Pickin' the Right Frickin' Chicken: Guide to Picking
Backyard Chicken Breeds
My Lovely Wife Feeding Our Flock
As a chicken farmer noobie much thought and research has went into finding out what breeds of chickens will be best suited for the intended purpose and the area that I live in. This guide was intended for people that don't know much about chicken breeds and will help them narrow down what options there are to fill their needs.
When it comes to chickens there are many options that are available, and some are rather important to keep in mind when selecting a breed because this could mean the difference between a happy health flock and a stressed, non productive, and illness stricken flock. There are several things to consider when choosing a breed for your backyard farm and they include the following:
Rooster Vs. Hen
Handling Ability and Flightiness
This is probably the most important factor to consider when determining what breed of chicken is right for you. Climatic hardiness is the simple question of can this bird survive the temperature of my area without being placed under more than usual stresses. For instance, if you lived in Alaska and you know that temperatures get down into the -20's or -30's you wouldn't want to buy a Naked Neck breed (Picture 1). Another example, is if you lived in Southern Texas and the temperatures get well above 100 degrees you wouldn't want to buy a Brahman (Picture 2) that has feathered legs. These options are often an issue for owners that live in areas with extreme temperature swings but some areas are lucky enough that there mild temperatures allow for a more diverse flock.
There are several adaptations that chickens have developed in order to cope with various temperatures swings. Some examples include comb and wattle type, body size, feather color, and leg feathers. These options are important because they could determine whether your flock thrives or dies. Following is a chart that should help when determining what breed of chicken is right for your geographical location and climate.
Naked Neck Breed - Picture 1
Brahman Hens - Picture 2
Rooster Vs. Hen
The sex of a bird is usually not a question to most owners as they hands down prefer hens over roosters. There are a couple reasons for this as roosters don't lay eggs well (Joke- Non at all!), they are also noisy, and love to fight amongst themselves (Picture 3) for competition to see who can rule over the females. The hens however are very functional by themselves as they don't need their counterpart in order to lay eggs, become surrogate mothers for chicks (Picture 4), and may be used as meat birds after they become older.
Roosters do have some uses and don't always have to be a burden to flock owners. For instance, there would be no chickens if it weren't for them as they are needed to produce viable fertilized eggs. They are also great protectors of their hens in a flock and will lay their life down as a protector. They are also loved in poultry shows as a result of their brilliant colors and essence of proudness. It is best to limit the number of roosters that are designated to each flock as they have a tendency to fight over hens.
Roosters Fighting over Territory - Picture 3
Silkie Mother Hatching Ducklings - Picture 4
Roosters or hens can be purchased for each of the above breeds
Lets face it, some chickens are just better egg layers than others and this is a major factor to consider when choosing a breed. For me an abundance of eggs is one of the most important reasons to have a backyard flock. However, if you do not choose the correct breed you could be out of luck when it comes to having a multitude of eggs.
Over the centuries there have been many breeds of chickens that have been genetically selected and bred for there ability to produce eggs almost on a daily basis, and others not so much, as they are intended for other purposes. There is much debate as to which breed is the best layers and everyone is entitled to their own opinion. Two of my favorites are the Rhode Island Red (Picture 5)and the Austrolorpe (Picture 6). The table below will help you decide which breed is right for you.
Rhode Island Red - Picture 4
Austrolorpe Hen - Picture 5
My Grandfather often tells me of how his Sunday job was to go out and pick an older slower egg producing hen from their large flock. He would then have to kill, pluck, and prepare it for Sunday dinner with the family. He said that their entire flock was made of White Leghorns (Picture 7) and nothing else. He might be surprised today to see some of the heavy meat birds, such as the Cornish Cross (Picture 8), in action as hardy meat producing birds.
Some owners only intended purpose for keeping a backyard flock is so that they can have organic chicken that is fresh and not from a poultry farm. They never intend to have pet chickens or even egg laying chickens but are bred in numbers to feed their family. Others allow their flock to live out their days as egg producing hens and when egg productivity goes so do they. It is important to know what your family is eating and this is one way that it can be done. All chickens can be used as meat but some are much better than others and are listed in the chart below.
White Leghorn Hen - Picture 7
Cornish Cross Meat Bird - Picture 8
Cornish Cross' are usually the standard meat bird however all chickens can be used as meat
Foraging capability is a birds ability to find food naturally while free ranging. This is popular because it cuts down on feed costs and allows the birds to eat what they need to have a balanced diet and produce eggs that are high in vitamins. To some degree all chickens can do this, but some are just better at it than others, similar to athletics among people. Game birds (Picture 9) are supposed to be particularly good at foraging techniques but are not notorious for their steady egg production. Some breeds would rather just sit and wait for their feeder to be filled and not move from their pen, however this is only a select few breeds and usually any chance a bird gets to walk about they will take the opportunity. This sedentary lifestyle is true for the Cornish Cross (Picture 8) and some hybrid breeds. The following is a comparison of foraging capability among poultry breeds.
Game Hen Foraging with Chicks - Picture 9
The X's designate excellent foragers
Predator awareness is a chickens ability to recognize predators and protect itself against death from other animals that consider chickens prey. This can be very important when deciding what breeds to allow into your backyard flock as it can result in loss of money and loss of birds. Predator awareness is something that is built into a bird's nature and is important when free ranging a flock of birds. Some birds are fighters and will lay down their life for others, some are escape artists and can elude danger (Flighty), and some do not try to escape and essentially try to go unnoticed which often ends in undesirable results.
Although predator awareness is built into their natural instincts other physical features of breeds may also play into a breeds survivability. For example Polish breeds (Picture 10) have large tufts of feathers on their head that often cover their eyes making it hard for them to see predators. Color is also important as it determines how well a breed is camouflaged to hawks and falcons from above.
What type of landscape the flock has to forage on is also important as it can determine survival rate. For example, if you have wide open prairies light colored birds would probably not do well. As opposed to forested areas where they are under the cover of bush or tree canopies. Below is a table comparing predator awareness among poultry breeds.
Polish Breed - Picture 10
The X's designate excellent predator awareness
Handling Ability and Flightiness
This aspect of handling ability and flightiness can be important when picking a breed that is confined to a required space or yard. For instance you wouldn't want a Spangled Hamburg (Picture 11) on a 1/4 of an acre in city limits. This is a result of their flighty nature or willingness to fly and be spooked easily. Other breeds that some consider to be flighty are the Anconas or Campines (Picture 12). All these birds are flighty as a result of their predator response instincts. Lets face it, some breeds just see us as predators more than others. Others like sex link breeds or Orpingtons are often oblivious to predators and become easy prey for the hungry.
Flightiness also plays into the ability to handle a bird. Some birds don't like to be touched or even have someone near them others don't mind and consider humans as friends and a good food source. The below table compares non flight to flighty breeds of poultry.
Spangled Hamburg - Picture 11
Campine Breed - Picture 12
Broodiness (Picture 13) is either a trait that is desired or not. Some owners consider it to be a hindrance from normal egg laying and others consider it to be a blessing as they can let the broodies hatch their chicks instead of babysitting an incubator for days. However, there are some breeds that are better at going broody than others. Broody behavior is not something that can be taught nor implemented as it is a natural instinct that some hens have and some don't. Broody behavior has been selectively bred out of some breeds so that they will continue to lay eggs and not go broody or hatch chicks but give eggs daily. Hens do experience broody behavior after they have laid several eggs that are worthy to be hatched, usually 8-12. They will also hatch other hens eggs and even other species of fowl such as ducks, geese, and turkeys. The chart below compares hens that tend to go broody compared to those that don't.
Broody Hen on the Nest - Picture 13
In all seriousness, I think that all chicken breeds are cool and beautiful (except for naked necks...Just kidding!). Most people however have certain breeds that appeal to their tastes and favor. Poultry breeds come in all different sizes, shapes, and colors (Picture 14 & 15). Their are some that have unusual traits and you wouldn't even consider them a chicken and others that bring about a standard image of a hen or rooster. This makes for diverse choices that can be made for whatever breed or type strikes your fancy. Some owners keep flocks just as yard ornaments to look at and others only care about function-ability. Others keep certain breeds of poultry as the last of a certain heritage breed and others keep them to show in poultry shows. In the end, it is all up to what you like and can keep in a healthy setting and be able to provide a good life for your flock. The chart below shows some breeds that have unique characteristics.
Splash Sumatra Ornamantal Chicken - Picture 14
Phoenix Rooster Ornamental Chicken - Picture 15
A Word on Size...
Size is also a matter of opinion as breeds of poultry come in all different sizes. Many breeds have what is called a bantam breed or miniature version of the larger fowl. This can be ideal if available space is limited but you would still like to have a backyard flock. Bantams are usually about half the size of their full grown counterpart and still lay eggs though they are smaller.
Where To Buy
There are many places where you can buy chicks or full grown birds. One of the more popular places are hatcheries that ship day old chicks to your local post office, and www.mypetchicken.com is very popular. These can be great for people that would like to have all different breeds. You can also go the route of full grown birds or pullets that can be found in you local trading paper or online at www.craigslist.org. www.backyardchickens.com is also a great place to look for hatching eggs or anything in between that you might want. See the Chicken Breeders & Hatcheries and the BYC Buy Sell Trade (BST) forum sections. The people that use this site are very friendly and would help any chance they get. Explore your options and be selective in your process of picking your backyard flock.
Get a Flock
If you are looking at this page you are obviously interested in a backyard chickens and are researching the idea. The important lesson here is that all chickens are awesome and they are a great way to live more sustainably and self sufficiently. They are great livestock, pets, and are just plain funny to watch. Each one has unique personalities and they may however not fit perfectly into the niches as described. If you have any doubts about owning a flock think of the good things that they will bring to your life and to your family. In the end, the choice is yours and always remember to have fun with your flock and happy farming.
All pictures are references to the page from where they were taken. Just click on the picture and it should take you to the site where it was found. Information was gathered from the www.backyardchickens.com website. Related articles and sections: