In Search of the Perfect Chicken

People may not know this, but like dogs, chickens and chicken breeds have been bred for different purposes, and have different personalities.

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A Light Sussex Hen – A friendly, and photogenic gal!

I know.  It seems crazy, the whole “different personalities”.  But honestly, when you start raising them, the differences are obvious.  I researched the tastiest chicken breeds, and since getting the famous French (from France) Bresse breed was not possible, and the Canadian Bresse was a ridiculous price (they were to be my first chickens after all, and the price of $22 per chick seemed a bit scary), I looked to studies in taste.  I found a study by Wes Hunter titled “A comparison of heritage breed broiler chickens on pasture” where he gave different breeds the exact same diet, put them on pasture, and then had a taste test.  I’m oversimplifying here, but I would highly suggest the read as he has incredible data compiled on feed rates as well, never mind the taste test portion.  After reading this, and determining availability in our area, I made the decision to put in an order for Light Sussex (for eating) and Ameraucana Chickens, since the Ameraucana chickens I had only been dreaming about for the last… oh… 10 years or so, ever since I saw the gorgeous blue eggs in a Martha Stewart Magazine.

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Ameraucana hen, with her normal panicked look of getting busted laying an egg in our front planter.  Note her tufted cheeks which is a characteristic of this breed!

So I put in the order and waited… and waited and waited.  Finally the day came for pickup and surprise, they didn’t have enough Ameraucanas on hatching day and would I be interested in New Hampshires to top up the order?

Well, I personally wasn’t, but I knew that my husband had talked about having “brown” chickens, and since we were currently limited to black, white and grey… I agreed to the New Hampshires since I had already dragged him on this crazy chicken journey in the first place.

So what did we discover?

Light Sussex were the slowest to feather out of our group, which meant they had to spend longer under the heat lamps.  This is important, as the chicks lungs are located just under their upper backs, and if they aren’t kept warm, you’re in trouble. But with all their little friends developing way faster, and ready for the great outdoors sooner (or at least moved to our barn), we ended up dividing the groups up.  Which wasn’t a huge deal but as a first time chicken owner I was concerned.  Would they re-establish their pecking order?  Was a pecking order even established at that age?  Would they be permanently psychologically damaged and have to go for chicken therapy as adults?  I was a neurotically worried parent, but watching their development was amazing, and took the place of television on several evenings.   You know you’re a crazy chicken owner when you would prefer to sit on a stool in front of the brooder with a glass of Pino Grigio and watch the antics.  The Light Sussex chicks were the most friendly and fearless, and my worrying was unnecessary, as they grew up to be the most easy going birds.  And friendly.  Really friendly.  Like exceptionally friendly. Like wanting-to-hang-out-on-the-front-porch-everyday-and-talk-to-you-everyday friendly.  And yes, it’s charming.  Until the chicken poop starts piling up.  Oh, and those beautiful white feathers got covered in  brown dirt when they decided to dust bath in our front garden… I suddenly felt like an embarrassed parent with a sticky child covered in drippy purple popsicle…

Our Ameracaunas were the exact opposite in personality.  They were skittish, and if Chicken Little was ever a real chicken, this would have been his breed.  They would run in the opposite direction from you, giving panicked chirps at top volume.  As adults, they seemed to settle, but only slightly.  And the roosters were vicious.  Or at least the few that we ended up keeping for breeding.  We had a problem with an owl for a while, until our one exceptionally mean rooster stayed out all night and, we believe, took care of the owl.  He certainly wasn’t as big as the owl, but he would take on anything, and the owl never came back. In the end we had to butcher him, as he was attacking us constantly and we didn’t dare turn our backs if he was anywhere close.  The bruises and claw marks on my legs just weren’t worth it…

Other people have said their Ameracuana chickens are super friendly, so I don’t know if the line we got was just skittish and crazy.  Our hens are great in the fact they don’t hang out on the front porch (unless to lay an egg in the planter), and prefer to forage instead.  And they do lay those gorgeous eggs… sigh.  That blue colour really is stunning!

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The famous blue colour of the Ameracuana’s Egg…gorgeous!

The New Hampshires were the surprise bird, that was fast to feather out, friendly but not annoying, and was laying sooner then the others.  The New Hampshire roosters were big and reminded me of linebackers.  However, we couldn’t keep all the roosters as our gals were getting bare backs from all the rooster attention.  And those roosters were delicious!  Although we started with the idea of having both dual purpose (a chicken that is both a layer and a meat bird) and layers (smaller bodied chickens bred for just laying), I think we have now narrowed it down to wanting layers… The layers require less feed and there is only so much chicken two adults can eat!

Of course, these personality traits are generalizations, and there are differences within the breed as well… for example we have one New Hampshire hen that loves to be picked up and cuddled.  She seems quite delighted to be carried around like a special chicken.  Her sister however, that looks identical, will try to take your hand off if you got too close.  Some of our Ameracuanas are braver then others, and some of our gals were more… er… submissive then others, and seem to be the rooster’s favourites.

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A New Hampshire hen, helping with fall harvest.

Taste wise, I couldn’t taste the difference between all of our birds, but the size of them was  something that was obvious.  The chunky New Hampshire rooster for example, over the sleek Ameracuana.  And since our chickens free-range all over our property, their legs are ridiculously huge.  The meat flavour is incredible, and not even close to the bland supermarket variety.  In explaining to friends the difference, I compare the taste to Jelly Belly Jelly Beans.  You know when you eat one, it’s amazing how much flavour they pack into one bean?  That’s the same with the chicken meat… it’s full of flavour, even after being boiled forever in soup.  Truly amazing.

This summer we obtained Jersey Giants, recognized for their large size, which are beautiful and elegant birds.  I am liking them way more then I thought I would.  They aren’t super friendly, but just seem happy doing their own thing and seem to forage as a team.  Their rate of lay is average, and were designed to be a replacement for turkey (based on their size), but still, they are stunning with their gorgeous black feathers… so they get added points for beauty and grace!

So I feel as though I’m still searching for the perfect chicken.   If I was in a small residential area – and was only allowed 3 hens – I would probably be quite delighted with the friendly Light Sussex, as they would be a great chicken for visitors to cuddle.  Since we free range our birds, I think having a slightly more skittish breed can be an advantage as they are more pretor savvy.  Of course, rate of lay is also important, so finding a layer that forages well to keep feed costs low and produces well I think is the “perfect” bird… which breed that is, I’ll have yet to find and raise…

And of course, for those dust baths in the garden, a dark feathered bird would be much appreciated!

Sincerely,

The Shepherd

P.S.  I would love to hear about the breeds you have, and what you like and don’t like about them!

 

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