Did you know there are more than 200 breeds of chickens? Why do you care? Besides color, plumage pattern, style of comb and wattles -- somewhat cosmetic considerations -- chicken breeds differ on everything from personality to broodiness (tendency to sit on eggs to hatch them), to winter hardiness and even egg color! Plus, some farmers raise them to show or breed rare varieties to keep them going, or just because they like that particular breed.
Chicken breeds are divided into one of two categories of size: standard or large, and bantam. In fact, many breeds are available in both sizes. Large breeds are, simply, larger than bantam breeds, and produce more meat and eggs. Bantams may be one-quarter to one-fifth the size of a large-breed chicken. Their eggs are smaller, and bantams can continue to fly throughout their lifetime. Bantams tend to be a little more intense in temperament than large breeds as well.
Some hobby farmers enjoy raising bantam chickens, breeding them, and showing them. Others do the same with large breed chickens. But farmers who are raising chickens for eggs and/or meat will likely choose large breed chickens for their greater efficiency in producing them. Some like to keep a few banties mixed in with the large breed chickens just for variety and as more of a "pet" chicken.
If you live in a region with cold winters, whether a chicken breed is classified as "heavy" might matter to you. Heavy breeds have thicker bodies and denser feathers and are happier in the cold than non-heavy breeds. They're more likely to continue laying eggs through the winter as well.
Hardiness is not just a description of how well a chicken is suited to a cold winter. It refers to the breed's ability to sustain itself through tougher times, any genetic weaknesses, and its tendency to forage versus eating feed, often called "thriftiness." Some of the older, less heavily factory farmed breeds like the heritage or heirloom breeds still retain many of the qualities that chickens needed when they were living in backyards all across the country. In contrast, production breeds have sometimes lost the ability to brood over a clutch of eggs or forage for bugs, weeds, and small rodents in the fields and woods.
Hens go "broody" over a clutch of eggs to hatch them. They settle in on the eggs, only leaving the nest once per day to eat and drink. If you're trying to hatch eggs naturally, this can be a good quality in a hen. If you're planning on buying replacement chicks from a hatchery or incubating your eggs, it can be an annoying trait. Not only is the broody hen not producing eggs, but she's making the eggs under her age faster due to warmth. And, it's not the best for her health.
Dual-purpose breeds are the old-time, classic breeds raised on the farm in early America. Many households had chickens, and they kept a laying flock but culled old, weak birds, birds who'd stopped laying, and young roosters to the table. The "dual purpose" of good laying production and plump meat for the table is the specialty of these breeds.
White Leghorns and other pure egg-laying breeds are the most prolific egg layers. Their grain-to-egg output is maximized. These birds don't make particularly good eaters, though, and they're not suitable for cold climates.
Some breeds were developed purely to raise for eating. These breeds are the most efficient converters of grain to meat. The classic factory farm bird is a cross of a White Cornish and a White Rock called a CornishxRock or Cornish Rock. These chickens are huge, with thick, stout legs and large feet. They grow to a broiler size (4 pounds) in 6 to 8 weeks and are the most frugal means of putting the chicken in your freezer. There are other breeds suitable for meat production, though: Brahma, Cochin, and Jersey Giant are a few of them.
Did you know that you can tell what color eggs a chicken will lay by looking at its earlobes? Eggs range in color from all shades of brown and tan to blue, green and white. "Ameracauna" or Easter Egg chickens are a hybrid breed that lay eggs in shades from blue or blue/green to cream. Ameracaunas are derived from a rare South American breed called the Aracauna.
Of course, the most common egg colors are white and brown, and chicken breeds are often described by this characteristic. You may hear or read the terms "brown egg layers" or "white egg layers." There is no nutritional difference between different colored eggs.
Plumage and Looks
One of the best things about chickens is their beautiful plumage! Chickens come in every feather color, shape, and design imaginable. From golden Buff Orpingtons to feather-footed Cochins, the variety is amazing.
It isn't all about cosmetics. Combs come in a variety of shapes. Those that lie close to the chicken's head are less prone to frostbite, though we keep Barred Rocks and Speckled Sussex in an unheated coop down to -25 degrees F without a problem.
Breeds are described as docile or aggressive depending on the traits that farmers have noticed in their flocks. Still, among any given flock, temperament will be influenced more by pecking order than by genetic tendency. Those higher in the pecking order are the more aggressive birds and those lower in the order are more submissive and docile.
Some breeds are more "flighty" and high-strung than others as well. Sometimes this is a good trait; we noticed, for example, that the hawks seem to be able to get our Buff Orpingtons more easily than the more intense birds like Ameracaunas.
If you have small children, picking a particularly "docile" breed might be a good fit.
Heritage and Rare Breeds
Recently there has been a growing interest in heritage and heirloom chicken breeds. Some farmers specialize in raising, breeding and selling heritage, and rare chickens, and others just want to choose a heritage breed for their egg layers or meat birds. Often these breeds display greater hardiness than production breeds. They show more traditional chicken behaviors, like foraging for food, being good setters (going broody easily), and roosting.
Raising Backyard Chickens for Eggs. University of Florida Extension.
“Establishing a Backyard Poultry Flock.” Small Farm Sustainability, Iowa State University.