Choosing your flock (Which Came First, Part II)

Which Came First? Cluck’s Guide to Starting a Flock (part 2)

We've covered the basics of choosing how you want to get started ('from fertilized eggs to laying hens' was covered in Part 1) and hopefully you have considered all the variables in your life and come up with a choice that suits everyone in your household. Now, of course, the question is-what kind of bird – what breed – is best for you?

Breed choice is highly personal and I encourage you to spend time looking up breeds and reading about them and, when possible, seeing them in person and talking to their owners. But I am also a firm believer that breed choice should also be based in practicality. For example, if you live in New England, there are certain breeds that are better suited to the climate than others. Or, if you really love eggs, some birds have higher egg yields than others. If you just want “adorable” and eggs are less important, you may be leaning towards a show bird.

Only you can know what you imagine when you think of yourself tending to your flock. That being said, I strongly recommend that you think about all aspects of your “Life with Chicken,” and acknowledge (even if it’s just to yourself) the real reason you want to raise chickens. The more honest your answer, the better your choice of breed is likely to be.

I can’t talk chickens without making a plea for choosing heritage breeds. Spend some time on the Livestock Conservancy website (http://www.livestockconservancy.org/index.php/heritage/internal/poultry-breeds) and you will begin to understand that your micro-flock can be part of a larger commitment to breed preservation. Production farms keep chickens for maximum egg output, but you don’t have to. So, mix it up and get a variety of breeds and gradually put together a flock that is uniquely yours.

It would be impossible to cover all the breeds available to you (and that would take away all the fun of your own research) so I’ll focus on my own bias-birds I have kept, or keep, in my flock at Hurricane Hill. Hopefully this will help you think through your own selection process and offer a guide to what to consider as you select your ladies.

 1) Brahma: Oh, how we love them at Hurricane Hill. Their feathered feet make them a mix between Cher in an eighties concert and a herd of Muppets. They come big (nine pounds is not unusual) and there are only two colors: white or buff. They won’t lay an egg a day, but they will give you a good number of pale tan eggs consistently, each week. Sweet birds, these. No breed will ever replace my fondness for this one - of this I am quite sure.

http://www.albc-usa.org/cpl/brahma.html

2) Cochin: We have the golden-laced variety in our flock but they come in quite a few more color combinations. They are not unlike the Brahma in terms of their feathering patterns and booties-but they are also (sorry, Brahma!) what can only be called a refined version of their more-down-to earth cousins. They tend to broodiness-not always ideal in a rooster-less flock, but not the worst thing in the event you decide to add some pullets to the mix. They lay big brown eggs with tremendous consistency.

http://www.albc-usa.org/cpl/cochin.html

3) Plymouth Rock/Barred Rock: These are the hens of children’s literature and the ones that we all might imagine as “ye olde” in New England. Although not as matronly and full-bodied as the Brahma (sigh) or the Cochin, Rocks are still considered a heavier bird (and thus also a hearty winter fowl). No feathers on these girls feet: instead, glorious yellow chicken legs. A traditional American bird, you embrace history with these sweethearts and they embrace your cooking needs with brown eggs, even if not every day.

http://www.livestockconservancy.org/index.php/heritage/internal/plymouthrock

4) Ameraucana: These ladies are often confused with Araucanas and I won’t get into why, nor will I get into the debate over breed purity. I will, however, tell you that an Ameracauna is a bird worth having. We have had a few and our solo remaining lady is my favorite bird. ‘Caramel’ is a perfect specimen: silver legged, high-chested and on the small side (she can clear our fence), this bird also sports the breed standard fuzzy muffs and beard (hence her moniker: ‘Abe’). These ladies are not part of the ALC (although the Arucana is) but you should keep them anyway. They come in lots of gorgeous feather colors, integrate well with many breeds and lay those pale blue eggs all your friends want.

http://www.ameraucana.org/faq.html

We’ve kept (and keep) other breeds too, but they don’t warrant an entry here. Why? This is hard to say, but they have not stood out to me, despite their good record of ‘chickening.’ All this is to say, breed choice is personal and it will change as you learn more about chickens, and about yourself as a keeper.

You’ll probably notice I have not mentioned the Rhode Island Red, our state’s bird. I have never kept a Red, and may never do so. They are great producers, but they are also not the friendliest (to each other and to other birds). They tend to be dominant in a small flock and, while someone has to be, I consider that an unfair breed advantage! In all fairness, they simply don’t appeal to me. Cluck! has customers who love their Reds, but to a fowl, if the bird is friendly, she has been raised by a human hand (don’t say I didn’t warn you). *** The Red’s cousin the Rhodebar is, on the other hand, a fascinating bird and one I would really like to see in my own flock one day, possibly with a view to breeding them for sale. Until then, you can learn about them here: http://greenfirefarms.com/store/category/chickens/rhodebar/

This year, we are adding ten new birds at Hurricane Hill, four of which will be new breeds we have never kept before. We do this in the interest of learning about new breeds and in the interest of bio-diversity. We also do it for fun: I have ordered my first Polish-a bird only Phyllis Diller could love (or at least feel at home with). Why? Why would I, the most devout- about-being-a-practical flock-keeper decide to throw caution to the wind and add a showy, minimally-productive bird (who may be partially vision-challenged by her own plumage)? Because, in the end, I am fascinated by the juxtaposition of chickens’ beauty and their sheer pre-historicness; I am enthralled by their breed characteristics and delighted and honored by the opportunity to live so closely with a feathered being that can produce such a perfect food. Plus, they make me smile. And that is something we can all use.

*** After reading this blog post, our friends and teachers from Valentine and Sons reached out to remind us of the distinction between Production Reds and Heritage Reds. We appreciate this correction-it is a good one-and we want to pass it along. Unfortunately, most of our customers end up with the production bird (intentionally or not), and it is their characteristics I describe here,  with the hope that we won't be counseling too many more disappointed chicken keepers wit flock issues. Another shout out for heritage breeds (which Valentine and Sons know inside and out! Come see them at cluck! in April).***