Friday, November 6, 2009

Chicken Breeds

We first added a tiny flock of backyard chickens to our mini-homestead in spring of 2008. We really enjoy having them, and they've been easy to manage. I'm only a slightly-advanced-beginner chicken keeper. So I'm curious about the differences between various laying breeds. Having had only two breeds, we just don't know all that much about the range of chicken personality traits. In fact we were surprised that there were any significant differences in behavior from breed to breed. Don't know why this is so. It doesn't surprise me at all to see behavioral or personality traits differ between, say, German shepherds and Jack Russell terriers.

By chance we started with Red Star hens, switched briefly to White Marans, and are now back to Red Stars. I feel lucky to have started with the breed we did, since it seems to me now that Red Stars are ideal for our situation. We could easily have been less lucky; our feelings and decisions about keeping chickens could have turned out very differently had we started with a different breed. So I would caution anyone who has never kept chickens before, especially those with limited space and in close proximity to neighbors, to research the breed options carefully before getting your birds.

I'd like to hear from others on the traits of other breeds. First though, descriptions of what I've observed in the hens of the two breeds I "know"...

Originally uploaded by -Mandie-

Red Star - An extremely quiet breed. The only noise they make above normal, very muted, contented or mildly excited burbling noises are when they are truly alarmed by something, or when actually laying an egg. They are very docile and not highly strung, meaning they calm down quickly after an alarming event. They eat like vacuum cleaners however. Someone described them to me as the "Labrador retrievers" of the chicken world. This is accurate in my observation. However, they are also very unfussy eaters once they become accustomed to the idea that what I throw in their pen is generally a treat. They readily eat many weeds and kitchen scraps, as well as sub-par produce and many garden pest insects. This means their eggs have fantastic coloration (in the yolks) and nutrition. They are excellent layers even after two years of age. A great choice for those with little space and neighbors close by.

White Marans - A heritage dual-purpose breed. These are larger birds than the Red Stars and far more vocal. They will loudly protest captivity as soon as the sun is up (sometimes before it's even properly up), which can be problematic in the summer. They also seem to have "fits" of nervousness over nothing in particular which spreads from one bird to the next and leads to loud alarmed squawking of the entire flock which can go on for 15 minutes or more. They are fussy eaters with little interest in several common garden crops including lettuce greens and tomatoes. They did enjoy summer squash and Japanese beetles however. As is to be expected from a dual-purpose breed, they are not great layers even in their first year of laying. The eggs they do lay are absolutely gorgeous however, speaking here of the dark coloration and occasional speckling of the shells. In general, while I support heritage breeds, this one is not a great choice for those in suburban or densely populated areas as their noise could easily annoy neighbors. Also not a great choice for homesteaders or those trying to maximize home economy by supplementing purchased feed from the homestead's own resources. For those without nearby neighbors who want one breed to do two things (meat and eggs) moderately well, this breed may be of use.

Do you keep chickens? What can you say about the characteristics of the breeds you know? If you keep either Red Stars or White Marans, do your observations differ from mine?


Anonymous said...

We chose white leghorns, buff orpingtons and Rhode Island Reds for our first experience with chickens last spring. We probably won't choose white leghorns next time, as they are louder, less tame, and more apt to get out of their area and wind up in one of the trees around our house. They were supposed to be good layers, but actually don't lay quite as well as the other two breeds we have. The orpingtons are tamer, quieter, and more pleasant to have around. They are supposed to be better winter layers, so should be able to tell soon! The reds are a good medium between the other two breeds, being reliable layers, and also pretty tame. These breeds seem to work pretty well for us here in the southeast.

el said...

We have kept (and keep) all kinds of chickens, and my experience is this: it is not the breed, it's the bird. One flighty little so-and-so as a chick will communicate panic and general mayhem to all her sisters, whether they're of the same breed or not. Likewise, one ravenous eater will also "teach" her fellows that every scrap of food must be fought for.

I try to discourage the flightiness, encourage the all-food-good thing by really spending lots of time with them when they're small. Having a small kid to do this helps too: kids are unpredictable after all and move quickly so the chicks/chickens get used to the kid, especially if s/he comes bearing treats. So, for the most part, I spend lots of time squatting down on my haunches, holding a bowl of scraps, or scratch in my hands; even the most skittish bird eventually comes around.

As for the noise, a lot of that has to do with being spooked. I have guineas. There's no controlling their noise, so any peep the chickens make is kind of lost in the din :)

~Tonia said...

We have Light Brahmas that are big and so-so layers but great calm birds. My girls have carried around the 15 pound rooster his whole life and he tolerates it well. He was also in our church Easter drama.
We have had White crested polish Crazy little birds but very funny to watch...
I love Silkies!!! They lay pretty good for little chickens.. Then I have Americaunas. I love all the different egg colors I get.. Lots of disagreement about the Americaunas and what actually makes up the breed but.. From the official info I have on them The Americaunas is they are a mix of the aruacana and another breed. Mine are a little wild but usually lay well through the colder months. Enough to keep us in eggs!
I had Australorps didnt like them. I constantly had mites and lice on them! They didnt lay well either..
Then we have a few mutt chickens.. They are great! Lol Chickens are great 2nd only to my goats!!lol

Wendy said...

We have or have had Rhode Island Reds, Americana/Araucauna, White leghorns, Australorps, buff orpingtons, laced wyandottes, plymouth rocks, brown leghorns, and Light brahmas.

The RIR, Australorps and Aracaunas were the friendliest, but it may have had a little more to do with how those particular chickens were raised. They would actually eat out of our hands and we could even pick them up and carry them.

The bigger breeds are, overall, most comfortable around us, most curious, and least flighty.

The leghorns weren't terribly friendly and tend to just run from us.

The best layers (at least in the first year) have been the RIR and Australorps.

By far, my favorite chicken was Emily, our Araucuna, who was beautiful, a decent layer, and very personable. She was curious, and actually seemed to like being held. Weird, I know ;).

Most of our hens have been hand raised (the brooder is in the house, and they are oft handled by my three daughters when they're chicks).

We also have Khaki Campbell ducks, and they're pretty awesome, so far. We have one who's laying right now (the other two females are still too young, but close), and we get an egg a day from her. The chickens are on vacation, apparently.

Danielle said...

Hi, I stumbled upon your blog through HickChick. We have been urban homesteaders that relocated to 5 acres in the country. My husband and I have always made extra payments on our mortgage and such but this month we sat down and worked out a real,doable budget that will allow us to pay off our mortgage in 6 years. I see you all are on your own journey to pay off your mortgage early as well. Have you found the farm animals to be a money suck? To be honest, the simple life is not always cheap and running a homestead in today's times can be tough on the wallet. With buying hay and feed and chickens that aren't giving back right now...we are thinking about cutting back drastically on anything that doesn't or can't give back.

Elsie said...

I thought about chickens and then decided on Indian Runner ducks. They aren't snuggle-y, but they are quite entertaining. They are super grazers, but they really won't do much of anything with kitchen scraps. Mine are laying like crazy (started at 4 months) - the eggs taste just like chicken eggs but with a little less of the white and more of the yolk. We let them out in the yard as much as possible. They wander a bit but are totally herd-able. They eat chicken food (unmedicated) and need even less of a shelter than chickens (they don't roost). They say this breed doesn't need any water, but we have a creek and they love spending time in it. Mine made quite a bit of noise early on when they first started living outside, but now just mostly make contented and excited noises. My neighbors LOVE them. They are the belles of the 'hood.

Leigh said...

It's been a long time since I've had chickens, but we are planning to get some and so I appreciate this post. Like Anonymous, I'm in the southeast considering RIR and Buff Orpingtons, though I'm open. I read that the Orps make good mothers so they are high on my list. We have 5 acres, but we're just out of town and do have neighbors, so noise is a consideration.

Danielle is right. Living a simple sustainable lifestyle isn't cheap, especially getting started. It's a shame, but that just seems to be the way it works.

Jane said...

Chooks are great. My favourite breed is the Australorp- big and fluffy and super friendly. Ours will even come in the back door if its left open to have a peck at the cat's food.

Lauren said...

I have a Red Star, Black Star, and 2 Isa Browns.
The Red Star is the quietest and friendliest, she started laying first and lays more regularly than the others, she is the best forager and at the bottom of the pecking order.
The Black Star lays really pointy eggs, top of the pecking order, friendly (follows me around the garden) but demanding and super noisy. Fortunately my neighbours have been understanding thus far.
The Isa Browns run away when approached, don't lay as regularly as the Stars but often extra-large double yolk eggs. They also eat a lot more than the Stars.

Anonymous said...

We started with Leghorns, Barred Rocks, and RIRs. Of the three the RIR won hands down. The leghorns were not hardy as they have large combs that get frostbite easily in our climate. The barred rock roosters were very mean and the hens were a little touchy as well. The reds were docile and good layers.

This past year we culled our flock and started again with heritage breeds. We selected Barred Hollands, Buckeyes, and Buff Chanteclers.

The Hollands were supposed to be more friendly than the Barred Rocks. In my experience they are a little better with people but are terribly vicious towards the other birds. The Buckeyes are very gentle and submissive so they were really suffering the wrath of the Hollands. I culled the Holland roos and the hens haven't caused any trouble. I'm happy with the Buckeyes so far.

The Buff Chanteclers I think are my favorite. They are very hardy so far. I've had no problem with aggression towards me at all (with the roosters). Plus, they are beautiful!! I haven't culled any yet but they have a large, stocky carcass that I like. They have almost no comb which is supposed to help prevent frostbite.

I wrote about each of the three breeds in more detail awhile back if you're interested.

aubryz said...

We have a crazy mix of breeds and ages and I have to agree that it's the bird not necessarily the breed. We have white leghorns, which are our best layers, everyday and sometimes two a day per bird, and they follow me relentlessly, always up in what I'm doing! The americanas let my pet them as do several other breeds. I have rir that are super aggressive with the other birds but very friendly with, and other rir who are timid. Though the rir have the best largest eggs. Not quite as consistent as the leghorns. Everyone else just looks cool!

Shell said...

Hi, I live in northeast Ohio and we have our first set of chickens this year. Our are 20 wks old and not laying so far. We have Aracanus, Barred Rocks, New Hamshire Reds, Silver Laced Wyandotes. I also have 4 26 wks old Rhode Island Reds. We found 3 are Rooster as they started crowing every morning. Our RIR roosters are tame and friendly. The other are a bit flighty. I'm not sure if its because their were 16 and we couldn't handle all of them as much as the RIR's or what. They have learned to come by chick, chick when I come to give them goodies.

Good luck on your adventure and have fun,

Kathleen Stoltzfus said...

I have bantams because I like the way they look (porcelains, silkies, white crested black polish, and black tailed white japanese). Since I don't eat many eggs, it works out well for me. Beauty and sufficient function. Also, a bonus is that they forage for most of their food even though they have 24/7 access to layer pellets.

On a side note, thanks for visiting my blog! Also thanks for the invite to the seed sharing. I'll be growing for market this year and so am not sure about extra seed. Going to try to buy only what I need and plant all that I buy. However, if your group is looking for heirloom vegetable seedlings and would like to do a field trip, you're more than welcome to come here in the spring!

Holly the Land Girl said...

Hi I've just come across your blog through a suggestion from my google reader. I live on a homestead/smallholding in Cornwall, UK which I write about on my blog From London to Land Girl. We have a mixture of hens including Buff Orpingtons, black marans and rescued battery hens to mention a few. The Buffs are the best mothers, whilst William the maran cockerel/rooster is definitely very protective of his flock! We also keep Indian runner ducks and muscovy ducks. The muscovy ducks certainly have the best temperament of all the animals at my farm.

Really like your blog - it's very well written. It would be lovely if 'crossed the Atlantic' and had a look at my blog some time!
All the best with your endeavours,

Kate said...

Thanks to everyone who chimed in with the skinny on your favorite or not so favorite breeds. There certainly is a lot of variety in chickendom.

El, while I can certainly believe that individual birds can buck any trend of their breed (again, as with dogs), it also makes sense to me that certain traits will be very prevalent in a given breed. Perhaps because we've only had one breed at a time, the distinctive traits seem more pronounced, since there haven't been "others" to teach them otherwise. And yeah, guineas are right out in my neighborhood. I'm told my grandfather was given some guineas once. They flew up into a tree and lasted only until the first Saturday morning. My grandfather apparently liked sleeping in on Saturdays.

Danielle, congrats on your ambitious debt reduction plan. I'm fairly hard-nosed about any livestock we keep here. They need to be productive, or we don't keep them. Even our pet cat, with three serious medical conditions, is still an avid mouser. We've retired two batches of under-productive laying hens. That said, we're looking at adding honeybees next year, and that will require a pretty big outlay for a somewhat risky return. We'll see...

Kathleen, I'll pass the word on your heirloom seedlings. Someone may take you up on the offer. Thanks for mentioning it.

Kate said...

Oh! and Holly - I've been to your part of the world a couple of times. Cornwall is lovely indeed. I'll make some time to visit your blog soon, and thank you for the invitation.

Holly the Land Girl said...

Glad to hear you liked Cornwall, and hope you enjoy my blog. Looking forward to reading more posts from you in the future.

Cheryl (SwineInsanity) said...

We have Buff Orpingtons, Bardrocks, and black Sexlinks... Duel purpose breeds. For the most part they are quiet... The rooster is an Orpington. He is a good boy. (I always thought he looked like a lumberjack, big boy). Protected the hens in an eagle attack we had... A bald eagle attacked a hen. He faught it off while all cackled. Feathers everywhere, but the hen was shaken but fine. He shares food with the hens when he finds something calling for them... Brown egg layers. Do ok in the winter. I usually keep some eggs back in used egg containers in the frig. during the summer so I still have some when they slow down during molding and winter.... I don't wash them till I use them so they keep longer.... Had my flock over a year now. Rooster plucked feathers off 2 of the hens backs in brooding season, but they have grown back since on their own when they molted. I have never heard of Red Star. Pretty cool!

Anonymous said...

I've had a variety of breeds, but have to admit that the Silver Appenheller Spitzhaubens I got this year have been my hands down favorite. Gorgeous feathering, charming personalities, and reliable layers = my cup of tea!

Kate said...

Cheryl, your rooster sounds like a keeper. I've heard a story of a rooster even *killing* an eagle that attacked the flock. I don't know whether to believe it, but I don't doubt that a rooster would try.

Anon, I think you win the prize for the coolest sounding breed. I'm going to go look for a picture of them now.

Joel said...

>we're looking at adding honeybees next year, and that will require a pretty big outlay for a somewhat risky return. We'll see...

A top-bar hive can be extremely inexpensive, and most of the other stuff you need looks simple to make. Most of the bloggers I follow don't go in for extractors, with the exception of Novella Carpenter.

You might look into "backwards" beekeeping, which seems to have a similar story to do-nothing farming: a well-read expert decided to intervene less and less, and found that things got better and better, often for surprising reasons.

Kate said...

Joel, yes I'm familiar with the Backwards Beekeepers and have checked out some of their videos. I like their philosophy, but will also highly value the advice of those beekeepers local to me. I've also seen the top bar hives, and we're mulling the possibilities there. Like I said, we'll see how things look as we learn more. said...

Hi Kate,

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Firefly Mom said...

This is our first year with urban chickens, and it's been quite the learning experience! For personality, our favorite by far was our Speckled Sussex. She loved being cradled on her back in our arms while we rubbed her belly. My husband came outside one afternoon to find her asleep - belly up - in my arms (I'd dozed off, too.) Unfortunately, we lost her to an illness a few months back. We also have a Brahma (great personality and layer, though she makes noises like a goose. ;) Then there's the Plymouth Barred Rock (good layer, though she's much less personable than we thought she'd be) and a Cuckoo Maran who's, well, cuckoo! We definitely wouldn't get one of those again.

Kate said...

Firefly Mom, thanks for adding your comments on the breeds you're familiar with. You've certainly tried out a wide range of chickendom. After our current batch of Red Stars has been converted to chicken stock, I'm going to try out a few other breeds. There are just too many other possibilities not to sample some of them.