PHOTO BY FREDERICK J. DUNN
Understanding the traits of a particular breed of animal you're considering (dog, cat, cow or in this case, chickens) will lead to a much better experience in the end. Different breeds will be more or less successful in each situation.
The advantage of obtaining purebred stock is that you will be making use, in some cases, of hundreds of years of selective breeding. Each breed emerged for a specific purpose: appearance, melodious crow, propensity to fight, rapid weight gain or regular production of eggs. Some people even rear chickens for their colorful feathers that will be used by fly-tying enthusiasts. You wouldn’t get a teacup poodle to guard an estate, so why would you start with d’Uccles if your goal were productive farming?
I keep both ornamental and dual-purpose poultry. Ornamental birds are just that, nice to look at and be entertained by — or even to show in competition for those interested in the “poultry fancy." My recommendations for dual-purpose (meat and eggs) are traditional breeds: the Rhode Island red and barred Plymouth rock. Both (rocks and reds) are independent on open range, forage well, produce eggs in abundance and (if you choose) will make flavorful table fare. In fact, the ALBC hosted Renewing America’s Food Traditions blind taste test, and the barred Plymouth rock was most preferred. The “commercial” Cornish rock cross was least preferred.
I simply don’t have the space to introduce you to each breed of particular merit. For specifics on traditional breeds, visit the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy (ALBC). They emphasize chickens with utilitarian value to the farmer/homesteader.
If you are a traditionalist and would like to support hatcheries which maintain heritage breeds, consider obtaining and keeping those on the “critical” list and unique to North America. Some North American breeds in the critical category (fewer than 500 breeding flocks in the United States) would be buckeye, chantecler, Delaware, Holland and Java. Even if you do not start and maintain your own breeding flock, your purchase will support those who do.
After you choose the breed of interest to you, I recommend two methods of obtaining your birds. One is to purchase day-old chicks from a nearby hatchery or via the U.S. Mail. This method ensures a certain quantity of chicks. Another method is to purchase fertile hatching eggs and incubate them.
Incubating eggs is a wonderful learning experience. If you intend to perpetuate your own flock, owning an incubator will be a sound investment. If you incubate eggs, you don’t need to start with 25 chicks, as is the case with most mail order hatcheries. I have reviewed several tabletop incubators and posted videos demonstrating their use on my website.
If you'd like to learn more about raising chickens, check out the DVD, Regarding Chickens.
PHOTO BY FREDERICK J. DUNN