It’s no secret that raising backyard chickens has only become more popular in the last 10 years, especially in the last six months as the coronavirus lockdown has left bored suburbanites scrambling for new hobbies. Online guides for keeping backyard chickens have proliferated – this article is an excellent place to start for novice chicken owners trying to figure out which way is up on their new coop blueprints. It’s easy to get overwhelmed with the online treasure trove of chicken information, as well as romantic ideas about what chicken-keeping will be like, and straightforward answers to basic questions are a godsend. Questions like: What breed of chicken should I get for my first flock of hens?
While there are many possible answers to this question, depending on available space, how many eggs a family needs, and the climate the chickens will live in, all of the breeds listed here are great for beginners. They’re low-maintenance, high-producing breeds known for having winning personalities and the adaptability to thrive anywhere.
The Australorp is often hyped as the perfect beginner chicken, and for good reason. Her most notable quality is her laying ability. Most Australorps lay between 5 and 6 eggs a week, but an Australorp also holds the world record for most eggs laid in a year – 364.
The Australorp isn’t the hardiest chicken on the list – she does quite well in colder climes but will need extra precautions in warmer weather. She makes up for it, though, with an absolutely winning personality; even though Australorps can be shy at first, they’re loyal and affectionate once they’ve bonded with their humans, especially ones they’ve known since they were chicks. As an added bonus for beginners, the Australorp is relatively low-maintenance and will thrive with a minimal food-water-coop set-up.
The Delaware breed has a slightly unusual lineage, starting as an industrial broiler bird. As more and more hybrid breeds were streamlined for production, though, the Delaware fell out of favor with large-scale producers and has fallen into the realm of the backyard bird keepers.
This is only a boon for the smallholders, though, as the Delaware is both a charmer and a great producer. Delawares lay about four large eggs a week and are relatively low maintenance to boot. (Their broiler lineage means they’ll also make a delicious addition to the dinner table if that’s what you’re after.) Perhaps their best feature, though, is their bubbly personality. They have an exploring nature and an affection for their humans, up to and including cuddling – though owners should take care to take proper salmonella precautions when cuddling chickens.
The New Hampshire hen is a close cousin of the more famous Rhode Island Red, down even to a similarity in color (though New Hampshires are duller than their brassy sisters to the south). Like the Red, New Hampshires were bred to be a low-maintenance smallholder’s hen. They’re hardy, easily satisfied and regular producers of about four eggs per week. The New Hampshire was bred to withstand harsh New England winters and would be an excellent choice for northern-dwelling smallholders who are used to getting feet of snow from November through April. New Hampshires can become pushy around feeders and are often happiest free-range, so they aren’t ideal for the ever-burgeoning ranks of urban chicken keepers. For those with space, though, the New Hampshire offers a great starter bird with the prestige of a heritage bloodline and the constitution to withstand a few rookie mistakes.
Those noticing a pattern that most of our ideal beginner birds are named after New England or Eastern seaboard places aren’t wrong. The reason for this is relatively simple: Early American chicken breeds tended to be named after the places where they were first bred, and they tended to be bred to be low maintenance egg producers for smallholders and family farms. In other words, they have exactly the traits beginner chicken keepers want in their first birds.
The Plymouth Rock is no exception as a very old American breed notable for her gentle personality and regular laying. A Plymouth usually produces about four eggs a week, sometimes more, and she’s also hardy and adaptable, happy with a minimal set-up that covers her need for food, water and shelter. She is an ideal beginner bird for children as she’s docile and friendly with other hens and humans, especially if she’s been raised from a chick.
Rhode Island Red
Many would argue we’ve saved the best for last. The Rhode Island Red is one of the most well-known and most popular chickens in the world, especially with homesteaders. Like her other New Englander cousins, the Red is a hardy bird and well-adapted to thrive in almost any climate. She’s also a personality powerhouse, known for a brassy brashness that goes well with her bright red coat. And, of course, she’s an egg-laying machine. Reds average between 4 and 6 eggs per week, depending on whether you’ve opted for a production (more eggs) or heritage (fewer eggs, longer lifespan) strain. What really puts the Red over the top as an ideal beginner bird, though, is her low-maintenance needs. As long as she has an appropriately sized coop and her food and water needs are met, the Rhode Island Red is as happy as a clam.
One of the great joys of keeping chickens is the wide variety of birds there are to choose from – from tiny bantams to gentle giants, egg-laying machines to delicious broilers, no-frills producers to gorgeous ornamentals. And of course, something as simple as a breed chart can’t account for all the wonderful quirks a flock of chickens might have up their feathery sleeves. With chickens, though, as with so many things, it’s best to begin with the basics, and the breeds listed here are some of the best basic starter breeds around.