A quick guide on how to choose a chicken breed
Updated: 21 March 2022
So, you’ve made the easy decision to get chickens. Next, the hard decision is choosing a breed!
What kind of chicken breeds are there in Australia? There are over 50 recognised chicken breeds in Australia, but hundreds around the world. Most in different varieties and colours.
Considering how many there are, it’s challenging to decide the types of chickens that suit you, your family and your backyard chicken coop.
So, how do you decide?
First, it’s important to note that, as a general rule, a hen will either put more of her energy into:
- Creating beautiful feathers, or
- Creating eggs.
Tight feathered, sleek breeds such as Anconas and Leghorns will outlay the Silkies and Pekins with loose feathered bodies and fluffy boots.
However, there is one thing more important than the breed.
The importance of bloodlines
A chicken breed’s history and bloodlines (strains) become more important than the actual breeds of chickens, depending on your reason for choosing that particular breed.
For example, not all strains of Australorps are good layers. Nowadays, they are bred for other characteristics, such as size, shape and feather quality.
And, not all Leghorns and Anconas are flighty!
Things to consider when choosing a chicken breed
Do you want eggs?
Anconas, Australian Langshans, Hamburghs and ISA Browns are great layers.
Whereas Pekin and Sebright bantams, for example, don’t typically lay as often and their eggs are smaller in size than a standard-sized chook.
But some bantams are excellent layers!
For example, bantam Australian Langshans. Most are brilliant little layers and lay a fair-sized egg for their size. They're also gentle and have beautiful feathered feet.
Choose a breed that’s likely to sit if you want to hatch chicks.
Chicken breeds known for broodiness include Wyandottes, Pekins and Silkies.
Foragers - your friends in the garden
Most chickens are great foragers in the garden, but Araucana and Hamburghs are especially wonderful bug hunters. They love to free-range and are busy little garden workers. Silkies and Belgian bantams are a great choice of you want a breed that's gentler on the garden.
Disease resistance and long lifespan
Disease resistance in poultry is more about husbandry and their bloodlines than the breed. No birds are 100% disease resistant, but some are a little ‘hardier’ than others.
Hybrid varieties such as ISA Brown and Hy-Line Brown hens typically don't live as long as purebred (or "heritage") chickens. They're bred to lay a large number of eggs in a short time, and often suffer reproductive issues later in life.
What are good chicken breeds for hot conditions? Frizzles will handle heatwaves better than a large Sussex. The opposite is true in snow and frost-prone cold climates.
Breeds that do well in really hot climates include Frizzles and Transylvanian Naked Necks. Both are incredible looking breeds!
Mediterranean breeds also cope well with hot summers. Their large combs and wattles help during a heatwave. Mediterranean breeds include Ancona, Andalusian, Leghorn, Minorca, Spanish and Sicilian Buttercup. Most of these are also rare breeds.
What's the best breed of chicken for kids?
So you want quiet, friendly chooks that eat out of your hand? Having a friendly chicken is less about the breed and more about how they've been raised. Yes, there are some breeds that are generally friendly but you have to put the time into taming them.
If you have kids, get them to move around the birds slowly and quietly, chat to your hens (yes, I'm serious!) and treats help a lot.
ISA Browns and other hybrids are also great with kids and are easily tamed. But as mentioned they're also prone to reproductive health issues as they age and won't live and lay as long as a purebred hen.
If you're interested in breeding chickens, why not look at a rare breed? Breeds that are considered 'rare' changes over the years. For example, Anconas were considered rare in Australia, but are now in 'recovery' as their population has increased. Whereas New Hampshires were common in the days of egg-laying competitions, but are now considered 'endangered' in Australia.
Check out the Rare Breeds Trust of Australia's poultry list.
Do you live on a small block and want well-behaved chickens that aren't going to test your fencing and fly next door?
Silkies are a great choice as they are a flightless breed. Heavy breeds like Wyandotte, Rhode Island Red, Light Sussex and Australorps are also great choices.
When your ladies are free-ranging, they may be exposed to predators. Silkies and Polish, for example, often struggle to see eagles and other predators. So consider this if you're on a rural property.
Domestic cats are rarely a problem for backyard chickens once you get past the chick and young grower stages. But true bantams (these breeds are tiny compared to standard chooks!) like Belgians, Sebrights and Rosecombs could be confused for food by roaming or stray cats.
Feathered feet on a Silkie, Pekin or Belgian bantam can be a challenge in climates with seasonal wet weather. Don't cross them off the list, but know they need more care.
Looking to grow your own roast chicken? Dual purpose breeds like Rhode Island Red, Dorking, Light Sussex and Faverolles would be good choices. I'm told Light Sussex crossed over Indian Game is a winner.
Is ISA Brown a breed?
No, "ISA Brown" is a hybrid strain (with patented genetics) of chicken that's bred for commercial egg laying. Developed in France, ISA is short for Institut de Sélection Animale.
What's the best breed of chicken for beginners?
It depends! Buying hassel-free, healthy chickens starts with buying from a reputable breeder. If you're based in Australia, book a consult with me and we work through your needs and I can recommend some breeders. Hybrid layers can be a great start for new chicken owners as they should be fully vaccinated. Having said that, they often incur reproductive health issues after 2+ years and won't live as long as purebred birds. Bantams can be wonderful in small spaces and great for kids.
Want to compare popular chicken breeds in Australia?
In my article, The Ultimate Guide to Choosing the Best Backyard Chicken Breeds, I detail breeds for laying, children’s best breeds and the most popular breeds for Aussie backyards.
You can also find out where and how to buy backyard chickens in Australia, here.
Want your chickens to be the healthiest and happiest they can be? I offer backyard chicken workshops, online programs, phone coaching, and in-person support to families, schools, and free-range egg farmers. Visit my online shop for natural, tried-and-tested poultry supplies in Australia.
Grab my free guide, The First 8 Steps To Naturally Healthy & Happy Backyard Chickens now!
Elise McNamara, Chicken Consultant & Educator.