There are hundreds of chicken breeds out there and it can be hard to know which ones are best suited to your farm, or why a chicken was bred with funny feathers or a bare neck. At our homestead, I like to think that a chicken should be something you enjoy watching as well as an egg producer, so I tend to lean towards the more showy breeds.
If you are looking mostly for fresh eggs every day, you want to consider one of the classic laying hen varieties. Layers come in two basic types: heavier birds which lay primarily brown eggs, and lighter birds which lay primarily white eggs. You can actually tell if a chicken lays white or brown eggs by the color of their ear lobes – if they are white, the hen will lay white eggs.
Some of the heavier laying breeds can also be used as meat birds, and most were bred primarily from the all purposes farm chickens of yester-year. These types include Rhode Island Reds, Barred Rocks, Orpingtons, Australorps, and Wyandottes. A heavy egg laying breed is a great place to start if you are getting your first flock: they usually sell them at local hardware stores, they are affordable, docile enough to be a family pet, and will lay reliably for years. Other breeds in this variety are Araucanas and Americanas, which are specially bred to produce green, blue, and purple eggs – sure to make breakfast more entertaining!
There are also several light weight egg laying breeds, and these often produce the white eggs that are the most common on supermarket shelves. Many of these breeds were developed specifically for prolific egg production, and some are also quite fancy, show-quality birds in their own right. Some of the most unique white egg layers include Andalusians, Anconas, and Minorcas, but the most common variety is the White Leghorn. In my experience Leghorns are very high strung, flighty birds, but they are known for some of the best egg production rates you can find.
Many people also raise chickens exclusively for meat. This is a great way to know where your food comes from and make sure that the chickens you eat were humanely treated. Several breeds have been developed which will gain more weight, and faster, for the best value. These include Cornish, Pioneer, and the aptly named Broilers.
Bantam chicken breeds are a pint-sized variety of chicken: some of the smallest birds are about the size of a pigeon, while the largest bantams are still a little more than half the size of a heavy breed laying hen. There are some varieties of chickens that only come in the bantam sizes, but many full size chickens have bantam counterparts. Exclusively bantam breeds include the diminutive Serama, Mille Fleur, and Old English Game. Generally, bantams are reliable egg layers, but their eggs are about half of a larger chicken’s eggs.
Cochins and Silkies are two of the varieties of chicken that come in both bantam and standard size. They are some of the most docile, friendly chickens, known for making great pets for children and being exceptional mothering hens. This does mean they are much more likely to go
broody than most chicken breeds. However if you are looking for a sweet tempered chicken that likely will enjoy being handled regularly, these are the way to go. Both Cochins and Silkies come in a very wide variety of colors, and Cochins are also available in an eye catching frizzle feather pattern. Silkies are not known to be great egg layers, but they can be used as meat birds and are sometimes prized for their black skin. Their wispy, hair-like feathers are completely unique and they trace their heritage to Marco Polo era China.
There are also many varieties of chickens which combine being a dependable egg layer, and still a fancy breed which you can show or just enjoy watching parade in your backyard. Polish chickens are famous for their large crests, and come in a wide variety of colors and feather patterns. Breeds like Wyandottes, Sussex, Dorking and Brahmas come with beautiful, laced feather patterns, and some Cochins, Brahmas, and even Marans have feathering on their legs and feet. Chickens with large crests, such as the Polish, may have a gentle temperament when handled, but are easily startled as their vision is compromised. More stylish birds tend to be less common than egg laying breeds – although they usually produce a fair number of eggs a year – and therefore also a bit more expensive.
There are also a lot of exotic and heritage breeds of chickens which are hard to find, and even endangered. Investing in these breeds helps to preserve them for the future, and many of them are some of the most lavish looking chickens around. While some breeds are relatively hard to
find, you can still get them from reputable hatcheries. These include the Marans, White Faced Black Spanish, Sumatra, Legbar, and Egyptian Fayoumis. The most unique chicken breeds are only available from very select hatcheries and cost much more than your average bird. There are varieties like the German Spitzhauben, a high energy Swiss bird with a tuft of black and white feathers on its head; the Olandsk Dwarf, a Swedish bantam of which there are less than 200 remaining; the Lyonaise, a frizzle-feathered native of France; and the famous Ayam Cemani, a solid black (including skin) Indonesian breed which sells from only one hatchery in the US and costs almost $200 for a single day old chick.
All breeds of chickens will provide you with delight and entertainment, though some may be more showy than others and a few aren’t as strong at producing eggs. Embracing the more unusual breeds helps to preserve them, and gives you a great talking point when people meet your flock, but having a good, reliable layer cannot be beat.