You know that spring is fast approaching when the farm & ranch stores and your local feed dealer start advertising that chicks are in. This morning alone, I have been in two stores that had a tank set up with heat lamps over it and a collection of the “few-day old” chirpers inside of the tank. When the baby chicks are that young it is difficult to look at them and know what they will be like as mature chickens. As chicks, they are basically yellow, black, or a mixture of the two. So often you will hear someone asking a clerk, “What will it be when it grows up?” or “Will that be one of those fuzzy footed chickens?” There are dozens upon dozens of chicken breeds, crossbreeds, and varieties within breeds; however, I thought I might pick out some of the basic core breeds that are seen locally and give a brief description of their purpose.
Dutch Bantam: The Dutch Bantam is a very active bird and they tend to be hardy creatures. They are a small chicken, with mature birds weighing as little as 18 to 20 ounces. The hens are known to be good egg layers that make aggressively good mothers, but they often have small litters due to the fact that their own size means that they can only keep a few eggs covered. The Bantam egg is small and it is believed that this is the reason for the bird’s popularity across Europe. During colonial times landlords would take the largest eggs from their tenants, but the people on the land would be permitted to keep their Bantam eggs. There are numerous varieties of Bantams with more than 18 varieties in the US alone.
Brahma: Light, Dark, & Buff make up the three varieties of Brahma chickens. These tend to be large birds with mature roosters nearing 11 or 12 pounds and the mature hen weighing 8 to 10 pounds. The Brahma chickens will have small feathers running down their leg shanks and onto their toes, helping them to withstand cold temperatures. This characteristic has also earned them a moniker as one of the “fuzzy footed chickens”. Additionally, they have a small wattle and comb, which also helps limit heat loss during cold spells. The Brahma eggs will have a brown shell.
Leghorn: The more than a dozen varieties of Leghorns combine to make Leghorns the most common chickens in the US; and this breed makes up the root of most of our commercial egg production. That hint should give away that the Leghorns lay white eggs. At maturity, roosters should average 6 pounds, while hens may be around 4 ½ pounds. Given the opportunity, these birds are actively mobile both when walking and in short flights. They like to roost in trees and in barn rafters. The Leghorns are excellent foragers and during much of the year they can find most of their nutritional needs while free ranging. In contrast to the Brahma, the Leghorn has a large wattle & comb, assisting it in dissipating excess body heat during very warm periods. The Leghorns are known to be noisy chickens and are ill-advised for those people with close neighbors who may not like a morning wake-up call.
Orpington: There are four basic varieties of Orpington chickens: Black, Blue, Buff, & White; but the varieties should always be a solid color. Mature roosters may reach 10 pounds with mature hens slightly less at 8 pounds. Their heavy feathers can make these birds appear much larger. The Orpingtons are popular as both an egg layer (laying a brown shelled egg) and as a meat chicken. They tend to be docile birds and the hens make good mothers; yet, the chicks are not very vigorous and can lose out to other breeds of chicks when mixed.
Sussex: Another dual purpose (egg & meat) breed is the Sussex. While very popular in Canada & England, often this breed is considered to not be a popular breed in the US; however, many recent Sussex crossbreeds are appearing on the US market. These strong foragers will produce mature hens & roosters to 7 & 9 pounds, respectively. The Sussex hens also make really good mothers.
Wyandottes: The roughly nine varieties of Wyandottes provide numerous colorful chicken patterns to choose from. The Wyandottes should have a rose comb. It resists freezing better than the single comb. In some cases a single comb Wyandotte may hatch out. It is not recommended that these be kept in the breeding flock. The Wyandottes have a reputation for making a good family flock or youth project with their family friendly disposition, rugged capabilities, and being strong dual purpose birds. The Wyandotte hens lay brown eggs and have strong mothering abilities; however, they are prone to having poor hatches. One can expect that mature hens will weigh about 6 ½ pounds with mature roosters being about 2 pounds heavier.
This has been just a brief description on a half dozen of the core chicken breeds that you might find on the local market. There are countless more breeds to choose from. Oklahoma State University has a very good website called Poultry Breeds (http://126.96.36.199/breeds/poultry/), should you want to look up other breeds of chickens or explore some of the duck, turkey, or goose breeds.