In my “Chickenomics” post a couple of weeks ago, I promised to share some thoughts about favorite backyard chicken breeds, but I realize now I should have said breed, singular. Because although there are lots of good chickens out there, my choice for our own little backyard flock is–far and away–the Buff Orpington.
We’ve been keeping chickens for about twelve years now, and have had a chance to enjoy several breeds. Sensible chicken choosing has to take many things into account–space, climate, and your priorities (temperament? ease of care? good layers? egg color?). Over the years, we’ve settled on our most important chicken characteristics: we want heritage breeds that are dependable layers and that are also sweet-tempered. Our chickens are part of our everyday food/garden/family life. We love to be out with the chickens, watching them, interacting with them. Claire likes to bring her friends out to the coop, and spend time there with the hens. Buff Orpingtons are great layers–a lovely, nice-sized, brown egg from each chicken pretty much every day–but they also the sweetest chickens on earth.
Buff Orpingtons are an English heritage breed, quite fat, and absolutely beautiful in golden-yellow plumage and bright red combs. This is the classic Beatrix Potter chicken, the round barnyard beauty with the many-toed socks that Mrs. Tiggy-winkle, the hedgehog laundress, found so troublesome to wash.
The first Opringtons were black, and now they come in several standard colors. But for some reason, the Buffs make the best “pet” chickens. All of our Buff Orpingtons have had unique personalities (Marigold likes to go for walks, and Buttercup patrols the yard for squirrels–chasing them mercilessly), but they all share certain qualities: they like to be scratched, held, and carried; they like to sit in your lap while you read a book (preferably aloud so the chicken can hear); they never peck at you unless they are trying to get your attention (so that you will scratch, hold, carry, or read to them!). They are just the best, sweetest, dearest chickens, and we couldn’t love them more.
One more good thing about them–unlike some of the other common backyard breeds, Orpingtons are too fat and heavy to get off the ground. While your auracana might regularly make it over the fence into the neighbor’s dog-filled yard, your Buffs will stay put.
We’ve always kept a mixed flock for beauty, variation in egg color, and to try new breeds. But we’ve decided that our new chicks this season will all be Buff Orpingtons.
The downside to Buff Orpingtons? I actually think they might be louder than some of the other breeds. They are definitely very keen to announce the laying of an egg, often at great length. This drives Tom crazy.
Some thoughts on other common breeds:
Auracanas/Ameracanas: The blue-green eggs are gorgeous. Gorgeous! The chickens are funky, with long legs and ear tufts. Good runners. The chickens are a bit high-strung. They are great, dependable layers, but less “friendly” than many breeds. We’ve loved having them, but as I mentioned above, we’ve decided to go with personality over blue-green eggs.
Silver or Gold-laced Wyandottes: Beautfiul, compact little chickens, with lovely scaled plumage, but aloof, nervous, and not even the best layers. I’ve kept them in the past because they are so pretty, but probably never will again.
Plymouth Barred Rocks: Great girls. Solid layers of medium-sized brown eggs, calm, even-tempered, good with kids.
Rhode Island Red: Classic American breed, ditto comments on Barred Rock, but slightly more aggressive. The copper-red feathers almost glow. Can’t go wrong with these.
I’m covering just the most common breeds here, because you can get them in small numbers at feed stores, which is how most of us get our chicks. Keeping less common heritage breeds is wonderful, but they usually come from specialty hatcheries that require a minimum order of chicks per breed, usually more than urban backyards can accommodate. To go this noble route, hook up with some friends and do an order together. Learn more about rare heritage breeds here.
If you’re just starting out, see my post about making your own biddy box and raising chicks.
Meanwhile–happy Spring Chick season! Enjoy, and tell us about your own favorite breeds!
As always, thanks to Tom for the wonderful photos.