Best chicken breed. Period.

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If you didn’t get chickens last year, or the year before, chances are good that you’re thinking about it now. You’re investigating local livestock ordinances. You’re deciding where to build your coop. You’re checking prices and availability at Murray McMurray.

And you’re studying Henderson’s Handy-Dandy Chicken Chart to figure out how to pick your breeds.

Henderson’s Handy-Dandy Chicken Chart is indispensable for anyone considering keeping chickens. It’s a comprehensive list of breeds, with their origins, egg-laying potential, heat- and cold-tolerance, and notes on their behavior. I love Henderson’s Handy-Dandy Chicken Chart, and I encourage you to spend time reading about your many choices.

When it gets serious, though, and it’s time to actually buy chicks, I can help you cut through the indecision. There is one chicken breed that’s beak and wattles above all the others.

You will be tempted by the breeds, like Brahmas, with froo-froo feathers, but those feathers decorate chickens that have less in the way of brainpower than your average chicken – and that’s saying a lot.

Pretty is as pretty does

You will be tempted by the ones with the big floppy combs, like Leghorns, because they look like Elvis. But those combs get frostbite instantly.

I'm all shook up

You will be tempted by the ones that are docile and friendly and good with children, like Orpingtons, but you will get very tired of the frequency with which they go broody and have to be kept in a cage for a few days to be convinced that, no, they’re not going to hatch a brood of chicks.

You will be tempted by Araucanas and Ameraucanas, because they lay eggs in pastel shades of blue and green. And they do – every other Thursday. They are freeloaders.

The go-to chicken – drumroll, please – is the Rhode Island Red.

These plain brown hens are barnyard stand-outs. They lay big brown eggs, practically every day. They’re curious and engaged, but not needy or clingy. They don’t bully, and they don’t tolerate being bullied. They never get sick and they never go broody.

It makes sense that it should be that way. If you’re doing the selective breeding, it’s much harder to get feathers and combs and Easter eggs coupled with temperament, egg production, and disease resistance than temperament, egg production, and disease resistance all by themselves. Focus on what’s important, and you get a plain brown hen.

George

The favorite in our flock is George, who’s always the first to come investigate when we’re working in the yard. She’s friendly and calm, and she hangs out near us, scratching for bugs and clucking. If she decides nothing interesting is going on, she rejoins the rest of the flock.

There’s a lot to be said for a mixed flock, with its quotient of stupid ones, flighty ones, and broody ones. We love our motley crew and, if you’re just now venturing into chicken-keeping, I’d encourage you to go that route. It makes watching them and caring for them more interesting, and it sure makes counting them easier. As much as we like them, I don’t think we’ll ever have a flock that’s all Rhode Island Reds. But we’ll never have a flock without them.

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Comments

  1. AMEN TO THAT SISTAH!

    Of course now you tell me!

    I love my green blue eggs.. but my Americana’s are naked around the neck because they are being harassed by the barred rocks.. who are the most amazing color(s) but nearly killed one of my White Orpingtons.. and I guess white is just a bad idea.. tho the other white orpington is MASSIVE.. I MEAN REALLY MASSIVE.. with a massive comb and as wide as can be.

    My RI reds are shiny and bright and happy and are laying lovely big brown eggs. They never start the trouble.. nor are the receivers of it.

    So yes …

    AMEN TO THAT SISTAH!

  2. i believe my feelings on this topic are clear:) sending red wig and ipod.

  3. Interesting. I haven’t been chicken shopping recently, and did not know any of this.

    And speaking of idle curiousity… What the heck’s that lovely structure in the background of the first photo? (Sorry if I missed the explanation in a previous post.) An extremely overbuilt chicken coop? Similary overbuilt outdoor oven for gourmet pizza and fancy crusty bread???

    Very mysterious…

  4. I agree, Tamar. I think my perfect flock would be half RI/NH Reds and half Barred Rocks. I just love their markings and the ones I had in the past were quite curious and smart without being pushy. Plus they are hardy and productive.

  5. I love Rhode Island Reds while my husband is a fan of White Leghorns and Dominickers so we have a mix. We derive so much joy from keeping our flock; from listening to their singing when they lay to watching the hens teach the chicks about bugs and snakes. Many a lazy afternoon have been spent just sitting in the garden and watching them.

  6. We’ve had the frou-frous, frills, highly-strung bantams that explode straight up into a tree every time you sneeze; the fighters (game hens), lovers (if you count our cockerel with the sex addiction problem), the freaks of nature – and I loved them all.

    A decade on, now we have brown layers (RI red hybrids), Buffs, and meat birds. Period. That is, we WILL only have those sensible breeds when the motley assortment mentioned above finally dies off. Note about chickens: the less useful the breed, the longer they seem to live.

  7. Hmmm. I was thinking of Buff Orpingtons for the next try-out. Since I’m doing three hens, if I have one RIR, and one BO, what do you suggest for the third? That’s if I do it this way; I may say chuck it and order a bunch of a single type. I dunno.

    Whaddya think?

  8. I agree, Barred Rocks are bullies and Buffs are broody. But my first RI red, despite her craftiness in evading bear, fox and hawks, was sick on more than one occasion with a giant egg too large to lay. She also had a personality disorder that made her prone to feather picking (by the BR) and she disliked people, both traits I’ve seen in subsequent RI hens. As much as I wanted to do the dual purpose heritage bird, I’ve found that the production Red-Star was the bird for us. They are docile, friendly, hardy to VT winters, and great layers.

    • Whenever I take an unequivocal stand on something, I reserve the right to be wrong (I use ‘unequivocal’ loosely). I was ready to hear that everyone else on the planet had terrible experiences with RIReds, and was fully prepared to backtrack like mad. So I’m grateful to all of you who concur — you’re saving me a lot of embarrassment.

      Christine, I’m sorry to hear about your RIs. Where do you get them? Ours are from Murray McMurray (as are those of most of our chicken-keeping neighbors, like Beth), and everyone we know who’s had them finds them calm and friendly and productive. But they’re not all created equal, as your experience shows.

      Al — That edifice is the overbuilt altar of our overreaching ambition, also known as the base for the wood-fired oven. Which we actually hope to finish in the spring. But we said that last year. And the year before.

      Jen — I love your chicken maxim, and am prepared for my Ameraucanas to live forever.

      Paula — If I had only three, I would have all RI Reds. The Orpingtons are very nice chickens, but it’s a royal pain in the ass when they go broody — unless, of course, you want to raise chicks. Any chance I could talk you into four? Chickens are social animals, and I’ve read a number of places that four is the recommended minimum. And four isn’t more work than three. And you find lots of creative ways to use eggs. Trust me.

  9. Right now I have two Buff Orpingtons and two Silver Lace Wyandottes. I have no complaints with either breed, althought the SLW’s are sneaky and break out of the pen every chance they get, and they will give you a vicious peck if they don’t like what you are doing (translation: anything but feeding them).

    I had Rhode Island Reds years ago, and I agree that they are fantastic birds. But be careful of RIR roosters! Every one that I have met has been a mean bird. My family has a history with RIR roosters – back in the 40’s my grandmother traded a RIR rooster for two hens because the bird kept attacking my aunt. The no-nonsense part of their personality is not pretty when it comes to the roosters because they take defending their girls very seriously.

    I plan to add to my flock in a couple of years when my girls start getting older, and RIR’s are one of the breeds that I am thinking of. I may just get some fertile eggs and roll them under one of the BO’s instead of buying chicks because it would be fun to do it the natural way. And, not having to set up a brooder and constantly monitor the chicks is a bonus.

  10. I’ve just started reading your blog and I find your writing wonderfully hilarious. We moved from the suburbs a few years ago (with our illegal chickens in tow) to a small farm in western Illinois. The only hen left from our original flock is also our favorite. She is a warm and curious (and talkative) little rhode island red named Georgia. When I saw a picture of George, your little red hen, I thought immediately of Georgia.

  11. That is too funny. We only have one rhodie in our flock of 21 hens, and she’s not terribly impressive. Boring, flighty, so/so layer. Perhaps we got a rhodie reject? 🙂

    We have a mixed flock (7 breeds). I love the personalities of our buffs. They lay well, only had broody problems with 3 of 11, and they’re pretty friendly. Get out a lot, though. Our ameraucanas lay pretty well. We’re currently getting a wintertime total of approx 14 eggs a week from our 4 girls, which is a better rate than nearly all the other hens. (plus, I love their little ewok faces!)

    Probably our best birds, though, are our barred rock and our marans. Good layers, relatively calm, forage well, don’t get out (knock on wood). Watch. All 3 will get out tomorrow, just because I said that. 🙂

    • Rae, if you got your RIR from a hatchery you may not have a true Rhodie. You may have a Production Red, or a Red Star/Red Sexlink. Most hatcheries to not keep good breeding practices, and they do not select for the best qualities. Unfortunately, that means that all too often what you get may bear only a little resemblance to what the Standards of Quality call for on the breed. Also, they may not have scruples about substituting a similar chick if it is going to be more work to get what you ordered.

      For my next group of chickens I want to go to a serious breeder to get birds that have been selectively bred. Of course, there is a good chance that in a few years I will be complaining about how disappointed I am with the highly bred birds. 🙂

  12. I must say – much as I love the chart, I found the breed selection tool at MyPetChicken.com easier to deal with for a beginner. Tell them where you live and what you want and they’ll tell you what breeds will probably work. It’s a life saver!

    http://www.mypetchicken.com/chicken-breeds/which-breed-is-right-for-me.aspx

    We love our RIR and also our Dominique hen although Kevin (the RIR, sorry) is our most dependable layer. Period Paragraph.

  13. Hmm…our only RIR hen turned out to be a rooster, and a mean one too! Chicken soup tomorrow.

    My favorite birds for production have been McMurray black stars, but for personality the ameracaunas are the funniest, quirkiest things. I’ll probably always keep at least a couple of them because I love the mixed basket of egg colors.

  14. Lee loves our RIR too. I think he would like a whole flock of them. Why oh why does my wandering eye get so distracted by cooler chicken breeds?!? This year I’m going to be good though. We want some no nonsense chickens.

  15. We’re getting two Rhode Island Reds, one Silver Laced Wyandotte and one Buff Orpington the week of February 6th. Day-old chicks from McMurray. I simply cannot wait. More so now that I know we made the right choices of breeds. Thank you for the indispensable chicken advice!

  16. You hit the nail on the head with all those breeds. Not getting any eggs from my nine birds now, i would be fine with a whole flock of RIR’s. If you kept the rooster at your place and if we could borrow it every once in a while, we both could have a sustainable flock. I will look into finding a muzzle for it!

  17. I’m new here and I hate to start off a new relationship with a disagreement but I am going to do it anyway. Let me just say I am an ardent lover of chickens and hate to imagine life without a flock.

    I started with Buff Orpingtons and am still impressed with their gentle dispositions, winter hardiness and steady egg production. Plus, I DO like having a broody hen or two and they are getting harder to come by these days since that is a trait that’s bred out of modern layers. None of my last flock went broody. I have three in their first season of laying right now.
    My last flock included a Delaware… best hen ever. Biggest eggs, nearly every day. First one to come running, neck stretched to it’s fullest extent, very friendly and curious. They are a heritage breed that I’ve heard are hard to find.
    My current Ameraucanas (3) are cranking out the eggs like crazy. I love their funny looks and acrobatic abilities too. Kinda shy but gentle and quiet.
    One RI, one black sex link, one bantam black Cochin and one black midget (tiniest hen I’ve ever seen!) bantam of unknown ancestry plus a white bantam Cochin rooster round out our current flock.
    We have been getting 7-10 eggs a day since mid-December, until our current sub-zero streak of the last three weeks. Now we are down to 6 or 7 a day. Pretty good for ten hens living in Alaska.
    I am hoping the bantam hens turn out to be brooders. (They came sort of second hand from a friend culling her huge flock… I have no idea of even how old they are but I asked for them). Our last bantam hen was the BEST mama so I’m hopeful.

    I have enjoyed everything I’ve read here so far and look forward to more of your opinionated posts.

  18. I like having a broody hen, it is such a pain to raise chicks indoors and I hate how many baby boy chicks die horribly at hatcheries. But, brooody hens are a pain too, Im glad they are not all that way, they will just sit there tenaciously and probably starve to death if they dont get those babies. Right now, one of our newish golden laced wyandots is broody, so I let her keep a mixed bunch of 6 eggs, I hope at least a few hatch so she’s happy again. Our longest lived chickens were blue andulusion and barred rock. Right now I have a funny bunch because I let my daughter pick out that we should get, an ornamental layer assortment from murray mcmurray, year before last. ALthough she did pick up a best large fowl at the fair with the sicilian buttercup—last year I added a few astrolorps and golden laced wyandotts to the others, we are trying for dual purpose birds. It would be nice to have more winter eggs tho.

  19. For those of us who can’t afford alternative energy sources and are simply waiting for the lights to go out if something bad were to happen, I don’t think Rhode Islands or any non-broody breed alone would be a good idea. How would you incubate eggs or keep live chicks warm? I just bought cochin bantams and am looking for a broody breed rooster to breed the broodiness back into my chcikens as I have started out with all non-broody breeds. If the lights go out I want to make sure I have eggs even if it means having less , meat, and a self sustaining flock.

  20. We are getting ready to start our very first flock ( yippee) , to say we are excited would be an understatement. We getting 4 Hens, trying to decided if we should all 4 Rhode Islands or maybe 2 Rhode Island and 2 Barred Rock, just not really sure ?

    But we are excited !!

    • Congrats! I love having chickens. I never realized how fun they would turn out to be. You have a mini easter egg. Hunt every day and they can be sweet and funny. I have a baby rooster that runs to me. I scoop him up, put him on my shoulder, and he gathers eggs with me. My other three little ones have seen this, and now if I am crouched down, they will fly up on my shoulders, my head, and my knee.they are too cute!

  21. I’m glad to see people are still talking about chicken breeds! I love it when a post has staying power.

    If there’s one thing I’ve learned in all this, it’s that breeds can run the gamut. I love my RIRs, but not everyone has the same experience. My Barred Rock has a nasty disposition, but I know lots of people who have lovely specimens of the breed.

    And, Beth, if there’s one thing you need never worry about, it’s disagreeing with me! I love a good counterpoint, and am always happy to have the other side of the story represented in the comments.

    For those of you who want a broody hen for the purpose intended — raising chicks — a Buff Orpington is indeed a wonderful choice. We don’t, as yet, raise our own chicks, but Kevin keeps talking about getting a rooster (in which case, Michael, we’ll talk!). Meantime, though, we have Queenie, our broody Buff, sitting on 6 fertillized turkey eggs, so I definitely see the advantage. If we do decide to hatch chicks, I’ll definitely use a Buff.

    I do, however, stand by my original vote for Rhode Island Reds. There are different breeds for different purposes, and different temperaments within the same breed, but if I have to declare one best breed, it’s the RIR. Especially George.

    • If you want a reliably broody chicken, an alternative to Buff Orpingtons are silkies. Those birds are so broody that they will set on anything. A friend had one that would collect rocks from around the yard in her nest when she wasn’t allowed to keep eggs. They have been used for decades for raising fancy chicken breeds and game fowl because they are such great mothers. And they have sweet personalities.

      One thing I have observed is there are a growing number of people keeping chickens as pets instead of as livestock, and the pet people are not looking for how productive the birds are, they are looking for good personalities and interesting looks. For those who see chickens as livestock, as producers of eggs and meat, there are different qualities that make breeds like the RIR shine: steady, productive, low maintenance, etc. My first flock was RIR’s, and for me, they set the bar high for all other chickens.

  22. I have a mixed flock which contains two RIR. One of them has been the sweetest, most people-loving chicken I have had. She is also at the bottom of the pecking order. The other RIR is a bully and is at the top of the pecking order. So, I think it’s safe to say that even within breeds there are variations.

  23. I am a total greenhorn when it comes to chickens but given the chance I would make a pet out of any creature within reach. Right now I have 2 labs underfoot and a tiger cat in my lap. I have enjoyed all the comments here. My husband and I have debated for over a year about getting chickens. We are both retired and living on a low, fixed income and we use a lot of eggs. We have over an acre behind our house that is not being used. This spring we intend on having it cleared and a 6″ fence put in. So now I am seriously considering chickens. I would like your opinion on the types I have considered. I figured approx. 15 birds, maybe 5 of each- Black Australorps, RIR’s, and maybe Dominikers or Delawares. What do you think? I live in Northeast Georgia so I get both cold and a lot of heat. My grandmother, God Bless her, raised 300 or more at a time in Northern Nova Scotia during the depression years, my Dad used to peddle them in their neighbourhood when he was small. In those days it was one of the few ways to make any money for anything else the family needed. I never knew this until years after my grandmother had past away. I would be grateful for any advice you could give. I know I will have every chicken named and spoiled rotten. I already told my husband that if I got some they would die of old age because I would refuse to harm them.

  24. I like Barred Rocks; mine have not had the bullying tendencies described here and are easy to handle. I also like Black Stars, although they tend to be a bit on the vinegary side compared to the Barred Rocks.

    In my experience Barred Rocks and Dominiques are quieter than RIRs, Red Stars, and Black Stars. I used to raise Leghorns when I was in high school; never again. All they did was jump up and down, squawk, and eat each other. Dominiques aren’t the world’s best layers; but around here being quiet and an adept forager outweighs massive egg production since my husband and I are the only regular egg eaters.

    These days as much seems to depend on strain as breed.

    • Nadja, I think you’re right about strains, and not everyone has the same experience. Others have vouched for the Barred Rocks. But I’m with you on the Leghorns. Flighty, alarmist birds, they are.

  25. I’ve had very good experience with birds from Murray McMurray; and the Privett birds I’ve known have been good, too.

    The problem with a number of the RIR strains available today is that, although they are often true RIRs, they have been heavily bred for high egg production alone. This manifests both in not going broody, and in some cases, in downright vicious behavior. If you’re working on perpetuating a flock at home, a good broody comes in handy. For self-reliance, that means either choosing a breed that has a tendency to broodiness, or keeping a flock of a second breed for brooding chores.

    I am sure there are bullying BR strains out there, too.

    The easiest way to keep peace in the home is to have a flock of one good calm strain of a sound dual purpose breed suitable for all uses. A lot of the Cornish Rock broilers not only have a nasty tendency to breast blisters; but they are often heavily bullied by the other birds. The fast growing broiler crosses don’t tend to work out well above around 5,000 feet anyway.

    Not all private breeder birds are pleasant to be around; breeding for the standard mandated appearance and neglecting other traits can be as destructive as breeding for production alone.

  26. I can only attest to my motley crew (Barred Rocks, RIR, and Ameraucanas… and a few Guineas.) I turned to local farmers to find the best source for my flock. They all pointed me to the same hatchery.
    We basically wanted free ranging pets… of which some would be destined for the dinner table- but raised the way we think it should be.
    My 9 RIR roos.. even the 2 “mellow” ones were aggressive. Fine for dual purpose I guess.. the boys get quite hefty. The lone RIR hen.. she’s a character. Bossy to the other girls, she’s a diva. She’ll follow anyone around endlessly demanding special attention.. then really pitch a fit if someone else gets anything special. She’ll go broody for 5 days and then ditches the nest to go out and play.
    The Barred rocks are big sweeties. The girls laid 5 medium eggs per week per hen the first year.. this second year they are averaging just under 5 (2 are averaging 4 per week.) The roos never gave us any troubles. We kept only 1 BR roo.. he’s very devoted to his hens. BIG boy, he leads them out to forage, and back to the coop to roost. Keeps watch for predators, inspects nest boxes every time we clean them.. if any of the girls squawks in fear- he comes charging. The girls are quiet.. only really making any noise when they announce they’ve laid an egg.
    The Ameraucanas.. I need more. Lots more. LOVE them. Mine are fantastic foragers. The girls consistently lay 3 very large pale blue eggs per hen every week. The eggs rarely fit into extra large egg cartons from the store. They basically taught the others how to forage (and how to decimate the compost heap cricket hunting.. how to get to the neighbor’s mulberry tree.. they walk the fencing that is covered in grape vines to hunt Japanese beetles- their chubby buddies follow below trying to catch the ones that drop off.) Very clever birds.. mine are light bodied and agile. One of our favorite hens easily hops up onto my 6’4″ husband’s shoulder.. then she snuggles up and makes quiet chatty noises (happy muttering.) They see fencing as a “suggestion” instead of a restraint. Some of ours are very social.. some a tad standoffish… unless treats are involved. Food floozies.. except they really don’t like pellets.

    Part of it is the breed.. part of it is how they are raised.

    Kicking myself for not having gotten some “froo-froo” silkies as they are wonderful mothers… and we missed out getting buff Orpingtons.

    If you have flock limitations due to zoning.. space.. whatever situation where you’d be looking to just replace your hens- broodiness is not an attribute you may want. If you are looking to keep a flock going.. making sure to have at least a few broody girls is important. Hens have better hatch rates than incubators. Hens as well will teach the little ones to forage.

    We needed people friendly.. so RIR roos did not work out for us. Even my “good boys” were a big problem.

    • Anne, you neglected to mention which hatchery the local farmers pointed you to. Would be helpful to know. I am increasing my flock and wuod like this info.
      Thanks very much!

  27. Well, my experience with RIRs is that they have a nasty tendency to cannibalism, so I prefer Barred Rocks. My Barred Rocks haven’t been major bullies – but the RIRs have terrorized them and other birds.

    I think a lot depends on ancestry; Decorah Hatchery has an old line production bred egg strain that lay like bandits; like most egg strains, they run to the small side.

    Everything and its brother in law terrorizes Orpingtons and Polish. The solution is to not keep them, or keep them separately as pets.