I'm a sucker for the eye candy unashamedly displayed in each year's poultry catalogs. The tantalizing White Leghorns, suave Black Australorps, and seductive Ameraucanas beckon to me from every page. And every year I do a mental head count to see if I have room for more. Most years, I do need to add to the flock but some years, like this one, I really don't need any more. But... I could squeeze in a few more... maybe.
When you get spring chick fever, beware. If you haven't experienced this unusual phenomenon common to most flock owners, know that the moment you purchase your first chick, you're infected — you just don't know it yet. Chicks are kind of like ticks. Once you get one, before you know it you have 20. Then 30. Then you're in the egg business for no other reason than to justify your "chicken" addiction. Ask me how I know...
However, regardless of how you wind up checking out the chicks in the glossy magazines be sure to follow a few sound guidelines when making selections to ensure you build a flock that meets your needs.
Many chicken breeds adapt quite readily to a variety of conditions, with some being better suited to specific climates than others. For instance, Leghorns, Minorcas, and Blue Andalusians are best suited for hot climates while Brahmas and Cochins fair best in colder climates. Still others, like the Black Australorps and Rhode Island Reds/Whites, and Plymouth Rocks are quite content in nearly any environment. These more adaptable breeds are the ones I prefer, because in our neck the woods our summers are ridiculously hot and muggy while our winters can have spells of bitter cold.
Once you've narrowed down the potential breeds based on your climate, start taking note of which breeds are best suited to your future flock's intended purpose. Do you want chickens primarily for eggs, meat, or both? Leghorns and Black Australorps are excellent layers and often don't bother taking winter breaks from laying as most hens do even without supplemental lighting. Other egg layers like the Ameraucanas and most Rhode Island Reds will need a winter break to maintain optimal health and are best used in a mixed flock if you'll be needing eggs year round. If, on the other hand, you're expecting to harvest a few chickens here and there for dinner, consider the meatier, dual purpose breeds, such as the Australorps and Orpingtons. And finally, if meat is all you're after, consider the faster growing Freedom Rangers and Cornish breeds which produce a nice sized bird in a matter of weeks.
Every flock owner develops his or her preferred management style over time. Some start out with small, portable chicken tractors and only a couple of hens. Others go gangbusters and build a huge coop complete with a large fenced in run area. Still others combine elements from various management styles by mixing free ranging or pasture based poultry management with fixed structures. The myriad management styles one can develop are endless. And because each style requires different personalities and even hardiness levels in chickens, a wise flock owner will take each specific breed's needs into consideration.
For example, many sources claim Leghorns do quite well in close confinement while others — myself included — find their high activity level is better suited to more open spaces, whether it's a large, fenced-in run area or a free-ranging environment. Some breeds, such as the Buttercups, make excellent foragers and do well with pasture based or free-ranging systems. And last, but certainly not least, there are breeds like the Crevecours that fare best in fenced areas.
Building a healthy, productive flock of chickens that will meet your needs and thrive under your specific climate conditions and management style doesn't require huge amounts of research or time. However, taking the time to make informed decisions can mean the difference between enjoying your flock and regretting flock ownership. As with all things, a little research goes a long way.