Chicken Breeds, Hybrids, Crossbreeds…Just What Are They?

chicken breeds. What are they?Anyone who enjoys keeping backyard chickens is truly fortunate but may be confused about chicken breeds.

Never before has such a diversity of chicken types been available from hatcheries that produce chicks for small backyard flocks.

Catalogs feature chickens ranging from tiny bantams to massive Jersey Giants. Birds come in an amazing assortment of feather colors and patterns.

Egg shells may be dark or light brown, white, tinted, green, or even blue. Various bird types are described as flighty, calm, broody, winter hardy, or heat tolerant.

Choosing which chicks to order is fun, but with so many choices it can be perplexing.

To add confusion are common terms used by hatcheries. Often a particular bird is called a “breed”, “crossbreed”, or hybrid. There isn’t always consistent use of these terms from hatchery to hatchery.

So, just what is a breed, crossbreed, and hybrid?

It was much simpler during most of the 6000 odd years that chickens have been domesticated. Until around two centuries ago most chickens roamed around cities, small towns, and farms.

They interbred at random, producing new generations with a hodgepodge of traits. These birds were mongrels but usually well adapted to the local environment. Diversity ruled.

Few chickens looked the same, although certain traits emerged in different parts of the world.

For example, small bodied active chickens that lay white eggs trace their ancestry to lands bordering the Mediterranean Sea.

This jumble of characteristics began changing in the 1800s when the Industrial Revolution enabled millions of people to leave the farm to labor in new urban factories.

Perhaps because their heart was still on the land, many families kept chickens, even in big cities. Their birds produced eggs and meat but also became a passionate hobby.

Before television and the Internet filled idle hours, millions of people attended poultry shows. Breeders developed show chickens in a way that produced standardized predictable appearances and traits.

Many of today’s breeds, like the ever-popular Rhode Island Red and Plymouth Rock were developed then, but dozens of other breeds have been created since to fulfill specific needs or catch eyes at poultry shows.

What Is a Breed?

According to Dr. Susan Lamont, C.F. Curtis Distinguished Professor at the College of Agriculture and Life Science at Iowa State University:

A breed is a population that breeds true and is defined by well described externally observed qualities.

Breeds are recognized by the American Poultry Association (APA) and published in their book, Standard of Perfection.

This simply means that all members of a breed will have similar characteristics, such as size, physique, feather color, and comb type.

Mate two members of a breed and their offspring will share their traits. Some breeds have several color variants.

For example, the Plymouth Rock is a breed, but within this breed are white, barred, buff, and other colors and feather patterns.  No matter their feather color or pattern, all varieties of Plymouth Rocks have a husky body, single comb, and are  good layers of brown shelled eggs.

Hybrids Fueled the Modern Poultry Industry

During the Twentieth Century scientific breeding revolutionized poultry. College educated geneticists created modern hybrids with the intent to create strains of birds especially efficient in converting feed into eggs or meat. Probably the best known is the Cornish Rock hybrid, developed from the Cornish and Rock breeds.

Prior to the development of hybrid meat strains, chicken was a relatively expensive meat produced by slow growing Light Brahmas, Jersey Giants, New Hampshires and other breeds.

It took much feed and time for these birds to grow to market size, thus making chicken an expensive meat enjoyed mostly on special occasions. The Cornish Rock changed it all.

This hybrid produces an eating size bird in half the time on much less feed than the old timers. Credit hybridization with precipitously dropping the price of chicken in the grocery store or on a restaurant menu.

Today the average American eats about 60 pounds of chicken meat a year.

Scientists also created hybrid egg layers capable of producing upwards of 300 eggs a year.  Among the best-known laying hybrids are California Whites, a Leghorn based white egg layer, and the ISA Brown, a complex hybrid that is an amazingly efficient producer of brown eggs.

Hybridization is often not as simple as crossing one breed with another.  Sometimes complex series of matings over multiple generations are required to develop sophisticated highly productive birds.

How About Crossbreeds of Chickens

According to Dr. Lamont, crossbreeding technically refers to mating two or more breeds. The intent to improve traits is usually not a defining factor. Crossbreeding results in chickens that do not breed true and are not registered by the APA.

“In the early days, around 200 years ago, cross breeding was used to introduce a visible trait, like barring (on the feathers) that helped identify sexes at hatching,” she said.

Today this is common with hybrid strains where females and males have different colored feathers or patterns. It’s a much faster way to separate the gender of baby chicks than vent sexing, which must be used with most chicken breeds.

In vent sexing a highly skilled and experienced hatchery worker gently squeezes the bird’s vent, revealing slight differences between males and females.

Few people enjoying a small flock of backyard chickens keep roosters or have any interest in breeding their birds. For them it doesn’t really matter if they own registered breeds, hybrids, or crossbreeds.

Families can pick and choose their chicks based on the traits they like the most. Hybrid layers often are the most efficient at producing the maximum number of eggs, but many true breeds also lay well and connect their owner with the glory days of poultry when attending chicken shows was a passion.

Many hatcheries allow customers to order a diversity of chicks, making it easy for a customer to order a diversity of breeds and hybrids.

Bringing Chickens to Your Backyard – Where to Start

Ever since chickens were domesticated before the dawn of history, they’ve been constant companions.

As people settled Europe, Asia, the Americas and even remote Pacific islands they brought chickens along to provide eggs and an occasional tasty stew.

For centuries nearly everyone knew how to manage a flock.

Then, about a hundred years ago, chicken husbandry shifted. Previously, most people lived on farms or in small towns. Nearly every family kept at least a few chickens.

The flock was a source of income for many. Children were often responsible for caring for them, and they had excellent mentors.

Parents and grandparents showed how to care for birds and butcher one for special meals.

That changed as the Industrial Revolution encouraged millions of people to migrate from farms to cities.

Following the Second World War massive suburban growth sprawled over the countryside, and suburban town governments usually created ordinances to ban farm animals.

Generations of mentoring came to an end with suburbanization. And now, most Americans are now three or four generations removed from the farm.

Today’s parents and grandparents know where to find eggs in the supermarket but lack any knowledge of chicken husbandry.

Fortunately, that is changing. Many suburban dwellers have become uneasy with their disconnect from the land. They want to produce wholesome food in the yard while helping their kids recognize that meals come from the soil, not the store.

Modern urbanites and suburbanites face a dilemma. Producing food and caring for animals require skills that have been largely lost.

Unlike cattle, sheep, or hogs unsuited for suburban life, chickens are the one farm animal that function well in a tiny backyard. They’re small, relatively quiet, and can be raised in tiny coops that fit in even the smallest yard.

Chickens mesh well with gardening while converting food scraps into delicious eggs. They are the perfect food-producing animal to raise in tight places with high human density.

Raising chickens isn’t complicated, but it can seem that way for novices who want to keep a small flock but lack mentors to learn from.

Fortunately, the growing backyard chicken phenomenon is increasing acceptance of these docile animals in both cities and suburbia. It’s unleashing a torrent of books, websites, and magazines that help and encourage newcomers.

Chicks, feed, supplies, and information are increasingly stocked in urban and suburban stores.

So, how does a person with no chicken experience learn how to start and care for a backyard flock?

It is really not difficult.

In many ways caring for chickens is similar to tending a family pet. Chickens, like dogs and cats, need safe housing and nutritious food. Anyone who has successfully kept a pet already knows the basics of animal care.

Chickens have some special needs. Here are a few tips:

CHECK LOCAL ORDINANCES

In recent years dozens of city councils have responded to the surge of interest in backyard chickens by changing ordinances that once banned the birds.

Typically, ordinances specify the number of hens that can be kept, usually four or six, and forbid noisy roosters or slaughtering of chickens in town.

The first step in keeping chickens is to find out if it’s legal. Almost all towns have a link on their website to access ordinances. Look for an animal or animal control link.

A second way to learn is to call the city clerk. Usually this person is familiar with ordinances. In many cases there will be good news. Far more towns allow chickens now than they did a decade ago. If they are not legal locally, take heart.

It may not be hard to encourage the town council to alter the ordinance to allow families to keep a small flock.

Dozens of model ordinances are readily available for a local government to use as a model.

Surprisingly chickens are perfectly legal in many of our largest cities. Dozens of flocks live in New York City, for example.

Some are in community gardens, enabling even residents of massive apartments to tend a flock in a nearby park. Ironically, small towns in farm country often ban chickens inside city limits.

LEARNING

Assuming that keeping chickens is legal, the next step for a newcomer is to learn how to maintain a flock. As chicken husbandry grows in popularity that’s becoming easier.

Odds are almost certain that someone’s keeping chickens nearly everywhere. They’ll offer encouragement and knowledge but finding them can be a challenge.

Using social media is one way to connect with them.

Here are several useful posts on raising backyard chickens.

Other ways to learn include:

Backyard Chicken Classes  

Nature centers, city park departments, county extension offices, and stores that sell chicks and supplies often offer basic workshops for beginners.

These are excellent ways to learn about chicken care and meet others who share a passion for keeping a flock.

Reading up on caring for chickens   

Most public libraries stock chicken care books. These are also usually sold in stores that sell chicken supplies.   Websites, like this one, provide outstanding information.

Finally, one of the best sources of information comes from chick hatcheries.  Most will send a free paper catalog, and all have websites. In addition to providing information on breeds nearly all online and paper catalogs include chicken care tips.

They are a wealth of information, and most hatcheries are happy to help newcomers.  A question posed in an email or by a phone call is likely to lead to enthusiastic help and information from hatchery staff.

GETTING READY

Once someone has decided to keep chickens and done research, it takes time to prepare for the exciting day when chicks arrive. Coops can be homemade or purchased. Some tiny ones can be bought as kits at farm supply stores or ordered online.

They are easy to assemble and work fine. Brooders are easy to make but must be ready before chicks arrive. It doesn’t need to cost a bundle or be complicated.

People handy with tools can save money by building their own coop, nest boxes, feeders and roosts.

Brooders can be made of a big cardboard box heated with a light bulb.

START SMALL

A key to success in keeping chickens for the first time is starting small and simple. A mini coop housing four hens of easy to manage breeds is an ideal way to gain experience managing a flock.

Starting small is inexpensive and easy yet yields the experience a new person needs to expand the flock later.

That the majority of today’s children grow to maturity removed from food production is a modern tragedy.

A few chickens in the backyard, combined with a vegetable garden, are an ideal family project that yields tasty food while connecting people to the earth that sustains us.

Feed It Forward with Nutrena

We believe animals change lives. We want to help.

That’s why we created Feed It Forward™, our giving program to help organizations that share our belief in the life-changing bond between animals and people.

Do you know of a deserving organization that could benefit from a Feed It Forward grant? We’re offering grants to qualifying organizations, we’re raising awareness for their amazing work, and we’re continuing efforts to help animals in immediate need in disaster-struck areas. Visit www.FeedItForward.org for more information and application details.

Join the movement by reading and sharing the Feed It Forward stories that inspire you, and encouraging organizations that you know and work with to apply for grants. Make sure to stay connected with the Feed It Forward movement on social media and our website.

A Feed It Forward Story: Andrew and the flock

The flock at Zachariah’s Acres has helped thousands of guests with special needs build confidence and life skills. For the members of the YMCA Service Without Boundaries program in Oconomowoc, WI, seeing the flock of picking, pecking, egg-laying chickens is the highlight of their week. Especially for Andrew, a member of the YMCA program who lives with Down syndrome. That is why we’re so happy to support amazing places like Zachariah’s Acres.

Decreased Egg Production In Chickens: Molt and Winter Lighting

Molt is the natural cycle where birds lose feathers and gradually regrow their plumage.

Molt usually occurs when the days start to shorten in late summer and it can go well into the fall season.

The feather shedding process can take as long as 16 weeks to completely cycle through and has the potential to greatly decrease egg production in your chickens.

When chickens molt, a lot of the energy in their bodies is used to regrow feathers and less energy is available for egg production.

Many chicken owners will see a huge drop off in the number of eggs they find in the nesting boxes this time of year.

However, there are a few potential shortcuts to reduce the impact of molt on your birds.

Nutrition plays a huge role in getting through the molting cycle and having a proper diet can reduce the length of time your birds are in molt.

Feeding an adequate level of protein and proper amino acid profiles can greatly help boost energy levels in your birds.

A product like NatureWise Feather Fixer, that offers 18% protein, can be a great option for molting birds.This product is meant to be fed as a sole ration and it has the potential to get your girls through molt several weeks faster than if they were on a traditional layer diet.

Another key factor in decreased egg production in the fall is related to diminished sunlight.

Chickens usually need between 12 and 16 hours of daylight to maintain maximum egg laying potential. With daylight getting shorter in the fall, you can introduce supplemental lighting to maintain egg production for your flock. Setting up a generic 75 watt light bulb in your coop will produce enough light to keep egg production at a similar level to those long summer days.

We do NOT recommend using a heat lamp in your coop. Heat lamps generate a lot of heat and can become a fire hazard.

The purpose of the light bulb is to generate enough light in the coop to “trick” the chickens into thinking it is still daylight outside. It’s recommended to have the light set to a timer and have the light come on early in the morning rather than extending daylight later in the day. This way the chickens are awaken by the light bulb and they can use it as an alarm clock to start the day.

If the light is set on a timer at night, the chickens may not expect it to go off and it could disorient them or cause stress when it suddenly gets dark in the coop.

There’s no doubt that reduced egg production is a challenge, but with some small adjustments you can help your flock get back on track.

New Chick Checklist

New Chick Checklist

New Chick Checklist: Chicks thrive in ideal conditions, so consider these tips for getting started:

  • Heat: Suspend a warm bulb about a foot above the brooder floor for warmth – and have a second bulb on hand in case one burns out. Keep temps in the brooder about 90-95 degrees F for the first week, decreasing about 5 degrees per week. Raise the light as chicks grow.
  • Environment: Be sure your brooder is big enough so your chicks can move about comfortably. Keep it out of drafts. Stock tanks, plastic tubs and homemade brooders are a few good options. Do not allow the brooder to become wet or damp.
  • Bedding: Pine wood shavings are ideal. Avoid straw and newspaper as these become slippery for chicks. Clean bedding daily.
  • Water: Be sure clean, fresh water is always available. Dip chick beaks into water and let them drink 4-5 hours before introducing feed. Elevating the waterer a couple inches off the floor will help it stay clean and prevent bedding from contaminating it.
  • Feed: Scatter feed on the brooder floor so chicks can find it at first. Then place in a feeder. Have chick starter feed available 24/7. Your chicks will eat just what they need. One chick will eat about 10 pounds of chick starter in its first weeks of life. There are some great options available when considering chick starter feeds.

Can Chickens Smell and Taste?

Anyone tending a backyard flock quickly learns that chickens can be as picky Can Chickens Smell and Taste?about food as a crabby child. Put a pan of kitchen scraps into the run and hens enthusiastically devour bread, meat scraps, and some greens yet shun citrus, turnip chunks and many other goodies. They seem to instantly know what foods are a delicious break from dry feed.

Midsummer is a time of food plenty for chickens and wild birds, and it’s Can Chickens Taste?fascinating to watch what they will and won’t eat. Any grasshopper misfortunate enough to hop into a chicken run becomes an instant protein-rich snack. Hens entirely ignore box elder bugs buzzing around them. They’ll eat grasses that grow in their run and shun other plants, like motherwort. How do they know what’s good to eat and what’s not?

Scientists have been debating how well birds can taste and smell for years. Because they have tough bony beaks and small hard tongues it’s more difficult to study their tasting ability than it is with mammals.  According to an ornithologist, Dr. Neil Bernstein, the bird brain is heavily developed for sight, sound, and balance with smell and taste much less acute. Their sense of touch varies by species.

Humans mouths contain about 9,000 taste buds compared with 50 to 500 for birds.  One researcher discovered about 400 taste buds in ducks. Chickens have some taste buds, but they are located in the back of their mouth. So, before they can taste something they’ve already committed to swallowing it.

Studies on the chicken sense of smell and taste are scarce, but more research has been done on wild birds visiting feeders stocked with diverse seeds.  Wild birds, such as chickadees and cardinals, use their keen sense of vision to locate seeds and seem to know which ones are tastiest or most nutritious. For example, they’ll pick every sunflower seed out of a blend of seeds before eating a single milo seed.

Chickens aren’t bird brains. They have intelligence and memory, and this may be a clue on how they react to food.  “I once ate popcorn not knowing I was about to develop the flu.  To put it politely, I tasted popcorn that night on the way out.  It was years before I could eat popcorn again because I unconsciously associated it with illness,” said ornithologist Bernstein.  The same might happen with chickens. A bird who gobbled down a box elder bug and had her throat badly scratched may remember it and take this common insect off her food list.

In many ways, chickens are like humans. People have food preferences. So, do hens.  Although generally, every bird in a flock is likely to like or dislike a certain food, this can vary.  One hen may like tomato scraps, but a flock sister won’t touch them.

Some birds can detect odor. Turkey vultures can locate food hidden under a dense tree cover by chemicals emitted from decaying dead animals. In contrast, great horned owls have been known to kill and eat skunks. “Because skunk spray can hurt owl eyes I don’t think they seek skunks often.  Owls don’t seem to have a sense of smell, but they certainly have food preferences,” said Karla Bloem, Executive Director of the International Owl Center. “For example, they don’t seem to like ground squirrels but love voles,” she added. For a great horned owl having no sense of smell is a benefit. But, how about chickens?

Chickens don’t seem to have much ability to smell or taste. That may be an advantage. They seem to prefer foods of certain colors. Toss scraps of red tomatoes into the run, and they’ll be instantly devoured, while green pepper scraps are ignored. Why hens will eat green grass yet avoid nearby green motherwort or buckwheat plants is a mystery perhaps known only to chickens.

One thing is certain. When given a diversity of foods chickens, and other bird species, have an amazing ability to choose those that are nutritious. One of the benefits of keeping a flock is observing them. It doesn’t take long to learn that they are amazingly perceptive.

A Diversity of Eggs

Delightful gifts that a hen gives the family caring for them are delicious eggs with shells of varied sizes, hues, and shapes. Some are speckled. Most are solid color. These gorgeous gems soon transition into tasty and nutritious food.

Many flock owners keep several chicken breeds that lay a diversity of shell colors ranging from light to dark brown, blue/green, white, and virtually every shade in between.

Some shells are smooth and glossy, while others are more textured. When arranged in an egg carton they are a delight to the eye and a striking contrast to the sameness of supermarket eggs.

Many wonder why eggs are so diverse. The answer is simple. Chickens are genetically complex.  They have between 20,000 and 23,000 genes in about one billion DNA base pairs. This compares with the 20,000-25,000 human genes in 2.8 billion DNA base pairs.

Enormous genetic complexity results in much individual variation.  Just as people come in many shapes, sizes, and colors because of genetic diversity, so do chickens.  This explains why chickens range in size from the tiny Serama bantam breed to immense Jersey Giants.

Chicken feathers come in dozens of color shades and marking patterns.

Chicken breeds were developed over centuries by human selection for certain traits, like egg production, shell color, fast growth, pleasant demeanor, and attractive feathers.

As a rule breeds developed around the Mediterranean Sea, such as Leghorns and Anconas, are relatively small in body size, are nervous and active, and lay many white shelled eggs. Some more northern European breeds, like Hamburgs, also lay white eggs.

In contrast, most breeds developed in England, the United States, and Australia are large bodied and lay brown shelled eggs. Marans, a French breed, lays exceptionally dark shelled brown eggs.

Araucanas from South America are oddballs that lay eggs with shells ranging from greenish to blueish.  No matter how diverse chickens are, they are all of the same species.

When breeds are crossbred, egg shell color is usually (but not always) a blend of what the parent breed lays.

Genetics get complicated but modern poultry breeds generally understand the key to traits and have created hybrid broilers that grow astonishingly fast and also hyper laying strains.

Eggs of all birds are amazing far beyond their color. Shape varies with species and within a species. Generally, wild birds that make sparse nests on rocky cliffs lay pointy, oblong eggs that roll in a circle, keeping them in the nest. Birds that nest in tree cavities, where it’s impossible for eggs to roll out, tend to lay more round eggs.

Chickens fall somewhere in between.  In the wild they nest on the ground, so eggs are mildly asymmetric, although some are nearly round.  Usually during laying, the blunt end emerges from the hen’s body first, followed by the tapered skinny end.

Individual hens usually lay similar eggs that may vary in shape from another hen of the same breed. For example, a Barred Rock hen in a small flock may lay eggs that are unusually round while another Barred Rock may lay much more oblong ones.  Each will continue laying eggs of that shape throughout her life.

One hen may also lay darker brown eggs than a sister of the same breed, and this characteristic will persist through her life. Generally, brown eggs get somewhat lighter in shell color as a hen ages.

According to Pat Leonard, who wrote an extensive article on egg color for the Summer 2017 issue of Living Bird magazine, egg pigments are complex molecules synthesized in the shell glad.  A pigment called protoporphyrin produces reddish-brown colors while biliverdin produces blue and green shades.

Varied amounts of each explains the intensity of shell color and when pigments are absent the shell is white.

The article lists several other interesting egg facts. For example, eggshells can have from a few hundred to tens of thousands of pores and eggs that hatch into chicks able to walk and feed shortly after hatching, like chickens, have larger yolks than species that hatch naked and helpless, like baby robins.

People who tend small flocks enjoy the delightful diversity of eggs of many shapes, sizes, and hues. A carton full is a delight to the eye.