Choosing Chickens

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Choosing Chickens

Once you have made up your mind that you want to keep chickens, the next big questions are what type? And where to get them from? This article covers the main considerations when choosing which breed of chicken will suit you best, and deciding where to buy them.

What do you want from keeping chickens?

Which breed or type of chicken will suit you best will largely depend upon why you wish to keep chickens. Obviously, if you are looking for a constant supply of tasty eggs, you will need a breed renowned for good laying, British Sussex, Dutch Welsummer, Leghorns, Anconas, Minorcas for example. The utility breeds can offer an even more prolific return, with American Rhode Island Red, Wyandotte and New Hampshire Red being particularly impressive. However if your choice is based on out-and-out laying performance, then a hybrid chicken, designed specifically for this job, will reward you with an almost limitless supply of eggs.

Alternatively, you might wish to keep and/or rear chickens for showing, or even purely as animated and attractive ornaments. Under these circumstances, interesting plumage and colour might influence your choice of breed most. If you are intending to breed the birds yourself, then a breed which is known to be a good broody (a chicken happy to sit on a clutch of eggs to incubate them) would make a good choice, such as Orpingtons, Sussex or Silkies.

Another factor, which is frequently overlooked when initially chosing chickens, is whether you want a table bird, in which case select either a commercial broiler, or a pure breed specially selected for table quality, such as La Flesche.

Size of Bird

Chickens come in various sizes – large, miniature and true bantam, and this is another important consideration for many would-be owners, especially if the space you have available is limited. Many manufacturerers of chicken coops claim that their product will hold twice the number of chicken that represent a sensible and healthy stocking rate, so it’s important to be realistic when chosing bird size and their coop. Obviously the smaller the bird, the less space it is likely to require.

Larger birds will produce more manure, so if you don’t want to be endlessly cleaning housing, pick a smaller breed!

Temperament

If you have young children or other pets, chosing a breed which is not flighty nor aggressive, but gregarious and happy to be handled, is probably more appropriate. Many breeds are renowned for being stubborn, such as the Leghorn, whilst others have a reputation for being more aggressive, such as the Asil. Many breeds have become popular as the birds are placid, sedate and easily tamed, eg Araucana, Barnevelder, Cochin, Orpington, Modern Game, Wyandotte, Sussex, Silkie.

It is important to consider whether your chosen breed has a reputation for flying if you intend to give it free-range, unless you want to spend your evenings trying to remove stubborn, roosting Leghorns from the branches of nearby trees!

Specialist Features

If the time you can spare to spend with your birds is limited, then exhibition stock is probably not for you. You should also avoid breeds with specialist features such as beards, crests, and feathered feet, since after a few days outside these poor birds will look extremely bedraggled and become stressed, resulting in increased susceptibility to disease and upset for you.

Getting your chickens

Having chosen which breed of chicken is right for you, the next question is where do you get them from?

  • Advertisements in livestock sections of newspapers – generally not recommended, as, unless you know the seller directly or by reputation, you don’t know what problems you may be buying in.
  • Hatcheries – these are large, commercial, ususally national suppliers and their agents, who can supply customers with a large variety of young birds. They’re ideally suited for the free-range market and can often supply birds reared to Freedom Food Standards and which are fully vaccinated.
  • Specialist Farms – many animal farms have years of knowledge and experience, together with experts on site to advise you. Another advantage is that you can go along and have a look at the different breeds to get a better idea of what they actually look like.
  • Poultry markets and auctions - these tend to fall into two categories: the regular ‘fur and feather’ sales ideal for buying laying hens, and rare breeds sales, usually held in Spring and Autumn, and at which all entrants will have been assessed and graded, giving you a reliable idea of the birds’ health and pedigree.
  • Private breeders – Reputable breeders can be an excellent source of adult or young birds, and can usually be contacted through breed societies, smallholder associations or at exhibit shows.
  • Rescue – battery chickens are frequently slaughtered at about 70 weeks old, when they start to moult and egg production drops. The British Hen Welfare Trust, together with many other organisations, was set up to raise awareness of these birds and to find them good homes. It is important to remember that rescued caged commercial hybrids do not thrive in exposed outdoor situations as all too frequently they are used to being housed and have insufficient feathering to cope with an exposed outdoor lifestyle. If egg production is your prime consideration, then you may wish to consider a breed renowned for laying instead of a hybrid bird (see above). However, if you want the satisfaction and love from a rescued ex-battery, and see eggs as a bonus, then a rescued bird is for you.