Hello chicken keepers!
When I started keeping chooks I knew 3 kinds - brown ones, black ones and white ones. They all clucked, they all laid eggs and they all pooped. A lot.
Boy-o-boy was I green.
Over the years I’ve become a bit of a connoisseur of plumage. An enthusiast for the humble but astounding gallus gallus domesticus, one might say. All domestic chicken breeds can be further classified into hybrid, heritage, purebred, or bantam chickens. It’s enough to scramble a chicken keeper’s brains! So, if you're just starting out on your chook lovin’ adventure, let’s get you up to scratch on who is who in the chicken coop.
Purebred chickens are chicken breeds that were developed through careful selection by small farms and breeders, or through natural intermingling between wild breeds. Purebred chickens generally have a distinctive appearance, and are most commonly named after their particular place of origin, eg. Leghorn, Orpington, Dorking (pictured above), Andalusian.
Many purebred chicken breeds were once kept for their egg-ceptional egg production, but because of a tendency to breed ‘for show’ (ie. for physical characteristics), modern bloodlines of these chickens aren’t quite as capable egg layers - a classic case of form over function. For example, the Australorp chicken was once famed for laying as many as 350 eggs per year, while modern Australorps lay a more modest 250 eggs.
So why would you keep purebred chickens? There are a few good reasons:
Heritage breeds are a subset of purebred chickens. The term generally refers to older breeds like White Faced Black Spanish chickens, and Cochin chickens, from which many other ‘purebred’ varieties are descended. However, ‘heritage’ is often used interchangeably with ‘purebred’, and (unless you’re very serious about your chicken breeds) there isn’t a real practical difference between the two.
Hybrid or commercial layers
Hybrid hens are absolute egg laying machines! You will already have heard of the famous Isa Brown (pictured above), but there are countless hybrid chicken breeds, and they are usually identified by a company name - eg. Hy-line Brown, Lohmann Brown. These chicken breeds are developed through careful, scientific selection and genetic engineering in order to maximise traits that are desirable for commercial egg production. This means that they are absolutely outstanding egg layers (and always improving): the average Isa Brown will give you an egg nearly every day. They are also extremely docile, and can get by with comparatively little space and feed. However, their laying life is short - usually 2 years or less, and so any chicken keeper with Isa Browns should think carefully about what their retirement plans will be.
In simple terms, bantam chickens are simply miniature chickens! They’re cute, cuddly and smaller in every way, from their bodies to their eggs. Expect the average bantam to be half to one-third of the size of a full-grown hen, with compact eggs to match. For this reason, they are perfect for suburban backyards where space is at a premium. However, though their small size makes them much easier to handle, it also means they are better at flying, so read up on wing clipping unless you want your bantams to meet the Joneses!
All purebred chickens also have a bantam counterpart (commercial layers do not - small eggs are bad for business), and there are also so-called ‘true’ bantams, like the Belgian bantams (the Barbu d'Anvers pictured above), which are bantam-only.
Which variety of chicken you choose ultimately depends on your circumstances. If you want a personable pet with history and character, choose a purebred or heritage breed. If you want an egg-cellent layer, choose a hybrid. If space is limited, choose a bantam. And if you’re chicken crazy like us, choose all of them!
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