What Kind of Chickens Should I Get?

Chickens in a yard near a coop
Photo: Olivier Duval/flickr

You've decided to take the plunge and raise your own chickens. What's next? In addition to building a chicken coop and mulling over the egg-eating options — scrambled or over-easy? — you need to consider what kind of chicken breed is right for you.

There are many different breeds of chicken recognized by the American Poultry Association, and each breed has unique qualities. Your decisions should be based on what you want (and don’t want) from a chicken. Are you hoping for steady egg production? Meat production? Both? Do you get a kick out of multi-colored eggs? Do you need a chicken guaranteed to thrive in your climate without overheating or getting frostbite? Or maybe you just want a friendly companion with gorgeous plumage?

Whatever your preference, there is a breed that will fit your needs and wants.

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The best egg-layers

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If you can’t get enough omelettes or you want to make a little extra cash selling eggs to neighbors, you’ll want to go for a heavy egg-layer.

Chickens typically lay anywhere between one to five eggs a week, depending on the breed. Pure breeds typically lay fewer eggs, while hybrids tend to lay more eggs. Taking into account that there are usually several hens living in a single coop, that's hundreds and hundreds of eggs a year.

Some great egg-laying breeds include the Australorp, the Rhode Island Red, the Orpington and the Sussex. Who wins the title of "best egger"? In the large-scale commercial egg-laying industry, Leghorns (like the flock in this photo) reign supreme. This is because they reach maturity with lightning-fast speed and because they are known to produce a steady flow of eggs every week — sometimes between 200 and 300 a year.

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Best-tasting birds

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There are plenty of farmers who want to go beyond eggs to raise (and eventually eat) free-range poultry sourced from home.

If you're looking for the best meat, look no further than the La Fleche (pictured). This breed, which originated in France, is considered one of the best-tasting birds. However, you might have trouble getting your hands on one. La Fleche chickens are rare in the U.S., with only a few breeders.

If you can't find a La Fleche, some other tasty chicken breeds include Buckeyes, Jerseys and Cornish hybrids.

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Dual-purpose breeds

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Some chicken farmers don't want to skimping on either number of eggs or quality of meat.

Any hen is capable of laying eggs or providing meat, but several breeds are a cut above the rest in terms of being exceptional sources for both types of protein. These chickens are called dual-purpose breeds.

Faverolles (like the one pictured) fall into that category. Originating in France, this breed is not only a great dual-purpose breed, but also a docile companion with beautiful plumage. Other breeds like Orpingtons, Wyandottes and Australorps are also excellent candidates for this category.

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Broodiest birds

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Like any other animal, chickens have natural instincts. For chickens, broodiness is one of them. When a hen gets broody, she is overcome with a desire to sit on her eggs until they hatch. Although this can be good news if you're hoping to increase your flock, it can also be an unwelcome development.

When a hen is broody, she will stop laying until the egg she's sitting on hatches, which can throw a kink into your egg-production plans. A broody hen will often neglect her own health by not leaving the nest for food or water, which also makes her susceptible to parasitic infestations. To make matters worse, broodiness is contagious, and the longer one hen does it, the more likely the other hens will catch the fever.

Steps can be taken to discourage broodiness, but some breeds of chicken are more prone to it. If you want to avoid this quality, steer clear of broody-prone breeds such as the Silkie (pictured). On the other hand, some chicken farmers will use a Silkie's motherly inclinations to their advantage. By placing fertilized eggs of other hens under a broody hen like a Silkie, this frees up the other hens to continue producing eggs while the Silkie plays foster mother.

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Ornamental avians

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Want to heighten the "wow" factor of your coop? Raising an ornamental chicken will ensure that your backyard flock stands out in the neighborhood. All chickens have their specific charms and beauty, but there are some breeds with plumage that will make you do a double-take.

There are plenty of fascinating, strange and gorgeous breeds. The Polish chicken (pictured) sports a voluminous crest of feathers atop its head. In contrast, the Naked Neck Turkan has a featherless head that makes the chicken resemble a turkey.

Another ornamental breed that is also valued for its mothering skills and friendly personality is the Silkie, which is hard to miss with its long, fluffy feathers and black skin. Phoenixes, Sebrights and Sultans are also beautiful chickens worth a glance.

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Colorful eggs

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If you want to go beyond the average white egg, consider a breed known for its egg color. (Who said multicolored eggs are just for Easter?)

For dark-brown eggs that almost look like chocolate, go for a Maran. A Welsummer chicken also produces brown eggs, but these are a lighter than the eggs of a Maran. If a light-blue tint is more your style, Aracaunas and Ameraucanas (which also have slate-blue legs) are great choices. Finally, there are Easter Eggers, which are classified as any chicken with the "blue egg" gene that is not recognized to be a part of the Aracauna or Ameraucana breeds. These chickens, as you guess from the name, produce eggs that range in color from blue, green or even pink.

Just keep in mind that eggshell colors have no bearing on the quality or taste of what’s inside. A white egg should taste about the same as a blue egg.

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Cold-hardy birds

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If you live in a frosty climate, it's a good idea to find cold-hardy breeds and take appropriate steps to protect the birds from excessive cold.

The Chantecler, a breed developed in Canada in the early 20th century, is one of the most notable cold-hardy birds, and it provides an exceptional source of both eggs and meat. Buckeyes, originating from and named for the state of Ohio, are also well-suited to long, snowy winters. Some other breeds developed for winter egg-laying include Wynandottes, Faverolles and Dominiques (pictured).

Cold-hardy chickens generally fair well as long as their coop is dry and windproof, but there additional steps to take to make sure they're comfortable. To avoid frostbitten birds, apply petroleum jelly or moisturizer to their wattles and combs a couple times a week. To make sure your birds stay hydrated and healthy through the winter, make sure their water source does not freeze. With these tips, your avian friends should be well-prepared to weather the chillier months.

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Heat-tolerant chicks

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In the same way that certain chicken breeds are better suited to cooler temperatures, some breeds are better for areas of the country known to exceed 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

In general, small, miniature-sized chickens called bantams do well in high temperatures. Chickens that are larger and have a lot of feathers tend to have a hard time weathering the heat. Some notable hot-weather breeds include Egyptian Fayoumi (pictured), Golden Campines and Cubalayas.

Even if your birds stand up to the heat well, it's important to keep the coop and their water source clean, cool and fresh. Feeding them frozen fruit like watermelon or grapes is a great way to keep your avian friends content during the summer.

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Laidback chicks

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Worried about how well your hens will adapt to their environment or interact with people? Docility is a major consideration for urban chicken farmers who live in close quarters or who have children. Luckily, there are several breeds recommended for their laid back, lovable tendencies.

Cochins (pictured) are generally considered to be the most docile breed around — they don't mind being handled and don't make a fuss over their environment, whether they live free-range or in a more confined coop. They're an all-around excellent companion for avian enthusiasts. Some other docile breeds include Plymouth Rocks, Orpingtons, Rhode-Island Reds and Brahmas.