Choosing what kind of chickens to get is a bit like dating. What’s that you say?! What I mean is that we all think we’re a great catch: attractive, interesting, witty, whatever – but we can’t be a great catch for everyone. The trick to getting birds that are a good fit for you is dependent firstly, on knowing what you want and what you have to offer; and secondly, understanding breed traits and obtaining ones that check all, or at least most, of the boxes on your list.
We’ve all had the experience, or know someone, who has ended up with a dog they fell in love with as a puppy that is clearly not a good match: too big, needs too much exercise, chases the cat, sheds, digs, barks or has health problems. There’s nothing worse than ending up with incompatible animals that you have issues with, or want to re-home.
I’ve already written a piece on figuring out if chickens are right for you by assessing your time, budget, commitment and space. Once you’ve read that and are ready to get birds, then you need to research which ones are right for you, how to house them, what to feed them and a bit about health issues. It sounds a bit arduous, but I encourage you to do as much research as you can before you take the plunge and bring home some feathered friends.
If you are new to chickens, or even new to a particular breed, how will you know if they are right for you?
Make a list of what you want:
- Are they primarily going to be pets? Egg layers? Or dinner?
- What is your budget?
- Does your flock need to be self-sustaining or even, make you some money?
- Do you want friendly, cuddly birds or ones that are pretty independent?
- What’s your climate? Hot? Cold? Rainy?
- Will they be free-ranging and need to forage for some of their food or penned and mostly dependent on what you feed them?
- Do you want to hatch chicks with broody hens?
- Will you be getting a rooster, or not?
- How much coop and pen space will you have? (This influences the number, and size of, birds you can keep).
- Is it important that your birds are ‘pretty’? Any particular features you are like or don’t like?
- What colour eggs do you want? A dozen same-same or a jewel box of different colours?
This post is intended for folks that aren’t familiar with all the variables you might have to consider when obtaining new birds. Hopefully it will help you narrow your options so you can find a good match.
I have to be honest and fess up that when I first got birds I didn’t always understand breed traits and consider how they might impact flock dynamics. I picked the pretty ones, or the ones that had cool features, or laid coloured eggs or the ones needing a good home. Over time I have honed what I want and am careful who I add to the group. Understanding the pecking order and how stress plays a role in their social and health issues is important and can mean the difference between a cohesive, healthy flock or one that is stressed, non-productive and susceptible to illness.
There are several things to consider when choosing birds, including:
Appearance I’m a bit of a snob – I want beautiful birds. I have a few purebreds, but most of mine are crosses with interesting traits: crests, muffs, beards, naked necks, frizzles and coloured eggs. Some folks want plain brown hens that lay plain brown eggs. Knowing what your preferences are is a good starting point. Check out photos of various breeds; see what you like and if they are a good fit.
Broodiness is a genetically influenced trait that triggers a hen to want to incubate eggs and hatch chicks. It is not something you can talk a hen into, or sometimes, out of.
Do you want to hatch chicks? If so, having a broody hen is much easier than using an incubator. The downside is you don’t get to dictate when, or how often, a particular hen will go broody. If you’ve followed this site for a while you’ll know that I am blessed (and sometimes, cursed) with an abundance of broody hens. If they could get together and space out their hatches I’d be a happy camper. But that’s not how it works. Broodiness seems to be infectious – within a day or two of one of my girls going broody it sometimes rubs off on one, two or even three, of her flock mates.
Bantams and Silkies are most likely to go broody – and are sometimes more broody than not. Broodiness cuts into egg production: the 21 days they are sitting and then, the number of weeks they are raising chicks, which can be two months or more.
Disease Resistance Some breeds are more resistant (Leghorns to Pullorum; Rhode Island Red to worms; Fayoumi and Leghorn to Newcastle Disease) or susceptible (Silkie White Leghorn and Sebright to Marek’s; Rhode Island Red to slipped tendon and reproductive tract issues). Some crested birds (i.e. Silkie and Polish) can be born with vaulted skulls, in which the plates of the skull aren’t fused, making chicks vulnerable to head injuries.
Hardiness This is an important factor if you live in particularly hot or cold climates. I’m lucky in that I live in a temperate zone with only occasional snow falls and freezing temperatures and some hot days in summer, so I can have pretty much any breed without worrying about frostbite or heat stroke. If you’re in an area of extreme or fluctuating temperatures then look for chickens that were bred for those conditions (i.e. Icelandic, Chantecler, Wyandotte for cold and Andalusian, Minorca, Fayoumi, Naked Neck for heat). Physical features that you need to be aware of are: comb and wattle type; body size; feather color; feathered legs and feet; silkied or frizzled feathers and naked necks. Chickens can suffer from both frost bite and heat stroke.
Egg Production Is egg production important to you? Do you eat lots or depend on selling them? It’s a myth that hens lay an egg a day- day in, day out. Production layers are bred to mature earlier and lay often, but the sad fact is they are short lived and often die of heart attacks by the time they are two.
I have heritage breeds and crosses – none of them are particularly prolific layers. Do some research on what the breed standard is for production, but remember that hens take long breaks for molting; raising chicks; health issues; when it’s hot, cold or dark; stress or integrating into a new flock.
The best layers include: ISA Brown, Lohmann Brown, Hybrids, Leghorn, Golden Comet and Rhode Island Red.
Egg Colour Some folks spend a lot of time and energy finding breeds that will lay different colours, while others are a bit put off by the thought of consuming eggs that came from green or blue shells. Decide what works for you: crisp white (Appenzeller Spitzhauben, Leghorn, Ancona, Polish), brown (Orpington, Sussex, Brahma), dark brown (Marans, Welsummer, Barnevelder), blue (Ameraucana, Legbar, Whiting True Blue) or green (Easter Egger, Isbar).
Flightiness This trait is important when assessing whether you want to handle your birds, have them eat out of your hand and how they deal with being confined to a relatively small space. Some breeds are considered flighty: nervous, more likely to get spooked easily or fly over fences, while others are calm and docile. If you’ve got kids you probably will want friendly birds that don’t mind, or even enjoy, being picked up.
Foraging Ability Will your birds be penned or free-ranging? If the latter, you want chickens that can easily find their own food (e.g. worms, bugs, and seeds) because it will reduce your feed costs, increase their nutrient intake and produce vitamin rich eggs. All chickens scratch and find food in their environment, but some birds are more adept at it than others.
Hybrid vs Heritage If your goal is to find easily obtainable birds that lay well and make potentially good meat birds than you can pick up a variety of breeds from your local feed store. Are you interested in heritage breeds (those recognized by the American Poultry Association by the mid-1950s) or even rare breeds? Do some online research of local livestock conservancy groups and see what they have available. The popularity of backyard chickens has contributed to the survival of some breeds that were on the verge of extinction.
Meat Production There are birds bred specifically for meat production (e.g. Cornish x), which mature very quickly and can be butchered at 4-6 weeks old. Other breeds are considered dual purpose: they are good layers and when they slow down can be butchered for meat. All chickens can be eaten, but some are better table birds than others. For some folks, like me, eating your birds is not a consideration.
Purebreds or Crosses I might be a snob about beauty, but I’m not when it comes to breed. Over the decade I’ve kept chickens I’ve always had some purebreds, but most of my birds are crosses (some have one purebred parent, but lots are more mixed than that). It might be a tad more difficult to accurately predict their temperament, egg colour and how a chick might turn out in adulthood, but I find that my crosses share a lot of traits. There might be a bit more guess work, but the result is rewarding.
Do you want all one breed or a mix? My first couple of years I had three different breeds that laid white, brown and green eggs. I took a four year hiatus from chickens and when I got them again I decided on only four – all purebreds, but different breeds. I figured if I was limited to a small number than I wanted my flock to be visually interesting. They were, but they all laid brown eggs. Since then I’ve moved on- my flock is diverse and produce a range of egg colours: white, cream, shades of light and dark brown, greens, olive, blue and pink.
I have had three purebred Standard Poodles – they share some traits in common, but they are also individuals. Chickens are the same. You might have had a fantastic Silkie, so you get another one and she’s quite different. There is also quite a variation in hatchery quality vs show birds. I sometimes question how ‘pure’ hatchery birds are because they are often inconsistent and sometimes don’t come close to meeting breed standards.
Predator Awareness All birds are instinctively aware of predators, but their vulnerability and reaction to predators varies. Some birds will aggressively fight off and protect their flock mates from danger, some will head to the hills and others are easy targets. Bantams, due to their size, are vulnerable to a number of aerial predators, including hawks. I lost a couple before I was able to install overhead netting in my 1200 square feet pen. I have a number of crested birds: those with small crests or upright Mohawks have better vision, while those with full crests may have their peripheral vision obscured.
Feather colour and landscape are factors as they determine how well a breed is camouflaged to hawks and owls from above.
Roosters Hens don’t need a rooster in order to lay and an all-female flock can function just fine on their own. I am a proponent of having a rooster, if you are able. They play an integral role: fertilizing eggs; protection from predators; finding food; mediating conflicts and above all, are often stunningly beautiful, and if you’re lucky – friendly. Before embarking on bringing a rooster into your flock research your local by-laws to ensure it’s allowed; understand breed traits and flock dynamics (i.e. ratio of roosters to hens); be prepared for crowing and if you want to raise chicks figure out the genetics of your flock and what you might want to breed for (e.g. physical features, egg colour).
Size Chickens come in different sizes: bantams and standard, and even within those categories there are variations from the super-small to the giant. Size has an impact on food intake; space requirements; egg size; broodiness (bantams are more prone to it), vulnerability to predators; noise and ultimately, might influence the number of chickens you can keep. I have had a mixed flock of bantams and standards with no issues, but that isn’t true for everyone.
Where to Find Your Perfect Match As mentioned above you can order birds through a hatchery. Do some research because some are better than others. When you buy sexed pullets you still may end up with a cockerel (if so, ask what their refund/replacement policy is). The advantage of a hatchery is you can order large numbers, mix and match breeds, choose whether your birds are vaccinated or not, and get them to fit your schedule. The downside is you will not see what you are getting until they arrive, some may be sick or die in transit (again, find out what their replacement policy is) and you don’t get to inspect the conditions that the birds are living in.
Facebook has banned all animal sales posts, including farm animals which has made it more difficult for small breeders, like me, to communicate with potential customers. Look at your local online classifieds in the livestock category. Feed stores often have day old chicks as well as point of lay (POL) production layers available in the spring and fall.
If you find a local breeder you may have the opportunity to see their set up, parent stock and even the birds you are interested in. Some small flock owners do not allow the public in their pens due to biosecurity measures, but they should be able to answer your questions and send you photos. They should also be available for support once their birds go off to new homes. Do your research and be prepared to both ask questions and answer some as well.
Here is a link to Henderson’s Handy Dandy Chicken Chart with information on 60 breeds of chickens.
BTW: The hen at the top of the page is Skye, a mix of Appenzeller Spitzhauben, Polish, bantam Cochin frizzle, Lavender Orpington, Silver Laced Wyandotte and Barnevelder. Her ancestors two, or three, generations back were all purebreds. She is not only stunningly beautiful, but unusually friendly (she loves the camera), quiet (Appenzellers like to talk) and not broody (in a flock of super-broody hens). I’d say her only ‘flaw’ is that she lays white, and not coloured, eggs. Breeding crosses is a bit of a crapshoot, but every once in awhile you end up with a bird like Skye, who I consider irreplaceable.
I have several posts on breed or genetic traits that might be helpful: Aracaunas, Ameraucanas & Easter Eggers; coloured egg shells; Easter Eggers; frizzles; Icelandics; muffs & beards; Transylvanian Naked Necks. As I write more on specific breeds I will link those posts here.