Pickin’ Chickens: How to Choose a Breed
So you’re thinking of taking the plunge and getting some chickens for your backyard? Go for it! Like any new endeavor there’s a learning curve, but with chickens once you get them settled in they are one of the easiest pets to own.
The best way to get your chickens is as chicks. Fortunately, chicks are fairly easy to come by; you can order them on the internet or buy them from your local feed stores in the early Spring. In this article I am going to suggest the latter…because it’s more fun!
Researching Your Chicken Needs
At this stage, you have probably already started surfing the net about the different breeds of chickens you can get. You might even have a collection of color catalogs from national hatcheries that send out free catalogs, containing all the breeds they offer along with simple descriptions of the breeds. Perusing those catalogs can be very addictive if you’ve caught the chicken bug.
When I first started keeping chickens in my backyard years ago, I thoroughly enjoyed pouring over the McMurray hatchery catalog and trying to decide which breeds were my favorite.
I wasn’t going to purchase chickens mail-order but I still wanted to narrow down my favorite breeds, like a gardener perusing seed catalogs in the long winter months, or a car guy reading his collection of hot rod magazines.
But now you’re ready to actually get your chicks. You’ve read lots of articles on how to make or buy a coop, and you have one at the ready. Now which kind of chicken do you get?
One can find many articles and sites on the web listing all the breeds and their pros and cons. There are cool charts and even programs that will help you choose. This is all good, because there are over 400 varieties of chickens in the world, and The American Poultry Association recognizes over 60 different varieties.
Here are some sites and programs that can narrow your choices. These sites are helpful and fun:
Here are some of the questions you’ll be asked, so think about these:
- Do you need a breed that’s hardy in winter?
- Do you care if the breeds are rare or unusual?
- Do you want birds that will raise chicks?
- Do you want colorful eggs?
- What color eggs do you want? White, cream, light blue, chocolate, light green, light brown?
There is even a smartphone app for choosing your breed: the Pickin’ Chicken app.
However, I’m going to advise you to take a different tack. I want to narrow these 60 breeds or varieties down for you, right now. You’re ready to get started on your flock now, so why not have instant gratification rather than a long wait and too many options?
This is not because I want to take the fun out of it for you, quite the contrary. It’s because I want you to get right to the fun…right to the part where you’re holding a baby chick in your hands.
The Feed Store Is Your Friend
I once read an article that said, “Picking the right breed of chicken for your needs is vital to the success of any backyard bird keeper.” I disagree. There is nothing “vital” about getting a “correct” breed. I have tried all kinds of varieties, and never once have I regretted a choice.
So this brings me to feed stores: let’s talk about them. Even if you live in a city, there is likely a feed store closer than you think. Just use your good friend Google to find the nearest one. In fact, find a few that are around you. Some might be an hour’s drive away; but I assure you that when you want those baby chicks in your incubator as fast as possible, an hour drive is much more fun than waiting for chicks to come in the mail, which is a complicated process.
When can you get your chicks from the feed store? Timing is basically the same for feed stores as it is for national mail-order hatcheries: early spring. And interestingly enough, early spring in the chick world is early March.
So, armed with the telephone number of the three feed stores, give them each a call. Ask them when they get their chicks in. Most feed stores do not stock baby chicks year ’round. They keep them in stock roughly from March to May.
So when you call, ask them when they get their first batches of chicks in. They are very used to this question, and they will likely have the exact dates. One of my local feed stores has a formal chart that lists every breed they get, how many will arrive, and what date. With this info, the feed store gets people calling in and reserving batches of chicks. Some feed stores sell out of certain breeds; other feed stores are better at keeping a steady stock. This is why you want a few feed store options on your plate.
The Secret Trick to Picking Chickens
So here’s my advice on what breed to get: let the feed store decide for you. Not in the sense that the people at the store will tell you what to get, but in the sense that feed stores only bring in and stock which breeds are the best, the most popular, the most robust breeds, the best egg layers, the most weather-hardy, the most domesticated, and even the most attractive. This is something that feed stores have been doing since the 1800’s.
A good feed store will sell chicks that will grow up to be the best egg layers, the best meat birds, and the most popular ornamental bantams. An average feed store will stock just the most prolific egg layers and meat birds. For example, a popular, prolific egg layer is a Rhode Island Red. The most used meat bird is called a Cornish Cross.
And your typical feed store will stock Leghorns. Leghorns are simply the best egg-laying breed in terms of year ’round production, and getting nearly an egg a day. They are the white birds with large floppy combs and are trim birds (not fluffy). They lay white eggs.
Some people say Leghorns are “flighty.” Meaning easy to spook, and not very friendly. Here’s the thing: in my experience, the tamest bird is whichever chick you handled the most, and most often. If you let your kids play with a Leghorn as a chick, tote it around, stick it in their pockets…you’re going to have the tamest Leghorn ever.
To prove my point, a very flighty bird in general is a quail, and a couple of years ago, I hatched some out, and tamed one to the point of it living in the house and coming whenever I called it, and happily sitting in our laps. So if you’re looking for a friendly flock in your backyard, it’s not a matter of breed; it’s a matter of handling as a chick.
Do You Want Egg Laying Chickens?
Your feed store is likely to have other breeds that lay a lot of eggs. The egg-layers are ones that start laying eggs at an early age — as soon as 5 months old for many of them –and lay almost daily. Conversely, bantam (smaller chickens, kept because they are pretty) breeds may not start laying until 11 months old, and once they lay a clutch of eggs, they may stop laying and try to sit on the eggs.
If you want to keep a steady supply of eggs in your fridge, you want breeds that have had the broodiness bred out of them over the decades. Which breeds have this? That is where your feed store will already have done that research for you. They stock the best breeds for that.
So let’s get to brass tacks: which breeds will your feed store have that are good egg layers? Black sex-link, golden sex-link, Leghorn, Rhode Island red, Australorp, Buff Orpington, and Wyandottes.
Some feed stores will only have the Black sex-link, Golden sex-link and Rhode Island Red. This is because these breeds are the best layers of brown eggs you can find.
I have raised all three of these breeds many times, and they are wonderful birds. They are as tame as you make them (let your kids feed them treats by hand and they’ll come when called, and let you pick them up), and they will give you big brown eggs nearly year ’round.
And in my opinion, the Black sex-link is one of the prettiest breeds out there; it’s one of my all-time favorites. The are iridescent black with bright rusty streaks on the breast and a bright red combs.
What Are “Sex-Links”?
You might already know, but the reason they are called “sex-links” is simply because something about that breed makes it able to be identified by gender upon hatching. And that is usually how it’s colored. So, its sex is linked to something about its appearance. Since some people feel uncomfortable saying “sex-link,” some hatcheries and feed stores have taken to calling them Golden Stars, Black Stars, or Golden Comets, etc. If you see these names, they are likely the same breed.
Don’t think that because you are buying what the feed store offers that you won’t get the “fancy” breeds that you’ve seen in catalogs. They will be beautiful and you will fall in love with them. A Golden sex-link can feather out a variety of ways; all some combination of white and gold, and this trait makes each individual easy to identify in your flock, and easier for you or your kids name them. So to answer the question of what breed you should get: let your local feed store do the work, and get your hands on some chicks ASAP!