The tiny Leghorn is arguably the breed with the biggest impact on modern chicken farming. They are one of the best known chicken breeds in the world, especially of the Mediterranean class. As a group, Mediterraneans are relatively light bodied chickens known for their excellent laying abilities, active natures, and exceptional foraging skills. They come from the countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea including Italy and Sicily, and Spain. The chickens that developed in this region are known for being extremely heat hardy, and the Leghorn is no exception.
Popular legend says that the name Leghorn is an anglicization of Livorno, the port city from where the breed was exported. However, that seemed a bit of a stretch to us – the words don’t sound that much alike. So, we did some research and discovered that Livorno is located in Tuscany, an area on the West coast of Italy. Way back in the 15th century, before the area belonged to Tuscany, it was part of the Republic of Genoa. In Genoese, the city was called Legorno or Ligorno – a name that sounds a lot more Leghorn to us. It’s very possible that our modern Leghorns are descendants of a small landrace breed kept in this coastal region for several hundred years.
Leghorn Heritage Chickens | Basic Breed Information
Leghorns are small bodied chickens with large straight combs and wattles. The comb flops over on most hens, and the rooster combs are so massive that they often flop over as well. Their combs and wattles are super efficient at releasing heat and helping them stay cool. Leghorns are also known for their upright tail, yellow legs, and white earlobes. Roosters weigh around 5-6 lbs. and hens usually weigh in around 4 lbs. The breed has a reputation for flightiness, but will often become less reactive with regular handling. They are excellent foragers that stay active and alert.
The American Poultry Association accepted the Leghorn and included the breed in the Standard of Perfection’s first printing in 1874. The first colors admitted were Single Comb Black, White, and Brown. Not content with those three varieties, breeders and fanciers got to work right away. By 1883, the Rose Comb Brown had been accepted.
Over the next hundred years,16 different varieties of Leghorn were admitted to the APA Standard of Perfection at various times. The colors include Black, both Light and Dark Brown, White, Buff, Silver, Black-Tailed Red, Columbian, and Golden. If you’re willing to look a little further afield, there are other non-APA colors available. These include Red, Cuckoo, Isabelle, Mille Fluer, and the beautiful mottled Exchequer Leghorn. There are also bantam versions available, and they are quite popular for showing and exhibition.
Leghorn Heritage Chickens | Livestock Conservancy Status
The Livestock Conservancy considers non-industrial lines of Leghorns as Heritage breed chickens, and they have been moved to the Recovering category of the Conservation Priority List. Pearl White Leghorns are not considered Heritage breed birds unless they come from a line that has not been bred for industrial purposes. Virtually every other color of Leghorn is non-industrial, but you want to check with your breeder or hatchery to be sure before purchasing.
Leghorn Heritage Chickens | History
As we mentioned earlier, Leghorns are definitely a very old breed of chicken. Their existence dates back at least several hundred years, but it’s hard to pinpoint their true age. They were present in continental Europe by the 1800s and generally known as “Italians.” They would have been an excellent chicken to travel/migrate with, as they are compact birds that don’t take up much space but lay lots of large eggs.
Though there are sources that mention Leghorns in the US as early as the 1830s, later importations had more documentation. However, we know for certain that Brown Leghorns were brought into port in Connecticut in 1852, and White Leghorns arrived the next year in 1853 at Boston Harbor. They were instantly popular with Americans due to their hardiness, foraging ability, and outstanding egg production. 20 years later, they were exported from the US to the UK, where they were “improved” by breeding Minorcas into the lines to increase the size. Poultry writer Lewis Wright imported the Brown Leghorns in the late 1800s and bred them himself. He was a huge fan and devoted most of a chapter to them in Wright’s Book of Poultry.
Leghorn Heritage Chickens | Industrialization and the Egg Laying Industry
In the 1900s, Leghorns were being moved into more industrial settings. They were bred for high production and also used heavily as parent stock for industrial hybrid layers. After the two World Wars, non-industrial lines of Leghorns experienced the same decline as almost every other Heritage breed. Leghorn breeders and lovers kept the true Heritage lines alive until the 1970s, when conservation breeding began in earnest.
Today, Leghorns are beloved in both large commercial and small scale egg laying operations. They are super layers that thrive in a variety of settings, making them a fantastic choice for a wide variety of layer flocks.
Leghorn Heritage Chickens | Laying Statistics
Leghorn hens are some of the best layers on the planet. They’ll give you an average of five large white eggs per week, sometimes more, and generally do not go broody. If you want to breed Leghorns, you’ll need a broody hen of another breed or an incubator. Leghorn hens take a break in the fall around molting time, and then start laying again in January in most temperate climates. You’ll often hear that Leghorns can survive on less feed than other layers, but you may find that such good layers need to eat more than reported in order to maintain a high level of egg production.
Leghorn Heritage Chickens | A Beloved Super Layer
Today, Leghorns are still beloved by Americans and have moved to the Recovering category on the Livestock Conservancy’s Conservation Priority List because of it. They make excellent backyard chickens, fantastic homestead layers – especially in the south, and are great additions to mixed flocks. These birds can be truly lovable pets if you put the time in with them. They’re also a beautiful representation of the Mediterranean class, and one of our own personal favorite breeds. You can always count on them to keep your egg basket full!
If you’re looking for Heritage Leghorn lines, McMurray Hatchery maintains breeding flocks of Red, Silver, and both Single and Rose Comb Brown Leghorns. McMurray has Pearl White Leghorn production layers, as well.
Holly Callahan-Kasmala grew up as a 4-H kid on a small horse farm. She has been keeping chickens for more than 20 years, and is passionate about Heritage chickens and helping people find the right breed for their needs. Holly has an MA in History, and is a long-time fiber artist/teacher. In addition to keeping Heritage breed chickens and rare breed sheep, she also grows heirloom cotton, dye plants, and all kinds of heirloom vegetables, fruit, and flowers on her small Maryland farm. She is the creator and co-host of Coffee with the Chicken Ladies Podcast.
Chrisie DiCarlo is a retired veterinary technician with a passion for helping people care for their poultry. During her 15 years in the field, she managed a technical trauma nursing care team in a busy urban veterinary hospital ER. She gave up her career to be a stay-at-home mom to her two amazing daughters. Chrisie has been keeping chickens for more than 7 years. She also loves growing herbs, fruit, and flowers on her small Maryland farm. She is the creator and co-host of Coffee with the Chicken Ladies Podcast.
Featured photo of a Rose Comb Brown Leghorn courtesy of Cindy M. Lock.
Photo of a Pearl White Leghorn courtesy of Holly Callahan-Kasmala and Chrisie DiCarlo.
Photo of a Silver Leghorn courtesy of Andrea Jacobs.
Photo of a Red Leghorn courtesy of Teddi Yaeger.