The first time I bought chickens to keep in my backyard, I selected from the only two options of egg-layers available at the feed store closest to my house. As I learned more about chickens, I found out that several hundred different breeds exist. Chickens range from half-wild to very tame, from aggressive to calm, from prudent eaters to gluttons – and none of this has anything to do with the number of eggs a chicken will lay.
The three most important considerations for an urban chicken keeper:
1. How many eggs will the chicken lay?
2. Temperament of the chicken. Is she suited for the small backyard flock? Do you want chickens as pets as well as for eggs?
3. Local weather. Some chickens are only suited for warmer climates, others best for those with long and cold winters.
One of my Orpington chickens, named Margaret, became much more than an egg-laying machine. She assimilated herself into our small family, even becoming friends with the cat. Margaret’s status as pet instead of farm animal meant she willingly let herself be held, even coming to sit on my lap by choice.
While eating outside became a hazard, with Margaret the Chicken never hesitating to attempt eating directly from my plate, this friendship provided countless hours of amusement and satisfaction. Chickens often bond with their humans when kept in a small urban yard. Chickens can develop a sweetness of temperament and intelligence that adds immeasurable pleasure to raising birds, until eggs become a mere secondary benefit.
Modern hybrid chickens have been selectively bred for increased egg production. Starting around 5 months old, my Orpington lay a minimum of one egg per day and often two. With two of these I soon had more eggs than I could eat, to the benefit of friends and neighbors who received the occasional half-dozen fresh eggs. Heirloom breeds may lay fewer eggs, but typically retain more pest and disease resistance than hybrid breeds.
A happy chicken means a healthier chicken and steadier egg-laying. Some wilder breeds will avoid human contact even if handled since a young age. These breeds require little or no human interaction, but will want a friend or two of their own kind instead in order to remain happy.
Temperament should be carefully considered when choosing chickens. Calmer breeds such as the Ameraucana, Orpington, and Australorp are better suited to confinement in smaller urban yards unable to sustain multiple free range birds. All chickens should ideally be allowed outside, even if only a small area of the yard can be set aside.
The less bred for human farming the chicken, the less she will enjoy confinement. Some breeds need more interior space in the coop as well as more outdoor space. Depending on the number of birds kept, a flock too wild to accept close confinement become prone to pecking and other disordered behavior.
Keeping only two or three chickens at a time created little competition for food or space between the birds. Even more temperamental varieties should cause little trouble, but keep a closer eye on them at first to make sure no problems arise.
The local weather raises another important consideration. Some chicken varieties are only suited for warmer climates where temperatures rarely or never drop below zero. This especially applies to a breed that needs to be kept free range since these chickens could not be kept indoors under a heating lamp during the winter. Others do well even in deep winter without additional heat provided. A feed store should only carry those breeds suitable for the local climate, but make sure to ask anyway and do your own research.
The two main considerations when choosing a chicken breed should be whether or not you want more direct contact with your chickens as pets, and how much space can be provided per bird. The number of eggs provided should also be kept in mind. The true fun becomes keeping a few chickens of different colors, shapes and sizes – with eggs equally varied, from pure white to green to reddish brown.