A few days ago, I was buying stamps at the post office when I heard faint little sounds of…
“Cheep, cheep, cheep!”
You know you live in the country if you hear farm sounds at your local post office.
Sure enough, a crate of little chicks had arrived at the post office that day and were waiting to be picked up by someone. Eeeee! Sweet sounds of spring!
For us, bringing home a bunch of adorable little fuzz balls is the highlight of our spring. They’re irresistibly soft and cute.
We’ve been “raising” (because it’s more of a hobby than a serious farming endeavor) chickens for four years now and have enjoyed every moment…well, maybe not every moment, but it has been a lot of fun.
Chickens are a source of crazy fun entertainment!
Whether they are scratching at the dirt looking for bugs, taking dirt baths, chasing each other, or running full force across the yard to be the first to partake of kitchen scraps, they’ll keep you entertained for sure!
And of course, they obviously produce food for your family, too. Now, whether you can stomach eating the egg that just popped out of the chicken’s butt is something to consider. It took me awhile. I did get used to it, though, and the eggs that come from your own free ranging chickens are so much better for you than the ones from the store.
Photo shows: Buff Orpington chicks
How to Choose the Perfect Backyard Chicken
So are you ready for some backyard chickens of your own?
Here are some factors you might want to consider before selecting a breed.
Each year when we start flipping through the McMurray hatchery catalog, we make a list of all the chicken breeds we are interested in and we start organizing them by different criteria. We consider the following six criteria in choosing our new breeds: temperament, weather hardiness, meat birds versus layers, foragers, egg color, and chicken color.
Different chicken breeds have different temperaments. Some birds are flighty, some are aggressive, and others are sweetly docile, meaning that they are quiet, calm, and easy to control. I look for birds with a reputation for being docile. I want my chickens to be sweet! Our chickens share the yard with my kids so not only do these birds become family pets, they’re around my children a lot. They had better be nice.
2. Weather Hardy
For those of you living in a place where it never snows and 85°F is a major heat wave, you can go ahead and skip this section. For the rest of us, weather hardiness is one of the most important criteria to consider. Some breeds with long combs and wattles are more likely to get frost bite and are not well-suited for cold climates. Other breeds don’t do well in hot weather and can easily succumb to heat stress. Although breeds with feathered feet look great, they have more problems in muddy conditions.
We have days in the summer with temperatures above 100°F. We also have days in the winter with sub-zero temperatures and 40 mph winds. On cold winter days, we’ll put a heat lamp in the coop and pile snow around the base of the coop to help insulate it. However, when the water jug (sitting directly beneath the heat lamp) freezes solid, you know your birds had better be cold hardy! Amazingly, we have never lost any of our chickens to the cold weather.
Depending on where you live, you may be like us experiencing both hot and cold conditions or you may only need to look for a bird that does well with one extreme.
Photo shows: Buff Orpington (yellow chick), Rhode Island Red (reddish chicks), and a free mystery chick (black chick) that I never quite figured out
3. Meat vs. Eggs
If it’s eggs that you’re after, choose a breed that lays well. Once they are mature, the hens from most layer breeds will give you an egg every one to two days. Other breeds lay hardly any eggs at all. The breeds that do not lay well are commonly raised for their meat. Although any healthy chicken can be eaten, good meat breeds are broad-breasted and grow to their target weight quickly.
If you want to spend less of your hard-earned egg money at the local feed store, and you would like your chickens to provide double-duty with pest-control around your house, a breed that forages well is a good choice. We have about an acre and a half of fenced backyard where we let our chickens run free. They love to chase grasshoppers, scratch in the dirt, and nibble on the grass.
On the other hand, if you have limited space and can’t let your chickens free range, there is no need to worry about their foraging skills.
Photo shows: Buff Orpington chicks (yellow) and Ameraucana chicks (multi-colored)
5. Egg Color
Egg color really isn’t that important when it comes to the health of your flock or the health of your family. However, if you’re raising chickens for their eggs, gathering a variety of different colored eggs is the best part of raising your own backyard chickens!
Our first flock of chickens were Ameraucana chickens (also called Easter egg chickens). Some of the hens laid different shades of brown eggs and others laid bluish-green and greenish-blue eggs. The other chickens that we have had (Buff Orpingtons and Rhode Island Reds) have all laid brown eggs. At some point, I would like to get some hens that lay those beautiful dark chocolate colored eggs, as well as some hens that lay nice white eggs.
Photo shows: an egg from an Ameraucana hen (the greenish-blue egg) and a brown egg from a Buff Orpington
6. Chicken Color
Similar to egg color, the color of your chickens doesn’t make much difference to their health or yours, but a good variety certainly adds to the enjoyment of raising them. Out of the chickens that we have had, our Ameraucanas had the most individual variety with hens ranging from almost completely tan to almost completely black with unique markings on each one.
Photo shows: Ameraucana rooster (left) and hen (right) when they were a couple months old
We have been very happy with our Ameraucanas, Buff Orpingtons, and Rhode Island Reds. All three breeds did well in the heat of summer and cold of winter. They were good layers, they did very well foraging in our backyard, and had easy temperaments for beginners.
Photo shows: two full grown Buff Orpingtons, a Rhode Island Red, and that black Mystery hen
There are a lot of excellent resources to help you find a breed that has the perfect characteristics for you. We used a table from Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens, but there are other similar tables posted on the web, such as this one from Backyard Poultry and and this one from My Pet Chicken.
I should warn you, though…when you have to start narrowing down your list, it gets really hard. Because chicken breeds are like potato chips. You can’t have just one!