If you’re just getting started with your chicken keeping endeavors, it can be daunting to know where to start when it comes to breeds of chickens. There are a TON of different ones. How in the world do you pick?
Before we jump into the different breeds and classifications, ask yourself what your goal is with your chicken keeping. How many birds do you want? And why do you want them? Some people want the biggest bang for their buck with the highest producing layers intending to sell eggs. Some just want enough for eggs for their family. Others are into the showier, fancy breeds for the novelty factor, and aren’t as concerned about high egg production. Some are chasing that “rainbow dozen” and want a colorful egg basket each day. Whatever your interest, whatever your goal, there’s a way to do it!
Goal: Egg Production
If you goal at the end of the day is high production, then you want to look at “production breeds.” Examples of these are the sex-link, hybrids developed to have different colored chick plumage for pullets and roosters, making them identifiable as soon as they hatch. Different hatcheries sometimes come up with their own sex-link hybrids, but some common ones are ISA Brown, Red Star, Amber Star, Amberlink, and Black Sex Link. These are the BEST of the egg-layers, able to produce upwards of 300 large eggs per year, which is insanely impressive. Another favorite of the production breeds is the White Leghorn, which lays white eggs, also in the upwards of 300 eggs per year range. There are also many heritage breeds that are good layers, but oftentimes they are heavier birds requiring more feed, so that can drive up the cost of egg production. They, however, may have more longevity in their laying career.
Goal: The Rainbow Dozen
Who doesn’t love the look of a beautiful, colorful egg basket? Shades of rosy brown and light tan, dark brown, blue, sage green, all make for a beautiful presentation. If you’re not sure where to look for some of the unique colors, here are some suggestions. Ameraucanas will give you beautiful light blue or green eggs, and will lay lots of them. Cream Crested Legbars are another blue-laying variety. “Easter Eggers” will lay just about any colored egg. Americanas (notice the spelling difference) are a hybrid and not a true breed, and are essentially an Easter Egger that isn’t an Easter Egger (which also is a hybrid and not a true breed). There is a lot of ambiguity surrounding the Ameraucana/Americana/Easter Egger conversation! The hybridization is pretty extensive as breeders have developed hybrids for consistent shell colors. Hoover Hatchery’s Prairie Bluebell Egger is bred for blue eggs, while their Starlight Green Egger is bred for green eggs. You’ll hear other names like Olive Egger, Cherry Egger, etc. If you want those super dark, chocolate-brown eggs, look for Marans (any variety) and Welsummers. Red Stars also lay a rich brown egg, not as dark as Marans, but they are the darkest in my egg basket! Buff Orpingtons give a nice peachy tan egg.
Goal: Eggs and Meat
Some birds are considered dual purpose, and can be raised for egg production as well as meat. Examples of these dual purpose breeds are Buff Orpingtons, Sussex, New Hamshires, Partridge Rocks, and Wyandottes. These will be good layers as well as big enough to raise for meat. They’re heavier birds, so they will require more food.
If you aren’t looking to get eggs but instead want breeds for butchering, you’ll be looking at the broiler varieties. Keep in mind that these birds are time-sensitive. Some of them are bred so that they are ready to butcher in as little as a few months, and their quality of life significantly decreases when they get past that point, as their bodies get too big for their legs and they lose the ability to move. These would be your “broiler” and “roaster” varieties, such as the Delaware Broiler, Ginger Broiler, etc.
Goal: Funny Pets that Lay Eggs
Maybe you really want to build a flock of sweet, friendly birds that will be more or less pets. Some breeds have better dispositions than others. Others are flightier. The friendliest chickens I have had are Buff Orpingtons (basically the golden retriever of the chicken world), Red Stars, and Ameraucanas. I had one Prairie Bluebell hen and she was excellent. Or maybe you would like the novelty of the Polish chickens, also known as the “dance hall girls,” or the adorable frizzle and silky bantam breeds.
If you hope to eventually hatch your own chicks and want to have at least a vague idea of what you’ll get, you might want to steer towards heritage breeds and away from hybrids. Hybrid chickens do not breed true, meaning even if you bred, for instance, a Red Star cockerel with a Red Star hen you wouldn’t get a Red Star chick. Obviously, if you don’t isolate breeds, you’ll end up with hybrids, but if you breed with heritage breeds, theoretically you’ll know what your hybrids are! If you just want the experience of hatching chicks and don’t care how hybridized your “barnyard mix” is, anything goes! Examples of heritage breeds are Buff Orpington, Black Australorp, Brahma, Wyandotte, and many others. If you want to try to breed for shell color in pullets, there are plenty of resources online for knowing what roosters to breed with what hens. For instance, a blue-egg rooster (such as an Ameraucana) bred with a brown-egg hen (such as a Maran) will give you birds with the green-egg-laying gene.
Finally, a reputable breeder will have breed characteristics listed for each chicken, including heat and cold tolerance, ability to free-range well, likeliness to be broody, and temperament in general, as well as a lot more details about the breed.
So these are just some things to consider if you’re wanting to get into chicken raising and don’t know how to pick a breed or where to start!
What are your favorite chicken breeds? Leave a picture in the comments!