How to Choose the Right Breed of Chicken for Your Backyard Coop

Nankins, Houdans or the Cornish Cross—learn how to choose the right breed of chicken for you and your backyard coop.

coop full of backyard chickens

Chickens, like other poultry, have specific needs. In order to meet those needs, it's important to plan ahead and select the chicken breed that works for you and your coop.

Photo by Fotolia/piizz88

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Pure Poultry (New Society Publishers, 2013) is a timely resource for new and experienced poultry keepers who want to raise heritage breeds as an integral part of a more sustainable food system. This inspiring “how-to and why-to” guide combines revealing and often humorous anecdotes with detailed information on everything from housing, breeding and day-to-day care to processing, cooking and preserving. In this excerpt, author Victoria Redhed Miller discusses the importance of deciding which breed of chicken is right for your backyard coop.

You can purchase this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: Pure Poultry.

Why It’s Important to Decide What Breed of Chicken Will Work for You & Your Backyard Coop

While browsing at the local feed store for treats to tempt the wild birds visiting her backyard, she found herself captivated by the adorable little chicks peeping under the heat lamp. The next thing she remembered was all the noise (and what was that smell?) coming from the living room. Uh-oh, she thought. Now what do I do?

Sound familiar? Well, that’s not surprising. It’s so easy to just bring home the cute little fluffballs and assume that it can’t be all that hard to raise a few chicks. Frankly, it isn’t especially hard, if you know what to do and how to do it. Ah yes, there’s the rub. Chickens and other poultry (especially young birds) have specific needs: housing, feed, water, grit, bedding, warmth, even the company of other birds. And when they get bigger (they do, you know), what will you do then?

Not to put too fine a point on it, but have you actually thought about why you wanted the birds in the first place?

I want to explain why I think it’s important to plan ahead before bringing home your little bundle of joy. Chances are that, once you get started, you’ll be living with poultry for a good long while, so it’s worth putting some time and effort into preparations.

When we first started talking about getting a few chickens, we were so excited. David remembers his grandmother having chickens here when he was young, but it was something entirely new for me. We figured on producing enough eggs for ourselves, although we had no clue about how many eggs chickens laid, which breeds were best or anything at all of practical use. Eventually, we thought, we would breed the birds, let them hatch babies in the spring and slaughter extra roosters and older hens for meat once in a while. It all sounded easy on paper.

Note to self: Try to schedule planning meetings before Happy Hour, not after.

I remember my first perusals of the hatchery catalogs. Fascinating. Murray McMurray’s catalog was especially interesting. It featured stylish painted illustrations of dozens of poultry breeds, along with each breed’s conservation status: how the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy ranked them in terms of rarity, based on population polls and numbers of breeders. Being a soft-hearted sentimental fool, I wanted to raise lots of the kinds that were listed as critically endangered. Like most well-meaning people, I thought I would be doing the world (or at least the poultry world) a service by helping to perpetuate a rare breed of chicken or turkey or whatever.

Of course, I didn’t know the first thing about raising poultry then, much less anything about how complex a really good breeding program might be. Frankly, I was doing what I usually abhor: actually contemplating rushing into something without adequate research, basing an idea on emotion rather than reason, without even considering our actual short- and long-term plans. I’ve learned over time that plans and goals tend to change as you go along; you write down ideas, you make plans and lists, you think things out (or imagine you do), and eventually you pick a place to begin and then do it. Looking back, it’s amazing to me how much our lives and what we’re doing on the farm have changed in just a few years.

We did talk ourselves into getting several critically endangered breeds: Houdans (a rare crested old French breed of chicken), Nankins (a tiny true bantam that we were mainly interested in because of their reputation for being broody) and Midget White turkeys, which we liked mostly for their smaller size and reputedly calm temperament.

The Houdans turned out to be a mistake. Although they are described as a good meat bird, none of ours ever got anywhere near the size the catalog claimed they would. The real problem, though, wasn’t obvious until we had had them for a couple of years; for the first time, we started losing birds to bobcats that year.

One by one, the poor Houdans disappeared, and we finally realized why: their large floppy crests fall in their eyes, impairing their ability to see anything that’s not more or less under their noses. We could walk right up to them, and they would simply stand there, looking at the ground in front of them. Usually they didn’t move until one of us actually tried to pick them up. All the other birds get out of the way when you walk toward them. So eventually we lost nine of the ten Houdans we had started with, and we felt terrible about it. The remaining hen I gave to my sister to add to her flock. It seemed to do fine there, and even started laying eggs again. This was another letdown with the Houdans. They did lay eggs at first but were never consistently productive. (We knew this because they were the only hens in our flock that produced white eggs.) We eventually figured out that birds tend to slow down or stop laying when they’re under lots of stress, such as when predator attacks have occurred. This was one of many lessons we only learned over time — and painful experience.

The Nankins, on the other hand, have done extremely well here. We like them for many reasons. According to what I have read, they’re not supposed to be a very cold-hardy breed, which was the only misgiving I had about trying to raise them here. We typically have several days in the teens and twenties during the winter, and a week or so of single digit temperatures. However, the Nankins have been housed in an uninsulated mobile coop through several winters now, and we’ve had no apparent cold-related issues such as frostbitten combs.

Nankins are tiny birds. Our Nankin roosters top out around thirty ounces; some of the hens reach barely a pound. But they more than make up for size in attitude. We’ve seen the Nankin roosters stand up confidently to large New Hampshire roosters, the wild Canada geese that sometimes stray into our yard looking for food and even the turkeys. They are fiercely protective of their flock and seemingly fearless. However, Nankin roosters rarely fight among themselves and have gentle dispositions. They like to be picked up, and a few of the hens even habitually wait on top of their coop at night for one of us to pick them up and put them into their coop by hand. (All together now: Awww ....)

Something else in the hatchery catalog that intrigued me was information about the Cornish Cross meat birds (broilers): five to six pounds carcass weight in six or seven weeks, so the description claimed. David and I had previously discussed raising a couple of batches of meat birds every year, but we didn’t know the first thing about sustainability or other reasons why fast-growing hybrids might not be what we wanted. I was also curious about the fact that, of all the many chicken breeds in the catalog, only the Cornish Cross males cost more than the females. I gather this is because the males grow out to slaughter weight a week or two faster than the females, which I guess matters if you’re raising them to be sold. In any case, I don’t really remember now why we then didn’t go ahead with our plan to raise meat birds. Possibly we were realizing there was much more to learn, and it seemed prudent to go one step at a time, adding new ventures as we gained experience and refined our goals.

It turned out that this was an excellent strategy. As it happened, we ended up keeping chickens and ducks mainly for laying. For all our planning, so much turned out differently from what we had envisioned. We couldn’t have known that, within the first two years, we would be selling chicken and duck eggs to a local restaurant. Or that we would ever have more than a hundred and fifty birds at one time.

True, it’s been a grand adventure. But believe me, it’s a slippery slope.

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Pure Poultry, Living Well with Heritage Chickens, Turkeys and Ducks by Victoria Redhed Miller, published by New Society Publishers, 2013.