Before I started writing for Hobby Farms and Chickens, before I focused my journalism on agricultural topics, I was known as the Chelsea Chicken Lady—one of the two individuals responsible for getting the city of Chelsea, Michigan, to legalize backyard flocks. But even before that, I was a longtime chicken owner, helping friends, family, neighbors and perfect strangers choose chicken breeds and navigate poultry issues. I was called on for help during Chick Days by local feed and farm-supply stores and folks knew I exhibited my birds at poultry shows around the Midwest. And long before that, I was a kid who helped take care of her grandmother’s rooster and hens.
It’s safe to say that chickens have been part of my life for most of my existence. It’s also safe to say that, over the years, I’ve gotten to know numerous different breeds of chickens. My close association with poultry has given me insight into these chicken breeds, insight that many microflock owners have counted on to help guide their breed choices with questions like, “I’m thinking about [insert breed of interest here], and I read that they are docile/flighty/aggressive/poor layers/great mothers/etc. What’s the honest truth?”
The honest truth is that I can only go by my decades of experience. I do know that what I’ve encountered with a few chicken breeds completely contradicts the general information found online. So … get out your salt shaker, because those grains of salt may come in handy as you read my honest truth about the 18 chicken breeds we’ve raised over the years. Here are the first five.
We added White, Blue and Black Ameraucanas (pictured above) to our farm because of their beautiful baby-blue eggs, the same kind laid by their rarer Araucana cousins. We had read that, like Araucanas, Ameraucanas had reproductive issues due to genetics. To our delight and relief, this was never evidenced in our flock.
The Ameraucana girls laid an average of three to four eggs each per week, and every Ameraucana egg we incubated hatched. And we didn’t have to incubate many. The Ameraucana girls surprised us again by being almost as broody as our Orps … not necessarily a good thing when we had customers waiting for blue-egg dozens.
Our Ameraucana hens were fabulous mothers, guiding their chicks well into adulthood. Pullets actually stayed with their mothers as adults, creating little multigenerational girl groups in our flock. We made another unexpected discovery about Ameraucanas, too. They turned out to be our longest-producing layers, with our girls regularly laying at least one egg per week well into their sixth year—and some beyond.
These Ameraucanas also turned out to be our longest-lived chickens. Our Black Ameraucana, Dolly, turned 11 this past June. Our Ameraucana boys were also nothing to sneeze at. After our Orpingtons, our Ameraucana roosters were our best guardians, always watching for predators or anything unusual in their runs or in our yard. Our Blue Ameraucana rooster, Jefferson, was one of my all-time favorite roosters. He wasn’t as cuddly as my Orpington boys—our Ameraucanas basically tolerate our presence—but he protected his flock, fathered many chicks, and never failed to make his hens his priority.
Old English Game Bantam
We never intended to raise Old English Game Bantams, or any kind of bantam for that matter. Bantams would not produce eggs of a marketable size, and integrating them with a large-fowl flock would be almost impossible. We had already made accommodations—figuratively and literally—for our Silkies. We were set … until I made a run to our farm-supply store and heard the cheeping from the Chick Days stock tanks.
I instantly fell in love with the teeny baby chicks with the chipmunk stripe down their backs. I could fit three of them on the palm of my hand! They were so dainty. I couldn’t resist.
I had absolutely no idea what breed these babies were. They were listed as “Assorted Bantams.” Dedicated research determined that these chicks were Old English Game Bantams. I was horrified to read that this bird was originally bred to game fight, was aggressive, highly active, and would not interact well with other chicken breeds.
I soon discovered that these write-ups were completely wrong. Not only were our Old English Game Bantams friendly with us, they endeared themselves to the other chicks in our brooder. Everybody wanted to be their friends, and the nightly chick-carpet snoozefest had the Old English Game Bantams smack in the center. When it was time to move our juveniles to their coops, the Old English Game Bantams went along, happily settling in with our Easter Eggers.
The star of the trio was Belle, named so because she was a pretty little princess. While all three of our Old English Game Bantams eagerly rushed over to greet us, Belle would wait for me to put out my palm. She’d then hop onto my hand and, from there, to my shoulder.
Belle was my pseudo parrot. She adored perching up there while I completed my outdoor chores. She was the epitome of affectionate.
In fact, Belle was the little chicken that attended all the organizational meetings that led to the city of Chelsea approving backyard-flock ownership. The council members were enchanted by the charming little Belle, who happily let anyone who so desired hold her. Never did we witness any aggression towards us or any humans or any combative tendencies towards the other birds.
The Old English Game Bantams were indeed highly active. They behaved like kids in a candy shop, running all over the yard, investigating everything. We chose to discontinue breeding the Old English Game Bantams to focus on the standard breeds, but I would definitely recommend this chicken to anyone seeking a cute poultry pet.
One of my top three chicken breeds, my husband, Jae, and I started raising Orpingtons because they were on the Livestock Conservancy’s Priority List of endangered poultry species. In addition, Orpingtons were supposed to be docile and affectionate.
Over the years, we have raised Buff, White, Black, Blue, Lavender and Jubilee Orpingtons. With only one exception—Angel, the first Buff Orpington cockerel we hatched—every single one of our Orpingtons has been gentle, friendly and sweet in disposition. All of our roosters (except Angel) have been carefully attentive of their hens, calling them for treats, alerting them to possible predators, and firmly shepherding them as they roam our acreage.
They were also excellent fathers. In fact, two of our boys—Arnold and Claude—set eggs briefly so the broody of the moment could stretch her legs. Our Orpington hens were excellent layers, producing an average of four to five large brown eggs weekly.
I estimate about half of the girls would go broody at the drop of a hat. One of our Black Orpington hens, Fitz, was so enamored with motherhood that she hid 18 of her eggs under a shrub, then led us on a frantic search one night when she wasn’t present for lock-up. We transferred Madame Broody and her enormous clutch to a brooder, and of course all 18 successfully hatched.
Orpingtons are excellent foragers; swift demolishers of stray toads, mice and snakes; and incredibly intelligent. Observation taught them where their humans emerged with those tasty kitchen scraps, and for years we’d find a mob of Orps waiting for us outside our kitchen sliding-glass door. The bolder ones would rap on the door with their beaks to call us.
Orpingtons were one of the chicken breeds that launched our poultry farm and, years later, they are still our main breed.
It’s hard not to love a Silkie. This living fluffball is so gentle and endearing that you’ll want to own them all.
That’s pretty much what happened to us. We started with a quartet of Buff Silkies. The next thing we knew, we had Blue Silkies, Black Silkies, White Silkies and Splash Silkies. We kept bearded and beardless, and all of them were adorable, though we soon phased out our beardless bunc. (They just weren’t “poofy” enough for us.)
Everything I’d read about this lovable breed’s disposition was true. Silkies are amazingly tolerant. My sons carried them in fair parades, tucked them under an arm to search for Easter eggs with them, sat on the couch—inside!—and read with them on their laps. Silkies are the perfect pet chicken.
They’re also amazing setters and mothers. If Orpingtons go broody at the drop of a hat, Silkies go broody at the blink of an eye, even on golf balls and rocks. Our Silkie hens weren’t great layers—each averaged about two to three eggs per week—but they happily hatched and raised other poultry’s young and continued to mother them even when the chicks were fully adult.
There are some drawbacks to these beautiful bantams, however. They are terrible foragers, even in their own enclosed run, possibly because their vision can be obscured by head fluff. Silkies are also short on brains. I’ve lost count how many times we’ve had to show our Silkies the entrance to their coop, the location of their nestboxes, how to perch, how to drink from their waterer, etc. The term “birdbrain” was probably coined after an encounter with a Silkie.
They also do poorly in cold weather due to their feather structure. Still, Silkies are ideal for exhibition, their striking looks winning them many prizes. They’re also perfect microflock poultry, especially for small urban and suburban yards. Of all the chicken breeds we’ve raised over the years, Silkies—chicks and hatching eggs—have always been our best sellers. Silkies join Orpingtons as one of our original breeds and one of our top three favorites.
Like the Orpington, the Wyandotte was one of the first chicken breeds we raised on our poultry farm, and for the same reasons: They were on the Livestock Conservancy’s Priority List and were described as friendly, docile and great for families with children.
We began with six Silver-Laced Wyandotte chicks, which we raised the exact same way as our half-dozen Orpington babies. The birds received lots of cuddles, TLC and hand-fed mealworm treats to train them to recognize and trust us. While this method—which we still use—worked wonderfully with the Orpingtons, the Wyandottes grew less and less affectionate as they grew up.
Stunning birds, the Wyandottes were a very cohesive flock. The hens always stayed within a few feet of their rooster. The hens produced an average of four large brown eggs per week, but showed absolutely no tendency towards broodiness. In all honesty, they were an excellent backyard breed: reliable layers, excellent foragers and beautiful to behold.
But I just couldn’t get past their aloof attitude, especially when they were described as friendly.
I bought four baby pullets—also Silver Laced—from a different breeder just in case our Wyandottes’ disposition stemmed from inbreeding. Unfortunately, these new girls showed the exact same attitude towards us … and towards our older Wyandottes. Our existing flock completely ignored the younger quartet, even though the pullets joined the original flock outdoors once they were old enough to leave the brooder. There were no pecking-order squabbles or hen fights between the two groups. They simply acted as if the other birds were invisible.
I was mystified and perturbed and, ultimately, decided that Wyandottes weren’t for us. Despite their beauty, their excellent laying and foraging, and their tight-knit devotion to their group, that detached, cold composure simply didn’t click with me. Wyandottes were the first breed we discontinued.
Stayed tuned for future installments of this honest look at popular chicken breeds!