When I first started looking into getting chickens for my small backyard garden, I couldn’t believe how many breeds there were! It was dizzying trying to decide among hundreds of chicken breeds in all shapes, sizes, colors, and temperaments. Choosing which breed to own, however, is a very important step, so it’s worth all the research. Finding the ideal breed for your needs will go a long way towards preventing common poultry pitfalls and creating an enjoyable, productive experience with chickens.
Starting the Process
A common reason for confusion among new and prospective chicken owners like me is the huge array of variety that’s available. There are literally hundreds of breeds, and many of those breeds come in different colors and even different sizes. Taking the time to research can be a fun and interesting process though, and hopefully this little guide can help untangle the web of confusion that I was met with at first and help smooth the research process along.
First of all, there’s size. Many breeds come in more than one size, so it’s important to note which size you’re looking for:
- Bantam – These are best described as “mini-chickens” and are bred for show, ease of care, small spaces, and as pets. They are often very friendly and tame and great with children. Many are productive layers, but the eggs are quite small. The “true bantams” are breeds that are only available in bantam size (the Dutch is a good example).
- Standard – These are the formal breed size. All breeds described below are standard varieties, though some, including cochins and leghorns, come in the bantam size.
For most chicken owners, eggs are one of the most important aspects of owning one of these birds. However, not all chicken breeds are good egg layers. Following are some of the most popular egg-laying breeds, which can boast 300 eggs per year or more:
- Hybrid layers (Red Stars, Sex-linked, etc.) – 300+ eggs per year. Among the best egg producers, these hybrids lay eggs almost daily starting at a younger age than most. They are excellent producers and very easy to handle. They make great beginner birds in coops, but they are not suitable for free-ranging or cold climates.
- Leghorns – 300+ eggs per year. These are the quintessential egg layers that produces commercial eggs for the supermarket. They come in many colors, including white, brown, and silver.
- Aracaunas/Ameraucanas – 150-250 eggs per year. There is some contention over the name, as it encompasses more than one breed. Like many others, I just call them “Easter-eggers,” as that is their claim to fame. They lay beautiful green-to-turquoise eggs. While not as productive as other layers, they do offer a bit of variety to your flock.
Self-reliant, hardy, and great birds for both meat and eggs, dual-purpose chicken breeds are a great starting point for both urban and rural areas. These are among the most famous and popular breeds of chicken.
- Rhode Island Red – 280 eggs per year. One of the most popular and famous breeds, Rhode Island Reds are very hardy and suitable for free-ranging and cold climates.
- Plymouth Rock – 150 eggs per year. They are very large, hardy birds that produce large brown eggs and can grow to more than nine pounds when full-grown.
- Buff Orpington – 250 eggs per year. A traditional English breed, these birds are known for their beautiful, golden feathers, large brown eggs, and sweet disposition. They are great beginner birds.
If you’d like to raise your own chicks one day, it may be a good idea to invest in a broody hen or two. While these breeds can be moderate layers, they are most known for their desire to go broody, or to sit on eggs. This is an undesirable trait for good egg production, and many breeds no longer carry this trait. But worry not – I’ve had both cochins and silkies adopt other hens’ eggs and do the mothering work for them.
- Cochin – Hailing from China, this is a large, fluffy breed that has an easygoing and sweet disposition. Excellent mothers, they readily adopt eggs and chicks from other hens. Thy are also very cold-tolerant and available in a wide variety of colors.
- Brahma – These are also great brooders and mothers. Very docile and versatile, Brahmas are moderate layers and make great pets, especially for families with young children.
- Silkie – The Silkie is a very popular breed for its unusual looks and super-soft feathers. These birds make great mothers and feature a docile temperament. The bantam silkies in particular love to be held and make great pets.
These breeds tend to be heavier than other chickens and are often less active as well. The Cornish in particular are often crossbred with dual-purpose chickens to produce hardier boiler birds.
- Cornish – 8 pounds. These are heavy meat birds that are often crossbred with the Plymouth Rock. They are not very active and can be noisy. They are not recommended for a mixed flock or for free-ranging.
- Dorking – 6.5 pounds. An ancient breed from Europe that is also dual-purpose, as Dorkings are moderate layers. In addition, the hens can be very broody.
- La Fleche – 5.5 pounds. This is a smaller French breed known for its superior flavor and texture.
Free-range chicken breeds have numerous shared traits, all of which help them thrive in the outdoors. One common trait is temperament – these breeds also tend to be quick and shy, and they know how to avoid predators. (This also makes them difficult to catch!) In addition, their hardy nature makes them good free-range chickens.
- Catalana – The most popular breed in South America, this is a great choice for hot climates. It is also a moderate egg layer. It’s a very active, skittish breed that does best in a free-range environment.
- Hamburg – An old breed from Holland, this tough breed is a good layer. Very cold hardy, it doesn’t tolerate closed spaces well. These active birds enjoy open spaces and are very good flyers. Shy and difficult to approach.
Of course there are many more breeds out there that can be just as good, if not better, for your needs than the ones listed above. Having trouble deciding? A mixed flock can be a great option. Mixing different breeds allows you to experience the best (and worst) that chickens have to offer. For example, my first flock was a varied mix of Easter-eggers, Silver Leghorns, Buff Orpingtons, and a very sweet Silkie. Now, I wouldn’t say that it’s the best mix for everyone, but mixed flocks like this one include good egg layers, broody hens, hardy dual-purpose birds, and a fun pet chicken that enjoys to be held.
One surprise I encountered while researching was my discovery of poultry shows – that’s right, just like dog breeders and owners attend dog breed shows, chicken owners and breeders show their birds to a judge for that best-of-breed title. If any are held in your area, I encourage you to check one out! They are usually open to the public, and they are a wonderful, hands-on way to see each chicken breed for yourself and to speak with local experts and breeders. For the newbie chicken owner, a poultry show offers a wealth of information and is a great place to discover new breeds. For a listing of poultry shows in your area, visit the American Poultry Association website.
Choosing the best breed for your first chicken coop can seem daunting at first, but the joys of raising these birds and eating fresh, nutritious eggs is more than worth the effort. Even after you think you’ve found the perfect breed for your urban or rural farm, try to experiment every year or so – you may just find another favorite!