By Dawn M. Chiossi
Move over turkey, make way for Jersey Giant Chickens. For New Jerseyans, size matters. Is it any wonder then, New Jersey boasts the largest breed of purebred chicken? One of New Jersey’s best-kept secrets, they are a source of pride to residents.
“People look at these birds and say: Oh, My, God! They are HUGE! And us breeders just smile…”, Kathy Rowe, East Region Director of the National Jersey Giant Club, relates. The National Jersey Giant Club was founded in 1971 to promote these chickens and keep the breed alive after nearly dying out.
Jersey Giant Chickens were developed approximately 150 years ago in Burlington County by John and Thomas Black. Specializing in growing market poultry, these brothers were attempting to dethrone the turkey as the top table bird for roasting. When they cross-bred a variety of different chickens, including Black Javas, Black Langshans, and Dark Brahmas, they found success.
Bred for their size and not for color, Jersey Giants come in black, white, blue, and splash varieties. They received the name “Giants” in approximately 1895. The moniker “Jersey” was added when in about 1917, when breeder, Dexter P. Upham of Belmar, gave them that name in honor of the state in which they originated.
Taking time to fill out their frame, they are robust, cold hearty, and perfect for roasting. Female Jersey Giants can grow to 11 pounds, while males can topple an impressive 15. Due to their great body size, this breed of chicken serves a dual purpose, producing both an abundance of meat and extra-large eggs. Although they often take one or two days longer to hatch than your standard eggs, Jersey Giants tend to lay more of them.
Jersey Giants are not ordinary supermarket chickens. In fact, they are not a common breed at all, Rowe relates. “While they were originally designed to be a large bird for the Sunday dinner table, these birds fell out of fashion because faster-growing hybrid chickens and turkeys became more popular. Jersey Giants can take up to two years to fully mature and reach their optimum weight.”
In a world of expediency and of instant gratification, it is easy for Jersey Giants to be dismissed, but for breeders like Rowe and Hackettstown’s Mike Miller, these birds send
a different message: one of quality, of substance. One that values stamina, patience, and the knowledge that anything worthwhile takes time and care.
According to Rowe, Miller has been a member of the National Jersey Giant Club since “practically forever.” Drawn to the heritage of the breed, and having a sense of Jersey pride, Miller has approximately 10 hens and a rooster at his home. He raises his chickens for shows, sales, and some eating. Rowe breeds black, blue, and splash varieties of chickens.
Wonderful as pets as well as show animals, Rowe shares that the Jersey Giants are truly gentle giants. Despite their size, these chickens are sweet-natured, something that can’t be said for all birds.“They’re very calm and they’re docile,” Miller says. He mentions that they are just content to mosey around his yard.
It was at a show where Rowe first met Miller several years ago, where he warmly shared his expertise with her. “He’s helped me with some tough chicken disease problems and answered my rookie questions on breeding and genetics,” she tells. “Showing is very much a social occasion for everyone; it allows us to catch up on things, evaluate new birds, discuss trends in the breed, mentor those who need it, and have fun.”
Both Rowe and Miller are diligently working to perfect the bloodline for certain colors in the breed. For them, showing Jersey Giants is more than just showing chickens, it is a passion; something they wouldn’t have any other way.
“Jersey Giants take a lot of dedication to raise,” Rowe explains. “You may hatch some, watch them grow, and grow, and wonder if they will ever stop! The vast time it takes for them to mature is hard for many people to grasp. In this “fast food” world, everyone wants a chicken to be a show winner in as short amount of time as possible. That’s not so for Jersey Giants. Most people don’t even like to show a Jersey under 9 months of age; they just aren’t filled out enough yet. Those wishing to keep Jersey Giants have to understand one thing: patience!”
“True Jersey Giants are something of a forgotten elephant, relics of a past when the industrial revolution was bringing more and more people to the cities, and they needed a meat bird that would feed a family. They grow slow, eat quite a bit, and can take 9+ months to lay their first eggs. But, perhaps as things change in society again, folks will learn to appreciate the slower things in life,” Rowe shares. “To me, there’s nothing more gratifying than taking a pair of birds, putting them together, collecting their eggs, putting them in the incubator, and crossing my fingers that they’ll hatch. If I’m lucky, in 22 days, I get some adorable, fluffy chicks. Then starts their long life of inspecting, comparing, watching, and hoping there might be a show winner or another good breeding bird in the batch. The best reward of all is seeing a rosette hanging on my wall that was won by a bird I bred. That’s when you know it was all worth the wait.”
The American Poultry Association recognized Black Jersey Giants and added them to the Standard of Perfection in 1922. White Jersey Giants were added in 1947 while Blue Jersey Giants were added in 2002.