If you’re new to chickens you might want to check out the article I wrote about some of the things to consider before buying chickens. Today we’re going to talk about chicken breeds and later we’ll discuss which breed or combination of breeds will work well for your situation.
More often than not, people who want to buy their first chickens ask around online as to which breed they should get. “Buff Orpington” is almost always the answer given. But, there are a whole lot of wonderful breeds that would do just as well (or better!) for them. For this we are going to focus on “heritage” breeds.
Points to Consider When Choosing Chicken Breeds
- Purpose. Will the birds be pets or livestock? Are you wanting them for eggs, meat, or broodiness?
- Climate. Do you have extreme temperatures?
- Management. Will the birds free-range or will they be confined (coop and run)?
- Temperament. Very important if you’re keeping them for pets and also important when being kept confined (coop and run).
- Appearance. Is the bird pleasing to your eye? Does it have a feature (crest, leg feathering, etc.) that may have a negative or even fatal effect when combined with your management style?
A General Overview of Chicken Breeds
Modern Hybrids and Commercial Breeds:
The birds currently used for meat or egg production in a commercial setting as well as on many farms. The hybrid “breeds” are created by crossing two or more inbred breeds or “strains” together to create hybrid vigor. The breeds or strains used for the cross are bred for good production so the resultant hybrids have great production. The hybrid birds do not breed true (and therefore aren’t breeds). Crosses between two hybrid birds lose the vigor and revert to the production level of the grandparents (at best).
The most common meat hybrid is the Cornish Cross. They are a white bird that likes to eat (and eat, and eat, and eat) so it can grow (and grow, and grow, and grow). Careful management is needed to insure that the birds do not eat themselves to death or grow too quickly. Other meat hybrids typically go by names like “Red Broiler” or “Black Broiler”.
Sex Links are the egg-laying hybrids. Some hatcheries give the hybrids simple names like “Red Sex Link” and some give them fancy names like “Golden Comet”. Either way they are a hybrid developed for crazy high egg production and the ability to tell the gender at hatch. With a sexlinked breed gender can be determined accurately at hatch just by looking at the color of the chick.
Commercial breeds were standardized breeds that were bred for heavy production, losing many breed attributes along the way. Some examples are Rhode Island Reds and Leghorns. Be aware that commercial breeds have a non-commercial counterpart.
Simply put, a landrace is a variety of animal or plant that is adapted to a specific region. They typically have more diverse appearances and a less homogeneous gene pool than a “true” breed. For the most part they breed true.
Many of the landrace breeds that are currently popular originate from Scandinavian countries. Breeds include Norwegian Jaerhorn, Hedemora, Swedish Flower Hen, Swedish Black Hen (Svart Hona), and Icelandics.
Autosexing and Mixed Breeds:
Austosexing chicken breeds include any of the breeds whose name has the -bar affix (Legbar, Rhodebar, etc.). Some standardized breeds are easily sexed at hatch, but have not been bred with a focus on that specific quality (Barred Plymouth Rocks and Welsummers are two examples).
The most popular mixed breed is the Easter Egger (often incorrectly called an Ameraucana, Araucana, or the misspelled Americauna). These chickens can lay a variety of egg colors (only one color per bird) including brown, blue, green, and tinted.
The Olive Egger, a cross between a blue egg layer and a dark brown egg layer, is also growing in popularity at a fast pace. Also popular are the Super Blue Egg Layers, a cross between a blue egg layer and a very productive white egg layer (typically a Leghorn).
A standardized chicken breed is one that has been admitted into the American Poultry Association (APA) or the corresponding association in another country. These birds breed true, have a similar appearance (within varieties), and have a written standard to judge the quality.
Most all (if not all) of the breeds in the APA are “heritage” breeds. The term “heritage” is far too broad and frankly it applies to any birds that are not commercial, hybrid, or mixed breeds. Chickens that came from a hatchery are NOT heritage and are usually poor examples of their “breed”.
A really basic and general overview of the type of chicken best suited for each each purpose:
- The best egg layers are light-bodied, lay white eggs, and are non-setters (not broody).
- The best meat birds are heavy-bodied and lay brown eggs. They are frequently setters (broody).
- The best broody hens are typically the heavy-bodied birds used for meat or bantams such as Silkies or Old English Games.
- The best pet birds are usually also the best broody hens which really puts a wrench in your plans if you want egg-laying pets. However, all chickens can be tamed down to be pets.
There are, of course, exceptions to every rule and guideline.
Dual purpose chickens are always better at one purpose than another. Basically they are either good egg producers and fair meat producers or vice versa. Sometimes simplified to “eggs with meat” or “meat with eggs”. Picture a seesaw with “meat qualities” on one end and “egg qualities” on the other; when one quality goes up the other quality goes down.
Chickens are very hardy animals that can survive and thrive in a variety of environments. However, some chicken breeds handle extreme cold or heat better than others.
In general, most Mediterranean breeds (Leghorns, Anconas, Andalusians, etc.) are very well suited to hot climates. Any bird with a large single comb and wattles will tolerate heat better than a bird with a small comb and wattles.
Cold tolerant breeds include the Chantecler and the Russian Orloff. Any breed with a rosecomb, cushion, pea, or walnut comb and small wattles will tolerate cold weather better. The smaller size of the comb and wattles significantly lessens the chance of the bird developing frostbite.
Chickens being kept in confinement (coop and run only) will do best if they have tolerant, docile temperaments. The amount of space available will also affect the flock’s temperament. For example, the “flighty” breeds can become nervous and aggressive to their flock mates if they don’t have enough space but with roomy housing they get along just fine.
If you are going to free-range your birds you’ll want to get breeds that are highly alert, excellent fliers, quick, and agile. Birds with these qualities have the best chances of evading predators. If the breed description uses the word “flighty” than you can feel confident that the breed will do well free-ranging. Whenever I see a chicken described as “flighty” I hear Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” in my head.
Heavy, fluffy, docile breeds can survive on free-range but are much more likely to be taken by a predator than their smaller, flightier counterparts.
Breeds with large crests, like the Polish, are very likely to be taken by predators. Just ask our daughter what happened to all of her Polish hens…
Most white egg layers are considered to have flighty temperaments (not my experience at all!) and most brown egg layers are considered to have gentle temperaments (boy, have I found the nasty-tempered exceptions!) . However, a chicken’s temperament is really individual – it can be totally different from what the breed is known for. Sometimes the temperament described for a breed isn’t even accurate! Your behavior and management can also have a huge effect on your chickens temperament as well.
There really isn’t any point in buying chickens that you don’t like the looks of. Most breeds come in multiple color varieties and there is sure to be one that you find pleasing. I personally don’t care for chickens that are red, buff, silkied, frizzled, or sizzled. Other people love them.
Crested chickens: Crests can impair vision and can become a target of flock mates pecking. If keeping crested and non-crested birds in a flock be sure to have multiple birds with crests rather than an “odd man out”.
Feathered Feet: Chicken breeds with feathered feet often have issues with mud balls building up on their legs and feet. Dung and snow can clump and stick as well. The feathers also hamper scratching which makes the birds well-suited for those who don’t want chicken-sized potholes everywhere. The feathered shanks are also more prone to scaly leg mites than non-feather legged.
Silkied & Frizzled: Chicken breeds with these feather types are seriously impaired in the flying department and at great risk from predators. Birds with two copies of the Frizzle gene are called “Frazzle”or “Frazzled”. Frazzled chickens have little to no feathering and what feathers are present are very brittle. Lethal anomalies also frequently occur and Frazzles that do survive need very special care.