A chicken is a chicken is a chicken, right? I used to think so, until very early in my relationship with a guy named Larry, when we entered the local feed store on our way back from a lunch date. When I set my eyes on the metal stock tanks full of peeping yellow balls of fluff, I was immediately smitten. Next to the tanks, there was a large chart showing drawings of approximately 15 different chicken breeds, along with details of their uses and their basic characteristics.
That trip, we left the feed store with some type of part for Larry’s lawn tractor, a bag of chick starter feed, and to my joy, a little box of six peeping chicks. Larry already had waterers, feeders, and a heat lamp back at his house, as he’d been raising turkey poults for a few years.
It was on the ride back to his house that I realized I knew nothing about raising chickens. Larry knew a bit more than I did, yet aside from the poults he raised to butcher size, he’d never had chickens of his own.
The moment we dipped the chicks’ tiny beaks into the waterer and then placed them in the brooder, which was simply a plastic tote filled with shavings, we became new parents. We spent the remainder of that date researching chick care on the internet, sitting side by side at his desktop computer. Not a bad date if you ask me.
Our first flock of chickens were Golden Comets – a hybrid cross between a Rhode Island Red and a White Leghorn. Golden Comets are prolific egg layers. They’re what are called sex-link chickens, meaning you can tell their sex by their color. Basically, they’re a mutt. Our birds were true joys to us the few years they pranced around the property. It was difficult to see them stop laying and shortly thereafter develop health issues, as many production hens do.
Those few short years with the Comets triggered a poultry obsession in me. I researched the heritage/purebred chicken world for more information, because I wanted our future chickens to live longer.
Whether you choose a hybrid chicken or a purebred chicken, know that an egg is an egg is an egg. That much is certain. Unless you start talking colored eggs, then it gets complicated again.
There are many types of chickens, and many uses. Each one falls into one or more of the following categories.
A purebred, or heritage, chicken is one that produces offspring the same as its parents. Purebreds and purebreds create more purebreds. Heritages and heritages create heritages. With proper care, these chickens can live a long life. They lay eggs just like hybrids, but they lay fewer eggs per year, thus extending their egg-laying years.
If you keep roosters, you can continue the breed lines, as they reproduce naturally. Purebred chicken breeds are the ones most often seen at poultry shows. Some purebred chickens are dual-purpose, meaning they can be raised for both meat and eggs.
To be considered heritage, chickens must meet the following requirements:
- They must be from naturally mating parents and grandparents.
- They must be from parents and grandparents recognized by the American Poultry Association.
- Both hens and roosters must have the capability of living long lives. Laying hens are expected to be productive for five to seven years, and roosters for three to five years.
- Chickens must not grow too fast. A slower rate of growth from birth to maturity allows for proper development of the reproductive and internal organs, as well as the skeletal structure.
Mixing purebreds or heritages with other strains creates hybrids. People who want hens that only focus on laying, instead of nesting and hatching, often choose hybrids, as the “broody” tendency – the desire to nest and hatch – are often bred out of them through selection. Most hybrids are high production layers, which is a desirable trait. Their shorter life span is also a plus for some.
Bantams are miniature chickens, approximately one-half to one-third the size of average chickens. Many standard breeds have a miniature version, and that’s a bantam. They lay eggs like standard breeds, but their eggs are smaller, and they require the same care as full-size breeds, but with smaller spaces and food rations.
Meat chickens can be hybrids or purebreds. Purebred meat birds usually take longer to grow to butcher size than hybrid varieties. Some dual-purpose purebred chicken owners let them reproduce naturally, and then cull (selectively slaughter) the excess roosters and any hens they don’t want to keep as egg layers. Many of the popular hybrid meat chickens are ready to butcher at 5 to 7 weeks, whereas their purebred counterparts can take anywhere from 12 to 16 weeks.
Choosing a Purebred
How does a person decide which breed is right for them? The answer is simple: Research.
There are a lot of breeds, and there are a lot of things to consider. Some of those things include color of eggs produced, overall temperament, life span, hardiness of the breed, and whether your birds will be confined or allowed to free range, whether part of the time or all of the time.
There are a lot of cool-looking chicken breeds, but don't base your selection on looks alone. Before making a final choice, consider if that breed is a good fit for your homestead and lifestyle. A busy bird that desires freedom probably won’t do well in confinement, and a docile bird will likely get stressed if it can’t find a quiet spot to just be.
When discussing personalities and overall temperaments, know that many factors can change a chicken’s attitude. The presence of roosters, other animals on the property, care, feeding, attention or lack of attention from humans, and shelter accommodations are just a few.
The following breeds are some of the most popular purebred chickens in the United States, based on hardiness, personality, egg-laying capability, and owner satisfaction. Many of the breeds are available in a variety of colors. In fact, I was amazed to discover that the chicken world is a veritable rainbow. In addition to these, there are many more breeds out there, no less magnificent, just less popular.
With so many breeds to choose from, one can certainly find the right fit for their lifestyle. Use the following information as a basic guide, and have fun searching for your perfect feathered companions.
This breed was derived from the Chilean Araucana, and eventually was recognized as its own breed. These chickens have muffs, beards, full tails, and either black or slate legs. Most do well in confinement. They're friendly, sweet, curious layers of blue eggs.
Originating in Chile, these rare birds are friendly, active, heat- and cold-tolerant, and handle confinement. They have cheek tufts and no tails, and their eggs are blue.
This is a docile, shy, good-natured bird from Australia. The dual-purpose breed handles cold and confinement well, and produces large brown eggs.
Brahmas are large, quiet, docile, and friendly, and are often called “gentle giants.” They're hardy in both cold and hot weather, have thick feathers all the way down their legs and onto their toes, and lay medium brown eggs.
The Cochin is a friendly dual-purpose bird originally from China. The breed is laid-back and mellow, has feathered feet, and lays large brown eggs. These birds are considered low maintenance as far as fencing and confinement go, as they don’t wander far.
This very large chicken from New Jersey is known for its value as a meat bird, but it also lays extra-large brown eggs. Hens are reported to be docile, while roosters oftentimes get mixed reviews.
This popular bird is an active, intelligent, dual-purpose breed originally from Italy. The breed is a popular meat bird, and also lays extra-large white eggs. In addition, they’re considered excellent when it comes to feed input versus egg and meat output.
New Hampshire Reds
The personalities of these large, dual-purpose birds from New Hampshire differ from friendly to aggressive, depending on who you talk to. They are cold-hardy, but not especially heat-hardy, and they lay large brown eggs.
This breed is a friendly, calm, dual-purpose bird originally from England. This is another good bird when it comes to feed cost conversion to meat or eggs. The Buff Orpington is said to be extremely friendly, likes to be handled, and lays large brown eggs.
Hailing from Massachusetts, the Plymouth Rock was once the most popular dual-purpose bird – and is still popular. These birds are docile, cold-hardy, and lay large brown eggs.
A unique-looking bird, with a poufy (pom-pom) V-crest, this breed is generally quiet and friendly, although they can be jumpy if their eyesight is affected by their crest. They are good layers of small to medium white eggs, and are not considered a cold-hardy breed.
Rhode Island Red
Developed in Rhode Island and Massachusetts, these birds are excellent layers of extra-large brown eggs. They’re generally friendly, cold-hardy, and valued for their meat.
The Silkie is a fluffy, interesting, small bird originally from China. Its feathers are smooth like silk, and its skin is black or bluish. This breed is calm and passive, very popular, and is reported to be excellent around children. Silkies have feathered legs, and lay small cream-colored eggs.
This is an easy-to-keep dual-purpose bird from England. The birds are friendly, with a curious nature, and they’re alert yet low-key and docile. They’re cold-hardy and lay large cream-colored/light brown eggs.
Known for its large chocolate/reddish-brown eggs, the Welsummer is a large bird from Holland. They’re friendly, intelligent, and are good foragers that like to keep busy.
From the United States, named after a Native American tribe, Wyandotte chickens are dependable layers of large brown eggs. They’re chatty, good foragers, and very active. Because of their hardiness and easygoing nature, they’re a favorite breed among backyard chicken keepers.