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Choose Your Chickens Well

Chickens In The Yard

Chicken Of Many Feathers

For poultry lovers, January is the time of the year when their catalogs arrive in the mailbox. If you're looking to expand your skills beyond gardening, you can take this opportunity to join the bird-raising community.

But, just as you need to know whether your plants are annuals or perennials, or for sunny or shady areas, you need to know what purpose you have in mind for your chickens. Remember that chickens, like any animal, have possibly hundreds of years of breeding to get particular characteristics.

So, how do you choose?

The answer is a combination of what you want to use them for and what you like to look at. I believe that if you don't think your chickens are beautiful, then you won't be as happy with them.

Another issue to consider is whether you want a heritage breed or not. You can check out the American Livestock Breed Conservancy (ALBC) for a thorough discussion of heritage breeds.

Egg Layers

These chickens will be smaller and lighter. They will have a higher production of somewhat larger eggs than other types. You can choose between white or brown egg layers.

Did you know that you can tell the color of eggs a hen will lay by her earlobes? White earlobes mean white eggs and red earlobes mean brown eggs. There are a few exceptions to this, such as Arucanas or Ameraucanas, which both lay green/blue eggs and have red earlobes.

These pullets (a female chicken under one year) will generally start laying at around five or six months and continue on for possibly up to ten years, though you won't get the quantity of eggs you'll get when they are young.

Popular egg-laying breeds include the Leghorn, Barred or Plymouth Rock, the Rhode Island Red, or a sex-link hybrid such as the Redstar or Comet. Many of the Mediterranean class birds -- my beloved Sicilian Buttercups are in this category -- are prolific layers.

Meat Birds

Chickens bred specifically for meat production will grow very quickly, as they are meant to be butchered at a relatively young age -- usually in five to 14 weeks. These birds will not be great egg layers, as most of their energy goes into the body weight, not egg production.

Birds that are considered strictly meat birds are not usually a traditional breed but more often a combination of different breeds that results in a large, fast-growing and tender roast chicken.

The best known of these is called the Cornish X Rock, though another new variety of bird called a Freedom Ranger is becoming more popular. If you are looking for a heritage breed for meat birds, some people have tried the traditional Cornish breed with great success.

Dual Purpose

Somewhere in the middle are the dual purpose chickens, those that can be used for both egg laying and meat. They won't lay as many eggs as a Leghorn, but their meatier bodies make them useful as possible Sunday dinner as well.

New Hampshires, Plymouth Rocks and Wyandottes are all examples of dual purpose chickens. Also consider two older American breeds, the Dominique and the Delaware as nice birds that are on the "Watch" list of the ALBC.

Advice From Fellow Bird Lovers

It's always a good idea to talk to other chicken owners to find out which breeds they have and whether they like them. Some prefer quiet, docile breeds, while others love a lively personality.

For those who need an extra bit of help, you can now download the Pickin' Chicken Breed Selector by Mother Earth News app from the iTunes store.

I'll talk about the best places to get your chickens in another post, for as sure as there are many breeds of chickens, there are many places to acquire these wonderful birds.

In the meantime, warm up that tea and start dreaming of peeping chicks, warmer weather and those beautiful eggs in the coop each day.

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