After you’ve made the decision to own backyard chickens, picking a breed or breeds is probably going to be your next step. Jeremiah and I spent hours upon hours poring over books and catalogs so we would better understand the breed profiles and find a good fit for our family and our geographical region.
There are hundreds of breeds to choose from, and within the breeds themselves, there are ranges of colors and patterns. And all this just to get a fresh egg? Yes, God knows we all like variety!
Over the years we’ve tried about 20 different breeds, including some of the rare ones. I love the rare breeds because you just don’t see chickens like that in most backyards, and they always turn heads. I’m going to group the breeds by certain characteristics to make choosing easier. This is not an exhaustive list, by any means. It includes most of the birds you’ll find available for purchase in catalogs or farm stores.
RELIABLE BROWN EGG LAYERS
Breeds in this category: Buff Orpington, Black Australorp, New Hampshire Red, Rhode Island Red, Barred Rock, Dominique, Delaware, Speckled Sussex, Wyandotte, Black Sex Link and Red Sex Link
Profile: These are all very popular backyard breeds because they lay those signature brown-shelled eggs and do so at a very reliable rate (about 4 or 5 per week). They are medium to heavy birds (that can be dual-purpose, providing both eggs and meat) and are generally cold-hardy. If this sounds like your ideal chicken, there are plenty of colors to choose from among the breeds – everything from white to gold to black to spotted.
My thoughts: You can’t really go wrong with any of these breeds, so just have fun picking colors. They are tried and true; most every backyard flock will have one or more of these workhorse chickens. At some point, we’ve owned every single breed except for the Sex Links (which are color-sexable at birth). I especially love the Buff Orpington because of its soft golden plumage and self-assured, curious temperament. We had a favorite several years ago that the children called Big Mama; she loved to be held and spent a lot of time on our deck, like a family dog would. Black Australorps have that wonderful “beetle-black” sheen to their feathers which glows green when highlighted; they reliably lay even in cold weather, when other birds have thrown in the towel. Be wary when buying New Hampshire Reds and Rhode Island Reds; the roosters are notoriously aggressive. For looks, Wyandottes are quite dramatic; the gold and black and silver laced varieties are my favorites.
CLASSIC WHITE EGG LAYERS
Breeds in this category: White Leghorn, Brown Leghorn, Hamburg
Profile: Although many families have in their mind that those soft brown eggs symbolize true “farm fresh,” wholesome eggs, the White Leghorn breed still remains popular because a lot of folks do love pure white eggs. (Note: Leghorns are the preferred commercial layers because they have a great feed to output ratio). If you’ve ever watched the old Warner Brothers cartoons, then you might simply decide to buy a couple of these so you can have Foghorn Leghorn strutting around the run! The Hamburg and Brown Leghorns are other (less common) white egg layers, and output is not as prolific. But they offer MUCH more variety in their feathering (solid, spangled, penciled, etc.).
My thoughts: If you love white eggs and white chickens, go for some Leghorns. If you want white eggs, but more variety as far as looks go, choose the Brown or a variety of Hamburg; Silver-Spangled Hamburgs are simply stunning!
THE TROPHY CHICKENS
Breeds in this category: Spitzhauben, Campine, Buttercup, Andalusian, Lakenvelder, Phoenix, Polish and Bantams
Profiles: These chickens take home trophies for their looks, not their egg-laying proficiency. Egg colors and body sizes will vary, as will temperament. Because many of these are of the Mediterranean variety or of smaller/delicate composition, they can be a little less hardy than the breeds mentioned above. They serve as excellent 4-H projects and exhibition birds, but I personally recommend sitting on a swing in your backyard and just watching them. 🙂
My thoughts: We always have at least a few birds like this that are just plain fun to look at. Many of them have unusual markings or physical features (like a unique comb or feather coloring) as well as personality quirks that you don’t find in the standard backyard breeds. The Mediterranean breeds (like Buttercups and Andalusians) are active, skilled foragers; although they aren’t the “cuddliest” birds you’ll own, they are gentle. Our Buttercup roosters ate out of our hands.
Breeds in this category: Easter Eggers, Ameraucana, Maran and Welsummer
Profiles: If the thought of brown and white eggs seems limiting, never fear. Easter Eggers and Ameraucanas will lay a lovely assortment of pastels (green, blue, pink, etc.); Maran and Welsummer shells are the color of chocolate.
My thoughts: Our Marans were somewhat delicate and since hardier birds are appreciated in the inclement Midwest; we haven’t bought this breed again. But you’ll always find Ameraucanas in our flock! The children love harvesting the multi-colored eggs, and I personally think these birds are adorable because of the feathered “muffs” and “beards” on their faces. With a sweet disposition to match and a rainbow of patterns to choose from, it’s a win-win. They lay about 3 eggs per week which is considered to be a good rate.
THE BIG BOYS AND GIRLS
Breeds in this category: Cochin, Jersey Giant, Brahma, Faverolles
Profile: Move over, Big Bird. These are some rather large backyard chickens! Weighing in at 7 to 8 pounds, or more, they can easily be dual-purpose birds. It’s especially fun to get a rooster of one of these varieties; his sheer size will make him that much more impressive.
My thoughts: Bigger birds eat more, but they also lay bigger eggs, so it’s a nice trade-off.
Many thanks to mypetchicken.com for some of the breed profile photos!