As chicken keeping only becomes more popular, it’s easy to be carried away by romantic visions of white chickens beside the red wheelbarrow and a cute little coop in the backyard. However, there are a lot of steps between deciding to keep chickens in the backyard and having fresh eggs on the table on a Sunday morning, and one of the most important is deciding what breed of chicken to keep. There are over 500 breeds of domesticated chicken, and they’ve been bred over centuries to fit into a staggering variety of niches, from birds that lay colorful eggs to others prized for their beautiful feathers, black meat, or crazed vocalizations. While there is a wealth of helpful information online, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed with all the options out there. Fortunately, the decision can be narrowed down considerably by considering just a few practical characteristics that will help you choose the right breed for your family and its chicken-keeping needs.
Perhaps the most obvious consideration when choosing a breed of chicken is egg production, which can vary widely by breed. Of course (and this is true for every trait we’re going to discuss here) no one can guarantee how good of a layer any individual hen can be, but chickens and more says the breed is the best metric to predict how much she’ll produce – and humans have been breeding chickens to produce a lot of eggs for a long time. Breeds at the low end of the production spectrum are those that were bred for other purposes, usually to be ornamental or pet hens – the cochin and the silkie are popular breeds of this type – and they lay around two or three eggs per week. At the other end of the scale we have the industrial hybrids, hens that were bred to lay as heavily as possible for a short period of time – a hybrid will produce about six eggs a week for 18 months or two years, but her production will drop off dramatically after that. Hybrids also tend to be shorter-lived than other breeds.
Fortunately, most of the hens popular with backyard chicken-keepers fall somewhere between these two extremes. Many of the most familiar breeds, like the Australorp and the Rhode Island Red, have production levels almost as high as an industrial hybrid (5-6 eggs a week), but a much longer active laying period and a longer lifespan. Heritage breeds like the Rhode Island Red will also sometimes exist in two ‘strains’ – a heritage and a production strain. The heritage hens will last longer, while the production birds will lay more.
It should be said that it’s almost impossible to build a flock that will produce exactly the amount of eggs your family needs every week, and you’re likely to end up with extras at some point or another. These can be an opportunity to appease any neighbors who dislike the noise or the smell of the coop with free breakfast, or, if cleaned properly, they might be accepted at a food pantry or local shelter, so your chicken coop can benefit both you and your community.
Chicken breeds can also vary quite a bit by size, which is of course an important consideration when figuring out how much space you can allot for a coop and a run. In general, hens can be divided into three categories: bantam, standard, and giant. Standard hens usually weigh between three and four pounds, where giants can be twice that size and bantams are usually one to two pounds. If you’re interested in keeping roosters, remember that they’re a bit bigger and at least a pound heavier than their hens.
Bantam breeds can be further divided into two categories: “true” bantams, which are their own breeds that only exist as small birds, and miniaturized versions of standard breeds; space-conscious first-timers might look into the bantam Plymouth Rock, for example, which is simply a fun-sized variety of the popular beginner bird, with much the same personality and egg-laying capabilities.
No hen is ever going to be as cuddly as a dog or even most cats, but there are breeds that are more open to human interaction and play than others. While anyone planning to regularly cuddle their chickens should be aware of the salmonella risk, looking for particularly docile or friendly breeds can be a great place to start for beginners, especially people looking to get their kids involved with the birds.
The absolute friendliest birds are going to be those that were bred as pets or ornamental companion birds – silkies and cochins being the prime examples. As mentioned above, these breeds tend to have lower production rates; however, there are also plenty of more production-oriented breeds that are known for their friendliness toward humans – like the Australorp, the Plymouth Rock, and the Delaware.
One of the reasons there are so many breeds of chicken is that people raise them all over the world, and so different strains have been adapted to differing climates and geographies. One of the reasons the most popular homesteading breeds have names like the Rhode Island Red, the Plymouth Rock, and the New Hampshire is that New England’s temperate climate produces birds that hold up fairly well in both the heat and the cold. Many breeds can be raised in almost any climate with few problems, but some breeds will require more work than others in certain climates.
Harsh winters, especially, can be hard on hens, and anyone raising chickens in an area known for cold weather will have to take precautions against frostbite and chills. Breeds with feathered feet, like silkies and Brahmas, are especially prone to these problems, because of how hard it is to keep their legs dry, while breeds with exposed combs and wattles may need their featherless skin coated with Vaseline or similar to really keep the cold out. Keep in mind, too, that most hens, except for a few exceptionally hardy souls like the Chantecler and the Wyandotte, will stop laying in the winter months, and even those that keep laying will likely see a dip in production as they devote more of their energy to staying warm.
Overall, there are so many wild and wonderful breeds of chicken out there that it’s hard to go wrong. However, a little bit of research and preparedness before taking your first flock under your wing will go a long way toward making your chicken-keeping experience as positive as possible for all the creatures involved.
Article Written by Chris Lesley of Chicken and More