Poultry keepers learn a major truth during their years as chicken owners: Some chicken breeds are veritable dreams, while others are absolute nightmares. Before buying any of the chicken breeds my husband, Jae, and I raised on our farm, I did major research. I read books, I talked to poultry-science professors, I visited national breed-club web sites … and despite all this, some birds simply refused to fall in line with their breed descriptions. Talk about frustrating. I can still see Jae turning to me, a puzzled expression on his face, asking questions like “Aren’t these supposed to be nice birds?” and “Aren’t these supposed to lay lots of eggs?”
The following quartet of cluckers comprises part two (here’s part one) in my honest attempt to share my personal experience with these chicken breeds. It’s my hope that these descriptions of my time spent with each of these chicken breeds will help guide your choices when it comes to backyard flock shopping.
To make our farm somewhat profitable, we decided to raise heritage chicken breeds that laid a variety of egg colors. When it came to blue eggs, we decided to go with the “original” blue-egg breed, the Araucana.
Many conflicting stories describe the Araucana’s origin. Suffice it to say it developed from one or more fowl found in or brought to South America that shared the Araucana’s tufted, rumpless features. More conflict existed in the description of the Araucana’s disposition. Some of my sources stated the bird was flighty and timid, while others described the breed as friendly and cheerful. Yet others noted the Araucana was active and aggressive.
Our Black Araucana flock agreed with all of those definitions. As chicks, they were extremely active, dashing around their brooder and hopping on and off their perches. They were also very easy to frighten. Just reaching in to swap out their waterer or feeder would cause a cacaphony of cheeps as the peeps dashed frantically away to hide from The Hand.
Oddly enough—and this occurred with every generation we raised—it was as if a switch was flipped at about 5 or 6 weeks of age. Now, instead of fleeing from my hand, the juveniles were more likely to hop onto my hand and just sit there contentedly. My sons took to watching TV with an Araucana pullet or cockerel seated on a rag on their laps. As adults, the girls’ attention shifted to the roosters, whom they followed devotedly around the run.
The hens were not afraid of us, however. I got the distinct feeling they tolerated us. The boys, however, still trotted over for belly rubs and mealworm treats, regardless of their age.
Both the male and female Araucanas were excellent foragers. However, due to their exhorbitant value—we paid $50 each for our initial five chicks and for our four “let’s add a fresh bloodline” additions—we never let them range outside of their run.
The males were quite attentive to their ladies and always kept an active watch for predators. The girls laid an average of two to three beautiful blue eggs per week. Sadly, the fatal Araucana tufted gene did indeed kill about 65 percent of our chicks, in and out of the shell. In addition, most our broody hens would suddenly snap out of their broodiness, abandoning their clutches and forcing me to run to rescue the cooling eggs.
I adored our Araucanas, but I simply couldn’t deal with the heartache trying to breed them caused.
We originally added Cochins (pictured above) to our poultry farm because they were listed on the Livestock Conservancy’s Priority List of threatened and endangered heritage birds. I drove more than an hour to purchase four chicks from a breeder listed on our state’s grassroots poultry group. She brought me to her brooder room and told me to pick my chicks.
Let’s just say I didn’t leave with just four.
I’m happy to report that almost everything I read about Cochins is true. They are gentle, friendly and affectionate birds who’d happily spend the day seated on my lap. If I left the kitchen door open, one (or more) of them would invariably wander into the house and contentedly watch me cook or clean.
They got along fabulously with other chicken breeds. In fact, the Cochins would always adopt the last few members of a flock we were discontinuing. Both the males and females made fabulous parents. Our White Cochins (we also raised Blue, Black and Splash varieties) were particularly awesome parents, caring for their own babies as well as the young of other chicken breeds that the broodies had hatched.
Our Cochin ladies averaged between three and four eggs per week. They were the only hens, out of all the breeds we raised, that would lay well into winter without artificial lighting.
There were also some descriptives that failed to hit the mark with our flock. For instance, in multiple sources I’d read that Cochin hens frequently crush the eggs they set due to their enormous bulk. That was the furthest from the truth. Every single one of our Cochins were carefully methodical in the way they turned and shifted their clutch (something we observed since we numbered the eggs). We never lost a single egg or chick due to the size of the hens.
Another “nope” was the recommendation to lower the coop’s perch because these big beauties were simply too heavy to get any sort of lift. Not only could our Cochins easily clear the height of their perch, they’d also hop onto our tractor and our lawn mower. They’d hop up the deck stairs and even occasionally roost at the top of their run’s fencing.
The third not-quite-right “fact” was that Cochins were terrible foragers because of their feathered feet. On the contrary, our Cochins were amongst our best foragers. Every fall, they’d eagerly clean up our vegetable garden, digging at the ground with those supposedly useless feet. These assistant gardeners saved us a lot of work in the autumn. Unfortunately, until we set up a fence yo keep them in the back, they’d also dig up and turn our front yard’s landscaping mulch.
I don’t really remember why we discontinued our Cochins. I vaguely recall Jae telling me we needed to cut down on the number of flocks we were raising. Should we decide to expand again, Cochins are absolutely the first on the list. Together with Silkies and Orpingtons, they make my Top 3 chicken breeds list.
Chicken math can sometimes derail the best-laid plans. I am far from immune.
Perhaps one or two weeks after we founded our poultry farm, I headed to our local farm-supply store for more chick starter. Of course it was Chick Days. Of course I had to take a peek at all the babies. Of course I went home with one dozen chipmunk-striped baby Easter Egger chicks.
These had been labeled as Ameraucana pullets, but even back then I knew that purebred Ameraucanas were hard to come by and would not sell for $1.79 per chick. I knew full well that I was bringing Easter Eggers—hybrid crosses between a brown-egg layer and an Araucana, Ameraucana or other Easter Egger—to a heritage poultry farm. I was read the riot act by Jae when I arrived home.
We had no separate housing for these little girls. I decided they’d join our Orpington flock, which were about the same age. It was a wise move, as the two groups got along fabulously.
As adults, this pairing also made it easy to see who had laid which egg. Orpington eggs were invariably peachy tan, while our Easter Egger girls laid aqua and green eggs. Despite the Easter Eggers being small standard birds compared to the Orpingtons’ robust girth, the two types of birds formed fast friendships. It always made me smile to see the slimmer Easter Egger girls hanging out with their Orpington pals.
Naturally, Arnold Orpington also enjoyed the company of our Easter Egger girls. This led to Easter Egger hatching eggs and chicks being our second biggest seller after Silkie eggs and chicks. We increased the size of our flock and eventually built them their own coop, headed by Blaziken, one of the best roosters we have ever had.
Our Easter Eggers were friendly, got along with everybody, and loved getting attention, cuddles and treats from us. They were very active and curious, investigating every nook of our yard (much to Blaziken’s annoyance).
They were definitely the fastest of all our breeds. They easily outran the other flocks every time I stepped outside with kitchen scraps. The Easter Eggers were also our best layers, averaging five to six eggs per week. Every now and then, one of the girls went broody. I remember my amusement at finding Keynoter setting her secret nest beside our compost heap. The warmth of the compost heap kept her egg stash at proper incubating temperature when she grumpily went into the coop at night.
Eleven of her clutch of 15 hatched out. I’m guessing the elements affected the other four.
I still regret discontinuing our Easter Egger flock. In the end, our poultry farm focused on purebred birds, not chicken cross breeds. Blaziken and his girls found a new home with a young family about an hour away from us. If you have no hang-ups about heritage vs. hybrid, Easter Eggers are definitely the way to go.
And then there are the Welsummers. Part of the draw of breeding Welsummers was the stunning beauty of the Welsummer rooster, with its full, black tail and red-orange body. Cornelius, the Kellogg’s Corn Flakes rooster, is a Welsummer, so there was some Michigan loyalty in our decision.
The main factor, however, was the gorgeous terra-cotta eggs laid by Welsummer hens. We wanted to offer our customers a rainbow of eggs, and that rich, red-brown egg fit in nicely with our plan. Those beautiful eggs also won me several blue ribbons in local community and county fairs, for which I’m quite grateful to the Welsummer girls.
The Welsummer hens, however, aren’t the great layers I’d read about. They supposedly produce around 180 eggs per year—that’s an egg almost every other day. I guess the breed has no calendar instinct, because the Welsummers were always the last of our chicken breeds to start laying each year, producing their first eggs in May when everyone else started laying in March or early April.
They were also the first to molt, in September, cutting their laying season to a whopping five months, during which they laid an average of two eggs per week. Twenty weeks times two does not total 180! Fortunately, the hens showed absolutely no interest in brooding. Fortunately, they accepted the juveniles we hatched and raised without any issue.
One thing was certain: Welsummers loved to roam. I lost count of how many times I had to fetch the flock out of our neighbor’s yard, acres away from us, or catch them as they started down the trail leading into the state woodlands behind us. For all their ranging, though, they were terrible foragers, always voracious upon returning to their run.
Eventually, the number of hens we needed to keep up with egg demand, coupled with the Welsummers’ standoffish attitude towards us, led me to call it quits. The entire flock was purchased by a very nice farmer several hours north of us.