Choosing chickens a beginners guide.

A rare breed chicken

Table of Contents

What breed of chicken should you choose for your flock?

A guide to choosing chickens for beginner with pictures and suggestions.

One of the first things I leaned many years ago as a new keeper was that not all breeds of chickens are created equal. Certain breeds are more suited to some conditions, and some like the modern hybrids are bred to do well almost everywhere. 

Below: What breed should you be choosing? One with character.

There is no specific answer to this question as there are numerous deciding factors including personal preference and the conditions where you live. People always have subjective experiences with different breeds.

There are many chicken breeds and types available today for three main purposes. Chickens are raised for eggs, for meat, or for exhibition. Raising backyard chickens can be a great activity that can involve the whole family.

Chickens make great livestock and pets and are fairly simple to care for. Below are some tips for choosing backyard chickens that will help you to get started with you flock.

Before you decide on a breed:

To choose a chicken breed make a list and think about what you want and your circumstances.

Here is a guide to helping you choose which breed to get:

1. Family pets or productive backyard flock. Silkies make excellent pets but you will need twice as many than If you had commercial hybrids as they are not consistent layers.

Below: Silkies are a popular choice but do have their drawbacks.

Wyandottes or Orpingtons make good middle ground between pets and egg flock. Common chicken breeds kept for eggs include Red Sex Links and Golden Comets. Polish hens are good pets being docile and having lovely personalities as well as huge bouffant crests.

2. Large fowl or small bantams. Bantams do have their uses and are surprisingly productive and well suited to smaller sites. I have both Bantam Wyandotte and Light Sussex and they are easy to keep and productive. Large fowl are generally easier to get hold off and can often be bought sexed so you don't end up with roosters.

Below: Bantams have their uses and can be productive.

Some breeds are available in both sizes. Most chicken raisers choose standard breeds for egg layers as opposed to bantam breeds. Bantam breeds or "Banties" are about 1/3 to 1/2 the size of standard breeds. Bantam eggs are much smaller and thus not preferred for egg production.

However, Bantie breeds are easy to handle and make a great choice for showing at fairs and for 4-H projects. Cochins, Plymouth Rocks, Old English and Wyandottes are some of the more popular Bantam breeds found in shows. The most popular standard breeds found in showrooms include Leghorns, Plymouth Rocks and Rhode Island Reds.

True bantams like the Serama and the Japanese often need special care and don't do well in cold places. True bantams have no large fowl counterpart.

3. Rare breed, pure breed or hybrid. Pure breeds are hard to find and not normally productive layers. Pure breeds like Leghorns, Sussex and Rhode Island Reds have a good laying heritage and modern hybrids are egg laying machines.

Below: Rare and pure breeds are stunning.

Pure-bred birds are chickens that are produced from parents of the same breed. Cross-bred birds are chickens that are produced from parents of different breeds, classes and or varieties. These animals are also referred to a hybrids and the added production benefit from the cross is referred to as "Hybrid Vigour".

Since commercial cross-bred birds bred for eggs or meat are hybrids, they will not breed true on your backyard enterprise or small flock operation. In other words, the offspring will not resemble their parents.

4. Eggs, Meat or dual purpose. If you are a first timer I would suggest leaving the meat birds till later. In my experience most people choose to raise chickens to provide fresh home grown eggs.

Below:  A selection of eggs from my chickens.

If your primary interest is eggs, stay away from these meat type birds as they will not be good egg layers. They will not produce many eggs, will tend to consume a lot of feed, and will tend to get fat when they mature. I kept La Bresse Gauloise for a long time and they were seasonal layers, only producing eggs from March to August.

If you want to raise chickens for both meat and eggs, you can keep a dual purpose breed. These breeds grow to a substantial size, but also serve as decent laying hens. Keeping chickens for food purposes is becoming more common as people take an interest in family organic farming.

If you are interested in raising chickens primarily for their meat, you will want to look into chicken breeds such as the Cornish and Cornish Cross. Cornish chickens are terrible layers, averaging 80 to 100 per year with high levels of infertility.

Below: This is a young La Bresse Gauloise. A meat chicken.

Roosters quickly reach a mature weight of 10.5 pounds, while hens grow to 8 pounds. Due to their rapid growth rate, Cornish Crosses are the choice commercial meat bird in the United States. They go from hatched to slaughter weight in as little as 6 to 8 weeks.

Dual purpose birds are those which are intended for both meat consumption and egg laying. A Plymouth Rock is a great choice for those who want to enjoy large brown eggs. The chicken also grows large enough to be enjoyed for its meat as well. The breed is also more docile and friendly than other common chicken breeds.

The Wyandotte is another popular dual purpose chicken. Even during the winter, they are reliable layers. Their dressed table size is similar to that of a Cornish Cross. Wyandottes are also commonly shown in bantam clean leg classes.

5. Environment and climatic conditions. Is your location hot all the time or subject to winter freezing. Hot locations further south are more suited to hard feather Asiatic types of chicken or those developed in hot countries like the Minorca, Andalusian and Ancona. Leghorns are a good choice in hot places as well.

Below: Hybrids are bred to be good in most conditions.

For the United kingdom and northern Europe the Barnevelder or the Welsummer is and excellent choice. They were bred in Holland and are well suited to the cold and wet winters. Climate is definitely a consideration when selecting your birds.

Breeds with lighter feathers and large combs are not as well suited to cold climates. Dual purpose or heavier birds do not do as well in warmer climates.

If you want a flock that will withstand cold northern temperatures, than choose from full feathered American and English Class breeds where small comb varieties have been produced that are resistant to freezing.

6. How much space can you give your chickens and can you free range them. Free ranging chickens has many advantages but also makes it more likely they will be taken by predators.

Below: Orpingtons are good breeds to keep.

Some breeds cope better with confinement and some almost have to be free ranged.

7. How much money can you spend on them. Coops, feeders, waterers and the chickens themselves all cost money. Then there is feeding them. If you are short of money then hybrids are cheap.

8. Egg colour. Whilst there is no nutritional difference in eggs of different colours, if you want a novelty, the Aracucana and Ameraucana lay blue eggs and the cream crested legbar lays green eggs.

The Marans and the Barnevelder lay a deep brown egg and there are even olive egg laying hybrids to be found. The Americauna is a large fuzzy faced bird that has a good temperament but may be difficult to find! You can typically tell what colour eggs a chicken will lay by the colour of their ear lobes.

Below: The deep brown eggs of the Marans chicken.

Hens with red ear lobes lay brown eggs, while those with white lobes lay white eggs. White Leghorns cannot be topped for production of white eggs. They are a widely popular choice for serious egg farmers and backyard enthusiasts, alike.

White egg layers are more productive and lay more eggs in a year than brown egg layers do.

9. Winter laying ability. All chickens suffer with seasonal laying to some extent and produce less eggs in winter than in summer.

Below: Winter hardiness is important in chickens if you live in a cold area.

Hybrids suffer the least from seasonal laying but some breeds like the Barnevelder were bred to lay eggs in winter. This is less of an issue the closer to the equator that you live.

10. Ornamental or Exhibition. You might want really pretty or specimen chickens for your garden. Bantams are more popular at poultry shows than large fowl breeds. They are easier for young enthusiasts to take care of, and they take up less room, while costing less to feed.

Popular exhibition chickens include Wyandottes, Cochins, and Old English Game. There is huge variety in large fowl breeds. Some of the popular choices for large fowl are Rhode Island Reds, Black Australorpes, and Leghorns.

Raising chickens to show can be very rewarding. Children involved in 4-H will really enjoy being involved in bringing up these exhibition birds to take to shows and fairs.

11. Do you want to breed and keep roosters. Are you even allowed to keep a cockerel. Many places only allow 6 or 12 hens with no males to crow and disturb the neighbourhood.

Be certain to check with your local government so that you understand the rules regarding keeping chickens. Most municipalities will limit the number of birds you can keep in suburban and urban areas and do not allow roosters.

It may also help to speak with your neighbours so that they understand that you have the birds and that they can help by keeping their pets out of your yard.

12. Broodiness is the tendency of a hen to hatch eggs and is either a trait that is desired or not. Some owners consider it to be a blessing and some a curse. Broody hens stop laying eggs and can be bad tempered and stubborn.

Unfortunately Silkies are one of the most broody chicken breeds that their is. If you don't want to deal with broody chickens then stick to hybrids.

13. How much time have you got to devote to your chickens.

Some examples of the different breeds and the conditions and climate they are suitable for can be found below:

What is the friendliest breed of chicken?

Most breeds of chicken are friendly to some extent, especially after they have learned that you are the source of their feed and treats.

Some breeds like the Silkie and Polish chickens are well known for their placid and friendly nature, readily approaching humans and having endearing characteristics.

I have had quite a lot of true bantams over the years and they have all been surprisingly friendly. I currently have a seabright cockerel that sees himself as the reincarnation of Long John Silvers parrot and spends as much time as he can on my shoulder.

Below: This is my Sebright bantam who like to sit on my shoulder.

The friendliest large breed chickens are probably the Orpington. It is a gentle giant that for the most part is quiet and easy to look after.

Most chickens can be trained to be friendly and will happily become family pets inside a few months regardless of the breed. I have only ever had the odd bird that refused human company.

My list of the friendliest chickens I have kept:

  1. Silkie.
  2. Polish.
  3. Orpington.
  4. Barnevelder.
  5. Wyandotte.
  6. Hybrids.

How do you choose the right chicken for your circumstances?

Climatic Hardiness probably the most important factor to consider when determining what breed of chicken is right for you. Climatic suitability is simply the question of whether can this chicken can survive the temperature and conditions of my location without being placed under more than usual stresses.

If you lived in Alaska you wouldn't want to buy a Naked Necks for example and a northern European bird like the Barnevelder may not be happy in Florida during the summer. Larger chickens are better suited to cold environments as a rule and smaller birds might need more care.

Below: Wyandottes are pretty and productive as well as easy to keep.

Predator awareness is a chickens ability to recognize predators and protect itself from other animals that consider chickens prey like foxes. This can be very important when deciding what breeds to buy for your backyard flock as it can result in loss of stock.

Hybrids have been bred for commercial operation and sometimes have no idea of what a predator is. Very small birds like the true bantams are prey for quite a lot of other animals, even cats.

Handling Ability and Flightiness is important when picking a breed of chickens. You should not pick Spangled Hamburg as they are of a flighty nature or willingness to fly and be spooked easily.

Foraging Capability is a birds ability to find food naturally while free ranging. This can be handy as it cuts down on feed costs and allows the birds to eat what they choose to. Free ranging also produces better eggs and allows the bird a balanced diet.

What are the prettiest chickens?

Quite a few prospective keepers want to get chickens that are pretty to look at as well as producing eggs. There are quite a few breeds that are stunning to look at as well as laying nice eggs.

Below: I think the Barnevelder is the prettiest breed of chicken. This is a Silver Laced Barnevelder.

For me it has got to be the Barnevelder in number one spot.

The chickens with the prettiest plumage are:

  1. The Barnevelder.
  2. Silkies.
  3. Japanese Bantams.
  4. Wyandottes.
  5. Frizzles.

Can I get a mixed Flock?

Yes, There is no trouble with getting a mixture of birds. Rare breeds, Bantams and Hybrid chickens all generally live together happily. The advantage of a mixed backyard flock is you get to have the best of all worlds.

Different colours and sizes of eggs and the various personalities that go with the different breeds of chickens.

What are the types of chickens to choose from?

Egg laying chicken breeds:

Some chickens are just better egg layers than others and this is a major factor to consider when choosing a breed.

If you want maximum egg production, it is best to find and purchase commercial egg layer stock used by the large layer operations that produce eggs for commercial distribution. These layers are bred by hybridised breeding with White leghorn lines to produce layer hens that are prolific.

They lay large high quality eggs, are vaccinated and resistant to disease, and have a small body size which means they consume less feed and take up less space in the facility.

The standard today for producing commercial white table eggs is the White Single Comb Leghorn. These birds are active, lively and high strung, and are not broody. Most hatcheries in the United States have one or more crosses available.

For those that want serious brown egg layers, you can also find and purchase commercial crosses that produce brown eggs. Although very popular in the north-east, the commercial brown egg market is just a small fraction of the commercial white egg market.

None the less, commercial brown egg layer crosses do exist.  Again, these birds are active, lively and not broody.

For deep brown eggs consider the Marans or Welsummer and for green eggs then look at the cream crested Legbar.

White Leghorns and Leghorn crosses are efficient layers of white eggs and the basic breed used in commercial cross-bred birds used for commercial egg production. The White Leghorn is a prolific white egg layer.

They are the most efficient bird to feed but are typically more nervous. These birds were specifically bred for eggs and as such are smaller birds that require less space. These can be easily obtained from any hatchery!

Rhode Island Reds are great brown egg layers, are attractive birds and have a good temperament. Rhode Island Reds and Rhode Island Red crosses can usually be found quite easily. They are also a very good choice for harsh winter environments.

Buff Orpington are large Buff chickens and good light brown egg layers. They have a propensity to get fat which depresses egg production. These birds are usually very docile. If you can control their feeding and weight, they make a great choice where children are involved and where brown eggs are acceptable!

Plymouth Rock is another good choice where children are involved and where brown eggs are acceptable. Keep in mind that Plymouth Rocks are dual purpose birds but have better meat characteristics than egg laying characteristics. They are often used in cross-breeding programs to produce quality meat birds.

Dual purpose chicken breeds:

such as the Plymouth Rock, Orpington, Rhode Island Red, and Wyandotte, were bred for both egg and meat production and will lay fewer eggs than Leghorns. Also, they have a propensity to get fat which further depresses their egg production.

Chicken type is important when figuring space requirements. In general, white egg layers (most popular) are smaller and more efficient than brown egg layers and require less space.

Birds bred for egg laying, as opposed to meat, are typically more docile and better for backyard chicken enterprises where the entire family is involved.

Meat breeds:

If you have an interest in raising broilers for meat in your Backyard, then stick to the Rock-Cornish or the Commercial broiler. They can reach 4 to 5 lbs in six weeks and 10 lbs in twelve weeks, depending on the facilities,

The New Hampshire Red and White Plymouth Rock are also good choices. Their growth rate is slower but will also be easier to manage for those without a lot of experience.

Ornamental chicken breeds:

I think that all chicken breeds are brilliant and beautiful. Most prospective chicken keepers have certain breeds that appeal to their tastes and favour. Poultry breeds come in all different sizes, shapes, and colours.

Below: Frizzles needs special care.

Ornamental chicken breeds are kept to be looked at or for showing at poultry events. 

What breed of chicken is best for me?

Absolute beginner: If you have never kept chickens before you can't do better than starting with Commercial hybrids. They are easy to get, cheap and easy to look after

Some Experience: Wyandottes, jersey giants and the Asiatics fall into this category along with the Old English Game. They are not very good unless you have some experience at keeping chickens and some of the have particular requirements.

Advanced keeper: True Bantams, Meat birds and those chickens that have specific care needs. Naked necks possibly fall into this category.

What is the calmest chicken breed?

Australorps have become well known for being the calmest chicken that there is. Silkies are right up there as well along with Orpingtons. Most of the large soft feather breeds are calm and quiet if kept happy in stress free conditions.

The full list of chicken breeds.