island Reds are a northern breed. They handle temperatures below 0 F. They are robust and hardy in both heat and cold. Their ideal temperature is 45 to 65 F.
However, their combs are vulnerable to frostbite, making them a less than ideal choice for the coldest climates. Keep the birds dry during the winter. Moisture is the biggest culprit for frostbite. Of course, insulate your coop, and fill in gaps where drafts may seep in. Also, the deep litter method causes heat from the decomposing litter. The more chickens you have, the more BTUs or tiny heat generators you have.
As long as you have a grouping of chickens that can gather to warm up, and the chickens have some time to acclimate gradually to the changing weather, your birds should be fine. Worse stories abound about a heated coop losing electricity during the middle of the night with a dramatic loss of the entire coop or a fire destroying a henhouse resulting from a heat lamp spark.
In extreme cases, if you live where the temperatures go down to -40 F, consider running a flat panel heater. Heat lamps are considered a fire hazard with many combustible materials like dry hay and straw lying around. Also, if you get a sudden cold snap with the temperatures fluctuating wildly 20 degrees colder than the previous day, you might consider supplementing with some heat.
Rhode Island Red chickens are not as fluffy as some other breeds (Plymouth Rock or Orpington), so they tend to tolerate heat. But, they still need cold water on hot days and a lot of deep shade during sweltering days.
Caring for Rhode Island Reds
Of all the chicken breeds, Rhode Island Reds are one of the easiest for new chicken keepers to care for. They are not picky about their feed, enjoying table scraps, foraging, and scratch for snacks. They like to roam but will tolerate confinement. As ranging birds, they are more predator savvy than other breeds, although they will still need a coop for protection from night prowlers. If you allow your birds to range freely, scan the area for convenient spots where the hens might drop some of their eggs.
All Rhode Island Reds need a coop to keep them dry, safe, and with a place to roost for the night. Plan to give each bird about 4 square feet per bird inside the coop and 15 square feet per bird outdoors in a grassy run or pasture. They also need 8 to 10 inches of perch space to roost at night inside the coop. Also, give them continual access to clean drinking water. Adult laying hens will need about 1/4 pound of quality layer feed per day. Provide at least one nesting box for every five hens. Keep the coop clean.
Common Health Issues
Rhode Island Reds are renowned for being hardy and healthy. To keep your birds healthy, maintain a clean coop, prevent overcrowding, and create good dust bathing areas. As with all birds, mites and other ectoparasites can be a problem. Keep bugs away by offering a dust spot and checking your birds regularly for bugs.
Since Rhode Island Red chickens are prolific egg layers, they can be prone to egg production issues, such as egg binding or yolk peritonitis. Both are treatable if caught early. If not treated, the bird will die.
There are some diseases, such as Marek’s, that most baby chicks should be vaccinated for. Keep an eye out for contagious diseases such as fowl cholera, avian influenza, fowl pox, coccidiosis, salmonellosis, and Newcastle disease.
Cockfighting is common in flocks of Rhode Island Reds, particularly when there is more than one rooster per roost. Watch out for hens picking on smaller flock members.
More Chicken Breeds
If you’re interested in learning more about other chicken breeds, check out:
There’s a whole world of chicken breeds out there—with a bit of research, find the right one for you.
Raising Backyard Chickens for Eggs. UFL Extension.