Spring chickens

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If you listen to Tennyson, you know that spring is the time when a young man’s fancy turns to thoughts of love. It was smart of Tennyson to focus on the young when it comes to the thinking that happens in spring, because we older folk have much less poetic concerns.

For starters, there’s the giant mud pit in the driveway, created by a combination of the weekend’s downfall and the snow melt from last week’s blizzard. There are seeds to be started, fig trees to be unwrapped, and a hoophouse to be mended. Then there’s the first infiltration of insects into the house. Nothing says ‘springtime’ like silverfish!

Love is a fine thing, and I’ll spare a thought for it, but only when I’m finished thinking about the a more pressing springtime issue: chickens!

With the exception of Queenie, our flock is three years old. Queenie, the last holdover from our first flock, is a geriatric five. We have nine altogether, and are now getting more eggs than we can eat. Next year, though, all we’ll have is a bunch of old chickens and the occasional egg, so we’re thinking about getting a few reinforcements.

Over the two flocks, Kevin and I have had six different breeds: buff orpington, Rhode Island red, barred rock, araucana, brahma, and leghorn. We don’t even pretend to not play favorites. Rhode Island reds are our go-to chickens. We’ve found them to be friendly and curious. They don’t bully, or let themselves be bullied. They lay lots of eggs, and they never go broody. George, the smartest chicken in the world, is a Rhode Island red.

George, the smartest chicken in the world

George, the smartest chicken in the world

That said, we know other people haven’t had the same experience. Our friends Judi and Frank, who also don’t even pretend not to play favorites, don’t have anything good to say about their RIRs. Sure, they lay eggs, but at the price of peace in the coop. They’re bullies.

So, as so many of us are facing down the springtime question of chicken breeds, I thought I’d give you the run-down of what we’ve experienced with ours. If you’ve had them, or have had other breeds that aren’t mentioned here, and you’re willing to give a quick review in the comments, it would be most welcome!

Buff orpingtons: The sweetest, most docile chicken we’ve had. They’re great layers and, in our limited experience (Queenie did her level best with a turkey poult), great mothers. But great mothers tend to go broody, and our orpingtons did, with great regularity. If you’re looking to breed your own chicks, you need this breed. If you’re not, but you have children, you might want to consider them anyway – they’ll tolerate being held with more patience than any other breed. If you don’t have kids, and you don’t want your chickens to have any either, you may still want orpingtons, but be prepared to break out the broody box.

blondietrailer

Buff orpington, on left.

Barred rock: We expected them to be like the Rhode Island reds, but ours weren’t. They’re cantankerous and irritable. They don’t like to be touched, and protest mightily if you happen to catch them and try to pick them up. On the plus side, they’re the most attractive breed going, and they lay very well. Ours have gone broody only occasionally.

Barred rock in the foreground, leghorn in the background

Barred rock in the foreground, leghorn in the background

Araucana (or Ameraucana): These are the ones that lay the pastel-colored eggs, and it’s a non-trivial bonus. A box of a dozen eggs in shades of brown, white, and light green is a beautiful thing. Although other people we know have found Araucanas to be friendly, ours have been stand-offish. Phyllis, though, was one of our favorites. She seemed to know her own mind and, although she never came too close, she was always interested in what was going on. We were very sorry to lose her to a hawk.

Brahma: It’s hard not to choose chickens for their looks, and we got brahmas because they have feathers on their feet. It’s not a great reason to choose a chicken. Our brahmas are perfectly fine, but colorless. They’re very large, and they tend to hang out on the periphery, keeping a safe distance from any commotion. They lay large white eggs, and have the advantage of a very small comb, which is less susceptible to frostbite.

Brahma. Note the feathered feet.

Brahma. Note the feathered feet.

Leghorn: Leghorns have the reputation of being great layers, and I have no doubt they are. But ours are suspicious and alarmist. They won’t let you come near them, and they start running around and squawking at the least hint of anything out of the ordinary. When we try and lure the chickens back into the run so we can close them up, it’s always the leghorns who won’t go in. They suspect, with some justification, that it’s a trap. Again, though, other people have had excellent leghorn experiences.

And there you have it. After five years of having chickens, this is all the wisdom we have to offer. If you want some better advice, consult Henderson’s Handy Dandy Chicken Chart, an excellent all-in-one overview of almost every breed there is.

If Henderson, and chickens, just aren’t on your radar this spring, there’s always love.

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Comments

  1. I’d agree with your review.
    My 3 Barred Rocks were grumpy and bullies.
    Maude, my first chicken, who died last year aged 10 was Top Chicken for most of her life. She was known as Marauding Maude until she mellowed a bit in the last year or two. She was a Black Rock (RIR/Barred Rock cross) and was clever, feisty and ate everything (meaning the rest of the flock did too. My current birds turn their noses up at slugs!)
    Araucana- lovely. Bit nervous, but not agressive at all.
    Ancona- nervous and a bit flighty. I was constantly being told by postman she was on the shed roof and trying to escape.
    Cream Legbar- a popular Leghorn/Barred Rock/Araucana cross in the UK. Lays blue eggs, hence popularity. Barred Rock aggression seems to be outweighed by Leghorn/Araucana temperaments. Bit less nervous and flighty than the pure breeds.
    Old English Pheasant Fowl- not really recommended for back gardens, I bought this chicken to support the farm unit attached to my children’s secondary school (absolutely fantastic- every school should have one!). Although another escape artist as she’s so light, she squats when approached, so is actually easier to catch than the other birds. We love her and her tiny cream coloured eggs. She is also beautiful.
    White Sussex- bullies, all of them.

    All my others have been various crosses, mostly bred for the small holder market with a few accidental mixes thrown in. As with dogs, they’ve tended to be hardier, healthier and to lay better than the pure breeds (ok, the dog analogy falls down there!), but I still like to keep some traditional breeds. It would be a shame if we all ended up keeping the same semi-commercial hybrids.

  2. I had my first year of chickens, with all sorts of pretty ones thrown in! I had two Buff Orpingtons, and I loved them–one was sooo curious if I came outside she came RUNNING up, just to see what was up :)
    I also had an americauna, and while she was the bully of the flock, she also laid fantastic eggs regularly.
    My barred rock laid the most amazing rose-colored eggs that were almost the size of duck eggs–seriously so beautiful, it was my favorite to pluck from the box.
    Unfortunately, a dog got into my yard and decimated my flock while I was out one night (before i’d had a chance to shut them in). So now all I have left is one Buff and luckily, my very favorite, a Sussex named George. She is the most curious (hence the name!) and i just love her–she comes when I call! She’s a consistent layer, and hasn’t gone broody yet. I’d love to get a few more of her breed, but they’re fairly uncommon down here in Texas.
    I’m planning on picking up a few more chicks to restart the flock, so your post is so timely! I definitely want to get another barred rock (Those eggs were the most beautiful things) and I love the buff orpingtons disposition–I don’t think I’d mind if one went broody and gave me some babies!

  3. Ah, I just re-ordered plymouth barred rocks and for the first time, black austrolorps. While the rocks can be a bit bullisome, they are good year round layers and in 4 years, I’ve only had one go broody once. And they have good camouflage for free-ranging. Even better layers are my gold stars (hybrid cross)… churned them out all winter with NO supplemental light. Not friendly though and a bit on thin side for when it comes time for the stock pot.
    Both come when called (as long as you have treats) and follow me around the yard to the point of being annoyingly underfoot when trying to walk.

    I have also had favarolles, and while they were beautiful and sweet, they were no match for the rocks and a bit skittish.

  4. Not sure you’ll find my experiences in Tasmania very relevant but I keep a similar small mixed-age and mixed breed flock and am always interested in noting differences in behaviour and temperament. A mixed flock is good because they tend to stagger their laying/moulting seasons and spread out the egg supply.
    However I’ve come to the conclusion that as much can be explained by strain as by breed. My favourites have been Barnevelder (great characters, hardy, long-lived and laying very dark brown eggs) and Australorp (friendly and the best layers, though inclined to broodiness, plus very pretty with sheer soft black feathers, big black eyes and grey stockings). Leghorns are great layers but panicky and bullies. Least favourites have been RIR (short-lived and over heavy from show stock) and the latest Plymouth Rocks who spent almost their entire first year going broody, so pretty useless – though I’m considering hiring them out as foster mums next spring. They came from an accidental brood in a free-range home flock and I realised too late they were probably selected for broodiness by generations of hens doing their own thing. So it pays to choose your pullets from a strain of good-layers and not from hens who raise their own chicks.

  5. Kingsley says:

    We have, ahem, more than 70 chooks. Ostensibly they belong to my wife. I say “more than”, because she makes a point of not counting past that number.

    I will agree that some breeds are more “Touch Me Not!” than others (Hamburgs in particular), but I think it really comes down to how they’re handled when young. We have had Campines which will happily fly up on your shoulder and play Long John Silvers (that’s a chicken game where if they don’t get a bit of your sandwich, they’ll happily take ear-lobe); while the current crew of Campines go a bit silly if I walk past their pen too close. One particularly pretty Campine rooster likes to get close, but only so he can sink his spurs into your leg. Maybe it’s because he’s called “Le Cock, Jean”. This guy will literally run over from 30 metres away just for a fight. He’s been like that since the day we bought him.

    But then there’s the Croad Langshan Rooster, imaginatively named “Big Fellah”. Size of a house he is, but always happy for a cuddle, a real Chook of The People.

    Big Fellah was a bit upset on Wednesday, something was amiss. Usually it’s a fox, and by the time I get out there, it’s long gone. This time he kept up the alarm, even as I was standing there (usually they just go quietly embarrassed when I tell them they only saw a rabbit). But sure enough, skulking away was a fricken’ huge goanna (about 2m long). It had just ripped open the bachelors’ pen, and lunched on a cockerel. I’m not legally allowed to kill it, so I threw a few rocks until it got the message. I guess it was fattening itself up for winter.

  6. I like that I can start with my paltry experience with chickens, and have the post turn into a genuinely helpful (and kinda funny) amalgam of chicken stories.

    Hazel, we’ve never bred our own, but from what I hear from just about anyone, breeding just about anything, hybrid vigor is a real boon.

    Ashley, almost everyone I know has a story like yours. We’ve been lucky so far — lost a couple to hawks, but nothing devastating. Our coop is like Fort Knox, but our hens are often out and about. A couple of times, we’ve been late shutting them in, but lucky that no raccoon got there first.

    Mel, you’re not the first Barred Rock fan we’ve met. We’re down to only one, but she’s only gone broody once, and she’s hardy and prolific. We’d try that breed again, if only because they’re so beautiful.

    Gwenda! All the way from Tasmania! Thanks for your chicken stories.

    Kingsley — You’re clearly from the Tamar-and-Kevin naming school. Although you have an entirely different roster of predators.

  7. Tamar,

    I always enjoy reading! We are also in Marstons Mills trying our hands at chickens and having too much fun. We started by looking for a coop, and found a coop that came with with four chickens (a White Wyandotte now called “Big Mama Jama”, Red Star, Plymouth Rock, and an Araucana) and two turkeys. The story behind the turkeys is that the Wyandotte went broody and the previous owner put out some old eggs from the feed and grain for her to sit on and lo and behold they hatched! She raised the turkeys as her own. The turkeys were our first foray into slaughter– and I read all your posts on killing things prior to the day. Thanks.

    Of the four the Wyandotte is by far the friendliest to humans- lets us pet her and pick her up- but is also at the top of the pecking order among the girls. I agree with your review of the Araucanas- standoffish but never mean. I could say the same thing about the Red Star and the Plymouth Rock. They avoid me unless I come bearing scratch… but seem to do well together. Between the four hens we were getting almost 3 eggs a day which was great.

    We added five more “teenagers” earlier this year. We found a woman in Wellfleet who raises a real variety and we knew we wanted to try more breeds so we made the trip. Ended up with Ameraucana- because as you say those colored eggs are pretty special, NH Red, Silver Leghorn, Sicilian Buttercup, and a Speckled Sussex. Big Mama Jama was the only one that gave the new pullets trouble, though minimal. The Leghorn is pretty but she is the biggest fraidy-cat! She is also the most avid flier- always on top of the run or doing long swoops around the run in a panic. The Buttercup is also a beauty but has similar tendencies to the Leghorn. The Sussex is incredibly curious and docile. She has the best temperament of the newbies. Only the NH Red has started laying so not much to report there- except there is nothing better than finding those first pullet eggs. Too cute.

    Based on your assessment, and because I am looking for good pets as well as good layers, I will definitely look into the Buff Orpingtons in the future. I am also intrigued by the Cuckoo Marans as I think it would be nice to add some chocolate brown eggs to the mix.

    Spring! So much to do! Enjoy.

  8. Ive had chickens for about four years total (with a break), starting with four and now having 26+12eggs.
    Here’s the not so brief rundown:
    Delaware: beautiful and not unfriendly. We’ve had two, good layers but not snugly.
    Black australorp: one good layer, and one was a boy–a snotty-ass aggressor that deserved what he got…he was pleasantly protective and fertile.
    Golden laced Wyandotte: had one standard and one bantam for kicks… They are reputed to go broody, and naturally when we were ready for a broody, the bantam was the one, not the standard! Not amazing layers, but reliably 3-4 eggs a week. Both lay at least 3/wk nearing 2yrs.
    Partridge rock: no personality in particular (same with standard Wyandotte) but a good layer.
    Easter egger: comically independent in phases. Good layer at 3/wk at nearly 2yrs old. Kind but not friendly.
    Speckled Sussex: Kate is the most-ridiculously friendly hen. Not sure how often she lays. Under a yr old.
    Cochins: gentle and low on the pecking order. We have a standard and a bantam. The standard doesn’t lay much (<2yrs), but the tiny Cochin is proving her mettle as a common broody at not even six months old. And she lays tiny eggs very well. Both are very kind.
    Black australorp roo crosses with the Wyandotte, partridge rock, and standard Cochin are all nice enough and lay well enough. The Cochin mixes both just went broody for the first time (1yr old).
    The Roo-Easter egger cross had the snotty attitude of our roo and had the same end. She wasnt fertile at all.
    Our RIRs (6 total) have all been amazing layers and by no means bullies. One was an independent and snuck out daily, so she met the cone of silence, and we discover she was minimally fertile.
    Our buff orpies were both quite gentle and great layers, though one was noisy in the a.m. And bugged our retired neighbors too much.
    Leghorns: skittish and reliable layers
    Buckeyes: calm, great layers like RIRs but with little combs for frost tolerance.
    Barred rocks: we've had two. A little bully behavior but otherwise no complaints.
    Thanks for keeping up your blog even though youngest paid to write elsewhere! I enjoy your adventures a lot.
    (SF Bay area), ca

  9. Bobbie Blythe says:

    Hi, I found your new WP column and enjoy reading it; lo and behold, you have a blog with chicken posts! Love the title of the blog because it reminds me of a GetPoorQuick scheme I once had that involved a used book store combined with a coffee shop that featured haiku-while-you-wait.
    The chicken posts and replies have re-kindled a long-standing yearning to have my own small clutch of hens. I had a small coop with six chickens when I was a teenager — reds and leghorns– and have never gotten over the pleasure of listening to them softly clucking around the yard. I have been bereft of chickens for many years and the urge comes back until I make a list of difficulties in keeping them: building a suitable (and safe) coop (predators); mosquitoes (as an annoyance to the chickens and possible disease vector); hot humid climate; neighbors.
    I don’t remember having so many worries about it when I had them at 15. Who knew age brings on such caution?
    I am an avid gardener (alas, not food except a few herbs) and I always feel that no matter how good my garden areas look, there is always a lack of chickens. If I read too many more of your chicken blogs and the interesting responses, I may have to throw caution over my shoulder — or is that salt?
    I suspect there are probably breeds that do better in hot-humid climates than others. I’ll have to get in touch with local chicken people to find out. Any suggestions?
    Thanks for your columns and blogs.
    Bobbie – Palm Beach County, Fl

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