While it would be convenient to split out the usual chicken breeds by "those that are good for eggs" and "those that are good for meat", the reality is that most modern breeds of chickens are really suitable for either purpose. Though there are a few exceptions, and some breeds that really do stand out for eggs or meat, almost all of them can be realistically labeled as a dual-purpose breed.
Just like with dogs, there are chickens that are pure-bred enough to be distinctive, and there are mixed breed "mutts". And just like with dogs, its nice to know the particulars of a certain breed yet there is nothing wrong with a mutt either.
There are at least a hundred recognized breeds of chickens, some of which are quite rare, which would make an excessively long list. So here are some of the more common breeds that are preferred by backyard chicken keepers and their characteristics. In many cases, the differences between one breed and the next are minimal.
Araucana's stand out for one reason only, the color of their eggs. They are often called the Easter Egg chickens because they lay eggs that have distinctive blue to green shells. Other than that, the eggs are perfectly normal and taste the same as any other chicken egg.
They have an odd look to them because they have no tails, or are a "rumpless" breed of chicken. If you plan on breeding your own chickens, these may be more of a challenge than you expect as mating can be a problem. As for their egg-laying, they produce well though won't lay as many eggs as some other breeds.
Australorps are large chickens with black feathers and red combs, and are very good layers. Their size makes them good for meat purposes as well. You'll get a light brown egg from each chicken almost every day. Behaviour-wise, the Australorp is a quiet, calm and friendly chicken that makes them great for yards where kids might be around.
Many people are familiar with the deep red feathers of the Rhode Island Red chicken, but there are also less-common Rhode Island Whites. These are fairly large-bodied birds that will produce lots of brown eggs. These chickens are very popular in backyard flocks due to their productivity, and they are large enough for eating if you go that route.
The roosters can be aggressive but the hens typically have good temperaments. There are bantam-sized Rhode Islands for anyone looking for a smaller bird.
Orpingtons are heavy birds that come in a variety of colours, though the lighter Buff Orpington is the more common shade. Because of their size, they won't do too much flying and are more suitable for smaller space than some of the flightier birds. They are very friendly and make for good "pet" chickens.
Orpington hens will often sit on their eggs, and are very good mothers if you want to raise your own chicks from fertilized eggs.
If you prefer a chicken that lays white eggs, you could think about the Leghorn. They come in all kinds of colors and feather patterns though white feathers with a red comb are the most well-known. Leghorn's lay a lot of eggs but seldom care enough to sit on them.
These can be skittish chickens, so you'll need to keep them penned in or they could end up anywhere whenever they are startled. Spend time with your chickens, and they will be more friendly than nervous.
Minorca's have large red combs, which can be a problem if you are raising chickens where frostbite is a winter issue. Their feathers are usually black though other colorations do exist. As a breed, they are a little skittish and prefer a peaceful environment. If you have a dog or small children, Minorca's may get stressed. They jump and will fly short distances so high fences are a must. These are not good chickens to raise if you plan on free-ranging or letting them run loose in the yard.
Sometimes known as the Cornish Game bird, these are smaller breeds of chickens that are usually kept for meat production rather than for eggs. Cornish hens will lay an egg once or twice a week, which may or may not be suitable for your egg needs. They are popular with smaller families who don't need quite as many eggs as you would get with a Rhode Island or Plymouth Rock. Cornish birds are light in their feathering, and don't do as well in cold regions as heavy-bodied birds.
The Wyandotte is a quiet tempered breed that is large enough for a good meat chicken and still produces a good supply of eggs. The hens usually get broody with their eggs and make good mothers if you are raising chicks. It can make it a bit more of a chore to collect their eggs as they will be guarding them well. They are good layers, producing large brown eggs.
The particular breed of chicken is available in both standard and bantam (see below for more on bantams). They are not as common as some of these others for backyard flocks, and they are quite attractive with their unusual speckled or spotted feathers. There are a few color variations, but most Hamburgs are black and white.
They are good layers, though relatively small in body. And due to their size, they can be flighty and a bit skittish. A high fence or one with a top is important with these chickens.
Silkies are fun to keep because their feathers give them a furry appearance with amusing crests of fine feathers over their heads, though they won't produce as many eggs for you as some of the other breeds. They are small, and do make great pets though due to their appearance and friendly demeanor.
Silkies are notorious for being broody, and their hens have a strong drive to sit on eggs. So even if you are not raising Silkies for their own eggs, they can be very helpful if you are trying to hatch eggs from other chickens who can't be bothered to stay on their nests.
Plymouth Rock's come in a variety of colors, including the popular Barred coloration. Their eggs are brown, and they will produce a lot of eggs for you. The birds themselves are large-bodied so can be raised for meat production as well.
They are very quiet and mild-tempered birds that can become quite attached to their keepers. Many folks who have Plymouth Rock's claim the birds will follow them around like puppies when they are loose in the yard.
Cochins are best known for their big feathery legs, and are frequently kept as pets or as ornamental birds because of their interesting look. But they do make decent egg layers, though not at the level as many other birds. Their eggs are also smaller, usually cream to light brown in color.
Their feathery legs gives them some added protection in cold climates, but makes them more prone to overheating when the weather is hot. Cochins are docile birds that are basically easy to care for.
New Hampshire Reds
A close relative of the Rhode Island chicken, these are prolific egg-layers, with large brown eggs about 5 times a week. Unlike some of the other breeds, the New Hampshire really only comes in the classic brown feather and red comb coloration. These are friendly birds that will get along with other breeds or animals that you might have, though they can be a little louder than most.
Bantams need to be mentioned though the term doesn't actually apply to a breed of chicken, but rather to a size. Bantams are much smaller than standard chickens, and they produce fewer eggs. Since it is a size term, you can find bantams in many of the breeds listed above as well as standard sized chickens though not all breeds have a bantam version.
For backyard farmers with limited space, or who only need a small number of eggs, bantams are a great choice. They can be flighty, so you'll need high fences or an outside run that is covered. Small children who may get a little intimidated by large chickens usually find bantams more fun.
If you are looking for something really different, there are a few other types of birds that you can keep just like chickens. Most zoning issues will be the same regardless of which species of bird you keep but you may want to double-check.
Quail are much smaller than chickens, and will produce very small eggs that are considered a delicacy in the gourmet food world. The eggs are about the size of a large marble, and can be a good choice for someone who doesn't need the large volume of eggs that you get from standard chickens.
Guinea fowl are another chicken relative that some people choose to keep for eggs or meat, and they are also famed for their insect-catching abilities. Unfortunately, they are also much louder than chickens and will most likely annoy your neighbors with their screeching. They are not that suitable for backyard keeping unless you are living in a more rural area.
Two other birds that may come to mind once you start thinking about chickens are ducks and turkeys. In rural yards, these may be suitable but you should probably bypass these particular birds in any urban settings. Ducks will require some kind of "pond" for swimming in, and they are generally less happy with confinement than chickens.
And if you are not familiar with live turkeys, they are quite a bit larger than chickens. Trying to keep them in a backyard environment is not recommended unless you have at least an acre of space to accommodate a much larger house and pen for them. Given their size, turkey's are usually kept as meat birds for slaughter, but you certainly can keep them for their eggs as well. They lay like a mid-range chicken, with about 3 eggs per week and they are very broody when they do lay.
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