When keeping chickens, feed costs can certainly add up quickly. The good news is that by raising good foraging breeds and letting your flock free-range to find their own sources of proteins and greens, you can help keep that feed bill under control.
While the following six chicken breeds are excellent foragers, there are a few things to consider when allowing them to free-range. The first is camouflage: As you choose your breed, opt for feather colors that will help your birds blend into the background, making it harder for predators to attack them. Some of the breeds below are only available in one color, while others have several variations. Second, bear in mind that most heritage breeds are good foragers, so don’t worry if you don’t find your favorite breed on this list. Many of the most popular dual-purpose heritage chickens can bear confinement or adapt to a free-range environment.
Named for the Buckeye state of Ohio, where this bird originates, the Buckeye chicken sports feathers of a deep reddish-copper hue with yellow legs and skin, and a sensible pea comb, making the bird ideal for cold climates. The Buckeye is a dual-purpose bird, and the hens lay a moderate number of medium-sized brown eggs. This breed not only loves to forage, but prefers it—in fact, it doesn’t bear confinement well at all. The Buckeye can be docile, curious and friendly, but it’s very active and wants to be on the move. Be sure to give this bird lots of space.
2. Egyptian Fayoumi
The Egyptian Fayoumi is small and sassy. While this breed is practically unheard of in the United States, it has been bred and raised in Egypt for centuries. It matures very young and makes a fair table bird, though its egg production is rather low compared to some of the production breeds popular in the U.S. Fayoumis can be lively and flighty, finding confinement difficult. They are hardy little chickens that do exceptionally well in hot climates. Their black-and-white barring color is beautiful, and of course, they’re adaptive, economical eaters.
This Spanish breed is another hot-weather favorite. Available in standard and bantam sizes, the Minorca will adapt to confinement if necessary, but it prefers to range freely. Some fanciers have noted this breed can be rather flighty and choose to avoid humans. Hens are excellent layers of large, white eggs. Minorcas are available in Black, Buff and White.
4. Plymouth Rock
As far as American heritage breeds go, the Plymouth Rock has it all: They’re hardy but docile, fare well in colder weather, produce an excellent number of brown eggs, and have great personalities. Plymouth Rock hens are typically good setters and make great mothers. This heritage breed is listed as Recovering on the The Livestock Conservancy’s Priority List.
Named for the location where the Pilgrims supposedly made landfall, this dual-purpose bird was once the most popular chicken in America, only to be dethroned by the Rhode Island Red, as you’ll see below. In my free-ranging flock, my Barred (a subtle black-and-white feather pattern) Plymouth Rock hens are the only ones to have survived every predator attack (so far), though I believe that to be attributed more to their will and smarts, rather than feather pattern. While many colors are accepted for the breed standard, the barred variety was the original and remains the most recognizable for the breed today.
5. Rhode Island Red
The Rhode Island Red is a barnyard and backyard classic. Easily the most popular American chicken and the most well-known domesticated fowl around the world, the Rhode Island Red is probably the best egg layer on this list. The common Rhode Island Red available today through most hatcheries is a lighter brownish-red than the older, non-production strain, which has Recovering status on the Priority List. Either strain you end up with, this bird is a great addition to a foraging flock.
The breed was developed in its namesake state of Rhode Island and is now their official state bird. Hens lay large, brown eggs and are incredibly curious, friendly and personable. Roosters can become aggressive, however, and are not recommended around children. Although the Rhode Island Red is a heavy breed that eats heartily, it’s an adaptable forager and, in my experience, has been the most tenacious when catching bugs and insects while on pasture.
In the interest of playing favorites, I’ve saved the best for last. Of the excellent free-rangers on this list, my top pick would be the Welsummer—this breed has many of the same characteristics as other heritage chickens (e.g., cold hardiness and great laying abilities), plus exceptional foraging skills. The Welsummer is a first-rate forager, but also a beautiful bird: Its red partridge coloring is attractive and very camouflaging. Hens are above-average layers of gorgeous dark-brown, medium-sized eggs, especially for a more petite bird. All around, this chicken breed has a lively personality, though some can be calmer and some can be more flighty. This is a chicken I’ll always keep in my flock.
About the Author: Kristina Mercedes Urquhart writes from the mountains of Candler, N.C. Follow her homesteading exploits at www.kristinamercedes.tumblr.com.