Looking to start or expand your backyard flock but not sure which chicken breeds to are the best? While I can’t tell you which chickens would be the perfect match for your particular situation—more than a dozen factors affecting your decision come to mind off the top of my head—I can share which chicken breeds worked for my family and which ones crashed and burned.
Dutch Booted Bantam
My experience with Dutch Booted Bantams (pictured above) came about unexpectedly. These were amongst the adorable “mixed bantams” that I brought home from our farm-supply store as a result of chicken math.
There were only three in the entire stock tank, and all three came home with me. Sadly, two didn’t survive the first week. To this day, I’m unsure why they perished. They’d been active; were eating, drinking; and pooping; never experienced pasty butt; and were the same size and age as the other baby bantams in the brooder. P
erhaps Dutch Booted Bantams are delicate by nature. Perhaps it was just those particular chicks from that particular hatchery. I’ll never know.
The surviving chick, Clarice, befriended the only lavender chick I’d seen in the mixed-bantams tank (and of course brought home). Edward and Clarice became inseparable, even as fully grown birds … which was all the more astounding since we discovered that Edward was not a bantam at all but rather an Easter Egger—and female at that. Another name change became imminent when Clarice began crowing.
Edwina and Clarence were quite the pair. Clarence would ride on Edwina’s back, and the two would roost together at night, Clarence often tucked beneath one of Edwina’s wings.
I never saw another Dutch Booted Bantam chick amongst the bantams bin that year or in subsequent years, so I can only assume that the hatchery had issues with the breed. It’s hard to summarize an entire breed based on my experience with Clarence, but I will say he was a very gentle, affectionate and healthy little bird with beautiful feathering on his feet. Hopefully the rest of his breed follows suit.
One advantage of getting to know the director of the local university’s poultry research farm is being alerted when hatching eggs and chicks were available for the many different chicken breeds being raised at the center. I carefully brought home one dozen of the tiniest bantam eggs I’d ever seen and watched them incubate with anticipation.
I was very disappointed when only one egg hatched. I learned soon after that Japanese Bantams, like Araucanas, carry a lethal gene that kills many of the embryos before they hatch.
The surviving chick, a gorgeous White Japanese Bantam I named Hanako, was an absolutely perfect specimen of the breed, with a full breast, upright tail and perfect single comb. Fully grown, he fit on the palm of my hand. I’d read that Japanese Bantams were trusting, friendly birds that made great pets. Hanako was exactly that.
I’d also read that Japanese Bantams are often picked on by other chicken breeds because of their relatively immense tail and very short legs. While none of my other bantams ever bothered Hanako, they also didn’t befriend him, leaving the little fellow alone and lonely. He became very attached to me and happily rode around on my shoulder. At night, he snuggled in his own brooder with a plush bunny I bought him for company.
I also purchased a small chicken tractor so that Hanako could safely enjoy the outdoors during the warmer months. Those tiny legs of his would never outrun a bullying bird, much less a predator.
While he seemed to enjoy the sunshine and the grass, Hanako never appeared to be fully comfortable outdoors. Japanese Bantams are ornamental, bred to be pets, exhibition birds or fanciers’ fowl. Hanako was at his happiest whenever he was with or near me.
You need look no further than a Japanese Bantam if you’re looking for the perfect pet. Just be sure you buy yours as baby chicks to avoid the hatching heartache, and be prepared to offer your Japanese Bantams a clean, cozy brooder inside your home or basement, as the breed does poorly in the cold or intense heat. The Japanese Bantams at the university research facility lived in their own climate-controlled room indoors.
These adorable moptops first caught my eye on a friend’s Facebook page. She had decided to focus her small-farm flock on Polish and was sharing photos of the different varieties of this striking crested bird. I had only ever seen Polish chicks once at our feed store. A special chick order had arrived and the owner had not yet picked up her trio of White-Crested Black babies.
With their fluffy poofs on top of their heads and their sweet little faces, the Polish chicks made my heart melt. My friend was only happy to oblige me. She sent me one dozen hatching eggs from her breeder stock. In three weeks’ time, my husband Jae and I were the proud parents of a dozen Golden Laced, White-Crested Black, White-Crested Blue, Buff and White Polish chicks.
As the chicks grew, it became very easy to tell the boys from the girls. The girls’ crests were rounded pompoms while the boys resembled Andy Warhol with their eye-covering shag. I’d read that the crests tend to obscure these chickens’ eyesight, making them startle easily and prone to bullying and predation. Since they had their own coop, our Polish had no bullies to worry about.
Thanks to our network of roosters, the Polish were always alerted to the presence of any predators. The only thing I could therefore put to the test was the startle factor, and only once did I ever see any of the Polish jump—our White-Crested Black rooster, Stefanski, when a blue racer suddenly slithered across his path. Heck, I’d jump, too.
Our Polish hens were decent layers, producing an average of three white eggs per week. They never went broody nor did they show any inclinations towards parenting younger members of the flock.
In addition to being our only white egg layers, the Polish were also the only breed never to display pecking-order squabbles. They were very mellow birds with sweet dispositions who got along well with each other and with us. Neither the males nor females minded being picked up. They just took it all in stride. Since many of our Polish became prizewinning exhibition birds, their mellow, agreeable nature was a definite bonus.
The one drawback I can think of is that the poor boys’ crests suffered during our frigid Michigan winters, becoming coated in thin layers of ice that I’d have to thaw. Even then, they’d stand patiently and let me wrap them in towels without complaint.
Polish chickens are truly pleasant in nature and beautiful to boot. Definitely one of my top five chicken breeds.
Our quest for dark-brown egg layers eventually led us to the Marans, a French bird whose eggs range in color from milk chocolate to almost black. Marans breeders actually have an egg color ratings chart specific to the breed. Only those hens who consistently lay eggs a certain shade of brown or darker are considered to be true Marans.
Those girls unfortunate enough to lay paler eggs are never bred or, worse, are culled.
I located a breeder about an hour to the northwest who specialized in Blue Copper Marans and Black Copper Marans. I brought home four pullet chicks of each plus a Black Copper Marans cockerel. From the start, the Marans were inquisitive, active birds. They loved to range, traveling in a pack around our acreage, exploring and getting to know their territory.
Their coop had the largest run of all our henhouses, but the Marans were visibly unhappy confined. They always returned to their shelter to lay, the girls taking turns in the nest boxes while the rooster paced in the run like an expectant father. Once the day’s eggs were produced, they’d all head off again, returning before sunset to roost for the night. I could almost set my watch to our Marans’ routine. T
hey were very predictable birds, and I’m surprised none of the local predators ever caught onto this.
Despite laying four to five eggs per week, the Marans hens never showed any interest in setting their eggs. They were much more interested in roaming the yard. Although they were always friendly in their interactions with me, it was easy to see they were impatient to be off on their own.
The Marans were similarly disinterested in our other flocks. In fact, they seemed almost standoffish towards the other birds. It was almost like they were the privileged high-school populars.
Given that every other breed we were raising practically craved human attention, the Marans’ independence was somewhat unsettling to me. After four years and multiple Marans generations, none of them producing those famously dark-chocolate eggs, I sold the entire flock to a neighboring farmer who was simply happy to have chickens that laid well and basically looked after themselves.