Best Chickens for Beginners
Most newbies to the chicken world (and I count myself among them!) are looking for chickens that are a good egg layers, that are easy to care for, and that are friendly to be around. I mean, who wants a beautiful, but aloof, bird that doesn’t even acknowledge you when you step into your backyard. (Yeah, I’m talking about you, Wyandottes!) In addition, depending on where your coop is located, e.g., urban vs rural, chicken noise may be an issue that you should address as well. And what about you? Do you (or do you not?) mind the crow of a feisty rooster, early in the morning, or do you welcome it as confirmation of your back-to-the-land, self-sufficient, Mother-Earth-News mindset? Better figure out this part ahead of time! In fact, some localities actually prohibit owning roosters (let alone backyard chickens) for that very reason.
Also be sure to pick a breed that does well in your particular climate. Don’t get me wrong, most chickens do well, no matter what the climate. In fact, you should know that chickens usually have more of a problem in warm, humid climates than they do in the cold weather we are now experiencing in the mid-Atlantic. As long as your coop is well-ventilated but not drafty, your chickens should do OK. Check out one of my previous articles on this subject, here.
Broodiness is also a super important factor when selecting chickens. Broodiness is a behavior in which a hen will obsessively nest on eggs, fertilized or unfertilized, to the detriment of her health. She will stop laying any of her own. She will only leaving her nest to eat or drink once or twice a day, usually not eating or drinking sufficiently for her needs. She will even pull out some of her breast feathers in an attempt to more fully contact and therefore warm her eggs. Not only that, she will also get aggressive towards both you and other chickens who may try to dislodge her from her eggs. This is obviously hard to watch, and it will put a serious damper on your egg production. Thankfully, breeders have been able to breed this particular trait out of many chicken breeds. The breeds listed below are not particularly broody. If you do get a broody hen, though, all is not lost. There is a lot of information available on the internet on how to deal with this problem.
Finally, if this is your first flock, definitely get your chickens as baby chicks, not pullets or full-grown birds. Why? For one thing, it’s amazing to see how flock dynamics develop from an early age. Also, as Tasha Greer points out in “10 Tips for Taming Chicks so They Become Friendly and Social Chickens”, raising chickens from chicks is the only way to figure out early which chicks are going to be the leaders and which will be the followers. Once you have that figured, out, you basically get in good with the leaders and the others will follow. In this way, you will raise a flock that socializes well with each other while at the same time, you’re not raising needy birds that won’t leave you alone! I mean, you do have others things to do, don’t you? Not that I am any kind of role model for keeping my animals at an arm’s distance: my chihuahua is convinced we are “one” and will not leave my side from the moment I get in the door until I go to bed to at night. (My wife gets a little jealous).
Originally developed in France around 1978, the ISA stands for Institut de Sélection Animale, the organization which developed this breed.
ISA Brown chickens are fairly large birds with hens averaging about eight and a half pounds. They are champion egg-layers, with up to 300 eggs a year. That’s almost one egg per day! On top of that, they are among the nicest, most docile chickens around. Very good around toddlers. You actually need to watch to make sure they don’t get too bullied around by other chickens! They are also very quiet! They chat among themselves constantly of course, but no loud squawking, and they never raise their voice. They tolerate confinement and free-range equally well. Finally, they have a very attractive brown color, and their combs, wattles, and body size are suited well for both cold and warm climates.
Officially called the “Barred Standard Plymouth Rock Chicken”, this gentle chicken breed is known as the one that “grandma used to raise”. The hen is a fairly large bird at around seven and a half pounds, She is plump, has a solid body, and lays about 200 medium-large brownish-pink eggs per year. This is a very kid-friendly chicken, and she is very cold hardy. It is one of the oldest chicken breeds in America. And as you can see, they have beautiful plumage!
Rhode Island Red
The Rhode Island Red is probably the most famous chicken breed in the world. In fact, two statues have been erected near where the breed was initially developed in Rhode Island: One is in Adamsville and the second is in Little Compton. How’s that for 15 minutes of fame! Not only that, the Rhode Island Red is the State bird of Rhode Island.
Rhode Island Reds didn’t make my first choice in this article for starter chickens, because they are a little more “assertive” than the previously mentioned breeds. In spite of their medium size (six and a half to seven and a half pounds) they do have big personalities. Not that you won’t be handle them, it’s just that they are like the chihuahuas of the chicken world: they think they are human like you! They are also more vocal than some other breeds, so they are not a good selection for urban chicken coops or if your neighbors live close by. They prefer free-ranging to confinement and will get very cranky if copped up too long. Nonetheless, they still make a lot of backyard chickens lists as THE number one breed because they are so beautiful, so hardy in both winter and summer, and produce light brown medium to large eggs, up to 300 per year.
The Golden Comet is a smaller bird than the others, only about four pounds. This is a sex-linked chicken, meaning it is easily differentiated from males as a chick because of its color. She lays medium to large brown eggs, on a par with Rhode Island Reds in terms of egg production. Very gentle disposition, some owners report that these chickens prefer humans over their own flock mates!!!!
The Easter Egger
Finally, we come to one of those “so ugly that its cute” kind of chickens. I used to have a Lhasa Apso that was scruffy with crooked teeth and a terrible disposition. Toby was so cute, little kids used to come up to me to ask me if they could pet him. I would tell them, “sure, as long as you don’t mind missing a finger!” Well, this is another case of the ugly, but cute as a button. This “breed” of chicken isn’t really isn’t a breed per se. It’s actually a chicken variety that carries a gene for blue eggs. They’re a cross between Ameraucanas or Araucanas and other true breeds. Since these two breeds have blue eggs, if they are crossed with another breed that has brown eggs, guess what happens? You get some pretty wild colored eggs, anything from olive-colored to blue to pink-colored eggs. They’re called Easter Eggers because their eggs resemble Easter eggs, hence the name!
So, there you have it. Five good breeds, and in some cases varieties, of chickens who should fit the bill of the beginning backyard chicken mama or papa. These birds are all very gentle, docile, fairly quiet, cold-hardy, and not broody.