Choosing the Right Chicken and Duck Breeds

From laying birds to meat birds to dual-purpose breeds, there’s many options for a small flock.

Chickens

Chicken and duck breeds are wide and varied. Find out more about each's behavior and which would be best for your backyard or garden flock.

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Many breed options are available for those wanting to start a new backyard or garden poultry flock. Learn about different breeds and their contribution to resilience and laying in this excerpt from “The Laying Flock,” a chapter of The Resilient Gardener (Chelsea Green Publishing 2012) by Carol Deppe. 

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Poultry for Various Purposes: Choosing a Type and Breed

Both ducks and chickens have types and breeds that represent different virtues and purposes. There are extreme egg-laying types, dual-purpose egg-meat types, and heavy meat types. The extreme-egg types, chickens or ducks, are small, scrawny, nervous birds that give us the most eggs when fed optimally and perfectly on commercial chow, and have the best efficiency at converting feed to eggs. The eggs are not particularly large. Extreme-egg types of ducks or chickens have little inclination to go broody. If they do go broody, they are unlikely to stay with the job long enough to hatch a clutch.

The classic extreme-egg type of chicken is the White Leghorn. The best chicken-egg production these days, however, is by hybrids of various extreme-egg kinds, who can give you about 200–280 eggs per bird in their first year. The best extreme-egg type of duck is the Holderread strain of Khaki Campbell. Even though this is a pure breed, these ducks average 320–340 eggs in their first year of laying (in small flocks under good conditions).

Extreme-egg-type birds (chickens or ducks) have so little meat on them that most people do not butcher them; the meat of the excess young males or spent layers is wasted.

At the other extreme are big, heavy types of poultry bred primarily to produce a meaty carcass. Most don’t lay enough eggs to be kept as layers. In addition, the eggs they do lay are more costly to produce because the feed-to-egg conversion rate isn’t as good as for smaller, skinnier birds. Some meat breeds have been bred to grow as fast as possible. These can produce a fryer or broiler carcass in seven or eight weeks (in a full confinement situation with commercial feeds). These types have fatty meat. Even if allowed free range, these birds aren’t very active and don’t go far enough from their feeders to make much use of the range. The Cornish Cross chicken and the Pekin and Aylesbury ducks represent this class.

Some heavy meat breeds grow more slowly, are more active foragers, and make great roasting birds at three to six months of age. This class isn’t economical to produce commercially. But the meat is outstanding in flavor compared with the fast-growing breeds that are butchered young, and the meat is less fatty. Jersey Giant chickens and Rouen, Saxony, Appleyard, and Muscovy ducks are in the slow-growing, roasting-bird meat-poultry class.

For the home flock, I strongly favor the dual-purpose breeds of both chickens and ducks. The dual-purpose bird is a bigger bird with a meatier carcass than the extreme-egg types, but she isn’t as big or meaty as the extreme-meat breeds. She doesn’t lay as well as the extreme-egg types but can do almost as well. In addition, she lays bigger eggs than extreme-egg types, sometimes much bigger eggs. She is usually calm and sensible and more enjoyable to work with than the extreme-egg types. She does not go into a panic over every little thing nor try to run through fences when scared, endangering herself in the process. She often has more personality and more complex and natural behavior than either the extreme-egg or extreme-meat types.

Excess males of dual-purpose breeds give a carcass with enough meat on them to be worth butchering and dressing, and the meat is less fatty than that of fast-growing meat-type fryers. If you consider both eggs and meat, dual-purpose breeds may be the most productive of all. Even many pastured-poultry producers with laying flocks are using dual-purpose breeds for layers. The classic example of the dual-purpose layer in America is the Rhode Island Red chicken. Joel Salatin, pastured-poultry producer extraordinaire, now uses Rhode Island Reds for his free-range egg production. He markets the spent layers as stewing birds.

Endangered and Heritage Poultry Breeds

Many of the best breeds of laying ducks are critically endangered breeds. Many dual-purpose and egg-type chicken breeds are also rare. Some of these breeds can work well for the home laying flock. The best dual-purpose laying duck, the Ancona, for example, is a critically endangered breed. I encourage everyone to join the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy and to consider combining the keeping of a laying flock with the preserving of a worthy but endangered poultry breed. Many rare breeds and their current preservation status are described on the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy Web site at www.albc-usa.org. ALBC produces four substantive publications annually (including a breeders directory) that alone are well worth the price of membership.

Many females of dual-purpose breeds are perfectly competent to raise the next generation. Many a keeper of these breeds has had a lady disappear for a while, only to show up a few weeks later with a dozen babies in tow. I believe the kind of small flock that would most contribute to community resilience in the advent of a long-term mega-disaster is the small flock of dual-purpose birds that is capable of producing eggs, meat, and replacement birds, and that can rapidly spin off additional flocks for the community.

There is much information available on chicken breeds for the home laying flock, and there are dozens of reasonable choices. Robert Plamondon’s Success with Baby Chicks has particularly realistic information on the subject. Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens also has good information on chicken breeds. Both give numbers on productivity and cover some aspects of the behavior of different breeds that can matter, information that is generally harder to come by than mere descriptions of breeds. Information about laying duck breeds is largely available only in Holderread’s book. No information is available on the behavior of the different breeds of laying ducks with respect to free-ranging. I have developed that information by keeping flocks of different breeds in parallel with Anconas, my major breed. I present this information in the next section and in the chapter notes.

Laying Duck Breeds and Behavior

The best breeds for the home laying flock are the Holderread line of Khaki Campbells, Welsh Harlequins, Indian Runners (of carefully chosen lines only), Magpies, and Anconas. The Holderread Campbells and Indian Runners are widely available. The rest are rare breeds. You can find pictures of all of them on the Internet. Campbells are basically brown. (Drakes have bronze or brown-gold heads.) Welsh Harlequins are cream, buff, white, and speckled. (The drakes have green heads.) Runners come in about every shade and color and pattern. Magpies are white with colored spots on the back and head. And Anconas are pinto-style white mixed with various colors in various broken patterns. Campbells and Harlequins lay white eggs. Some Runners, Magpies, and Anconas lay greenish or bluish eggs.

Campbells, Harlequins, and Runners are extreme-egg types. They are light, skinny birds with nervous dispositions. Holderread Campbells are the most productive of all poultry, with flock averages of 320–340 eggs per bird (in small flocks). Welsh Harlequins lay about 240–330 eggs per year. Runners have an exotic upright coke-bottle shape, and have been selected much more for beauty than for egg production in recent decades. To get Runners that lay 200 eggs per bird or better, you’ll need to choose the specific line and source carefully. Some Runners lay green or blue eggs. All these breeds are excellent foragers.

For production of big eggs as well as for dual-purpose production of eggs and meat, I recommend Anconas. Anconas lay about 210–280 eggs per year, mostly jumbo and super-jumbo size. Some Anconas lay green or bluish green eggs. Anconas are calmer, more sensible, and easier to work with than the extreme-egg breeds. They are quite mellow and flexible about their dominance hierarchy. They have one, but nobody seems to take it very seriously. Nobody excludes anybody from anything because of it. There is enough meat on the cull Ancona drakes to make fine roasting birds. Anconas have the standard laying-duck shape, except that they have legs and feet that are oversized for the size of the bird. They rarely have any foot or leg problems. Anconas come in various colors with pinto-style white markings that allow you to identify each individual, even at a distance. The colors are black, blue, chocolate, lavender, and silver.

Anconas are the best foragers of all the medium-weight duck breeds. As individuals, they forage as well as even such light breeds as Campbells and Harlequins. Anconas have female flock leaders. Because of their female leaders, Ancona flocks forage better than Campbell or Harlequin flocks.Anconas have more complex flock behavior than other duck breeds, with a more sophisticated ability to communicate. Anconas are very alert and sensible about predators and make better watchdogs than the geese I used to have. They are especially smart about hawks. It is sometimes possible to keep Anconas where all other poultry get eliminated by hawks. (You must have brush or a deck or somewhere for the ducks to run under when hawks are about, though.) With a pure flock of Anconas, I can usually tell what the flock is doing just by sound. With a flock of mixed breeds, the vocalizations are more ambiguous, and I can’t always tell what is going on without looking.

Ancona ladies are usually capable of hatching out a clutch of eggs and make good mothers.

I haven’t any direct experience with Magpies. They are said to be excellent layers, however, laying 220–290 big eggs per year. They seem to be somewhere in between the light extreme-egg type and the dual-purpose Ancona.

Campbells, Harlequins, Runners, and Anconas can all be fed a free-choice diet without getting fat, and are so committed to foraging that they forage very actively even when fed free choice. They eat forage preferentially and just eat enough chow to fill in the gaps in the foraging situation. (Saxonies or Golden Cascades, in contrast, become fat when fed free choice. Fat ducks don’t lay.)

Campbells, Harlequins, Runners, and Anconas will come home nicely at night and pen themselves (with proper management). Not all breeds do this. Saxonies, for example, have a tendency to fall asleep under a bush somewhere and miss pen-up. For additional information on breed behavior and on the behavior of various combinations of breeds in mixed flocks, see the chapter notes.

There are several other breeds of dual-purpose ducks available in America; namely, the Buff Orpington, Cayuga, Crested, and Swedish. These can give a decent amount of eggs but are not in the same league as the breeds I have recommended. Egg production of the Orpington is listed by Holderread as 150–220 per year. The rest are about 100–150. Many people enjoy keeping these breeds, however, and don’t need more egg production.

Pekin, Aylesbury, Rouen, and Muscovy are heavy meat breeds. They don’t lay well enough for a laying flock. Saxony and Silver Appleyard are also heavy meat breeds, but they lay well enough to be suitable for those who want primarily roasting ducks along with eggs as a by-product instead of the reverse. Feed conversion to eggs will not be good enough to warrant keeping Appleyards or Saxonies if you want to sell eggs.

More Resilient Gardener Small Duck Flock Resources:

Why You Should Be Raising Ducks In Your Garden
Feeding Ducks and Chickens
How to Cook Duck Eggs 

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from The Resilient Gardener by Carol Deppe and published by Chelsea Green Publishing, 2012. Buy this book from our store: The Resilient Gardener.