Once you’ve determined you can legally own backyard chickens and you’ve settled on a purpose for your poultry, it’s time to select birds that will fulfill your flock’s goal. It’s time to get serious. Because choosing the wrong chicken breeds can lead to major headaches, if not downright disasters.
You may have your heart set on Silkies. But if you live in Northern Minnesota, your breed of choice may not survive the harsh local winters.
It’s crucial to set aside an afternoon—or a weekend—to research the many different types of chickens available in the U.S. Knowing the chief traits of each type will help you narrow your list down to a handful of the breeds that are best for you.
For those new to poultry keeping—and even to old hands—this task can be overwhelming. You may find yourself wanting one of every type of chicken out there … or find eliminating breeds from your list such a daunting task that you decide to buy a goldfish instead.
Don’t despair. Organize!
Use color-coded index cards or a spreadsheet to record details for each breed you find of interest. Once you’ve finished taking notes, scan your cards or document to designate the breed or breeds with which you’ll start your poultry-keeping experience.
We’ve previously discussed egg-producing ability, including egg color and size. The following five traits will help you further narrow down your breeds list.
The U.S. consists of a wide variety of climates: desert, tropical, temperate, Arctic and everything in between. Humans have definite preferences as to what type of temperatures they prefer. But when it comes to poultry, some birds simply do not thrive in certain conditions.
Lightly feathered birds thrive in warmer climates but suffer terribly in chillier regions. Their feathering does not trap body heat in sufficiently to keep them warm or prevent frostbite.
Because of their light feathering, these birds often require special housing and heating to survive the winter. If you live in a hot and/or humid part of the United States, these lightly feathered, heat-hardy birds are ideal for you.
Similarly, heavily feathered chicken breeds will thrive in cooler climates but swelter and fare poorly in warmer regions. If you live in a zone known for its crisp falls and snowy winters, select thickly feathered, cold-hardy birds for your flock.
Chicken breeds come in two sizes: bantam and standard. Bantam breeds are best described as miniature chickens, roughly about one quarter the size of a standard chicken.
Bantams are not dwarfs. They are perfectly proportioned, rarely weigh more than a few pounds, and lay small eggs. Standard breeds, also known as large-fowl chickens, can weigh 12 pounds or more depending on the breed.
Many breeds come in both bantam and standard sizes. So, if you have your heart set on a fluffy-footed Cochin but have a pocket-sized yard, opt for the bantam variety instead of the standard.
Some breeds, however, are strictly bantam in size: Seramas, Silkies, Japanese Bantams and Dutch Bantams are examples of bantam-only birds. Take the size of your property into careful consideration when selecting the size of your chickens.
You probably don’t want to spend hours chasing tiny, free-ranging Sebrights around your acreage. Nor do you want a flock of husky Jersey Giants just standing around on your patio because there isn’t enough room for them to roam.
Many heritage chickens were bred to yield meat as well as eggs. These dual-purpose birds tend to have a thick-set body, a fuller chest and an overall greater density. They include:
Not surprisingly, these chicken breeds also tend to be cold hardy. Breeds that have a lighter, more streamlined body (such as the Appenzeller, the Campine and the Leghorn) were bred for eggs, beauty or both. These light-bodied birds tend to thrive better in temperate and warmer climates.
Body weight is a serious consideration if you may find yourself carrying your birds to pasture or elsewhere. After lugging around your flock of Dark Brahmas, you might wish you had selected the lighter La Fleche instead.
Just like humans, chickens have a wide range of dispositions. Some can be sweet and affectionate, others can be flighty and nervous. Some can even be high strung and aggressive.
If you plan to keep chickens as pets for companionship, you’ll want to select breeds that are known for their gentle, docile natures, such as the Orpington and the Speckled Sussex.
Docile breeds are also best if you have small children who might be spooked by more belligerent birds.
The temperament of a breed is one of those grey areas where you may have to give a little to get a lot back. For instance, if you wish to raise Polish chickens for exhibition or conservation, you’ll have to understand that these birds frighten easily because their crests usually cover their eyes, limiting their vision.
Plan on raising Aseels for their excellent egg-laying ability? You’ll have to accept that this fierce fighter does not mix well with other poultry breeds.
Some breeds just love bringing chicks into the world. The hens will set on anything: their own eggs, another hen’s eggs, golf balls, anything remotely round in shape.
At first, this can serve as a source of amusement—and social-media photos. But eventually you realize that a broody hen is a non-productive hen. She just sits on her nest in a trancelike state, waiting for her chicks to hatch.
If you don’t have a rooster, your hen’s going to be sitting there for a long time. And an extended brood can be very unhealthy, since hens rarely eat or drink during this time.
If your town permits you to keep roosters and raise chicks, having one or two broodies is a great benefit to your flock. If you’re keeping chickens to produce eggs, however, you won’t get far with a flock full of broodies.
Unfortunately, the broodiest of chicken breeds also are amongst the most popular: Cochins, Silkies, Orpingtons and Dorkings will happily set on rocks if given the chance. If you don’t want to take a chance on broody hens, consider non-setting breeds such as Rhode Islands, Leghorns, Spanish, Minorcas and Catalanas.
Online Breed-Research Resources
Ready to do your research? Several sites offer in-depth information on chicken breeds and their different traits. These include:
Once you’ve narrowed down your list to the breed or breeds you want for your flock, you’ll need to know where to find them. That topic will be discussed in next week’s column.