So, I've been a city kid for my entire conscious life until very recently, but I had some acquaintance with where my food comes from. At one of the summer camps I went to we raised and slaughtered our own chickens. Mind you, I was quite young at the time and don't remember a lot of the process. What I do remember doesn't match up to what I want to do with chickens, and only included one breed of chicken. I did know that there were egg laying chickens, meat chickens, and heritage breeds. I knew not a single thing about them and their merits or even what they were called or how to research them. Fortunately, there are a LOT of books about this as well as significant online resources. I'm collecting information I gathered from http://www.backyardchickens.com/ and from "Barnyard in Your Backyard" edited by Gail Damerow, and "Storey's Illustrated Guide to Poultry Breeds" by Carol Ekarius.
There are a significant number of factors to consider when you are looking at chicken breeds, and I'm going to go through them and our thinking process step by step.
I am going to start by staying away from ornamental breeds. While there are certainly ornamental breeds with benefits, they aren't what we are aiming for. Instead, I'm going to focus on the other breed purposes.
* Meat Breeds: These breeds mature quickly, and have a good bone to meat ratio. These are not optimal for us given that we are planning to raise chickens for eggs rather than meat given that we are going to be raising rabbits for meat.
Examples: Australorp, Cornish, Orpington, Rock-Cornish Cross
A grand prize winning Brahma Hen
* Egg Layers: These breeds produce more and bigger eggs. These were initially the breeds that drew our attention, but we shifted away due to other information in other factors.
Examples: Ancona, Leghorn , Minorca
A Welsummer Rooster
*Dual Purpose: These are less factory farming focused. They tend to be more hearty, and both lay well and have good meat. They also tend to forage better than the other breeds. Many of them are more rare than the other breeds.
Examples: New Hampshire, Plymouth Rock, Rhode Island Red
* Endangered Breeds: These breeds came to our attention as we looked into the various factors we wanted in a bird, and found that many of them are rare now. This is because most of the frontier and homesteading breeds have seen limited breeding due to factory farming since they don't produce either eggs or meat most efficiently.
Examples: Chantecler, Dominique
A Campine hen
Egg Production and Size
Obviously when selecting a bird that will be a laying bird you need to know how well it lays. A good laying bird should apparently lay about 240 eggs a year in cycles. The lengths of cycles are something I am not entirely certain about yet, but bears more research.
Egg size is measured from Peewee to Jumbo based on weight per dozen. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chicken_egg_sizes
There are many factors to meat quality, but so far I've only really found whether the meat quality is "Good" or not. This is something I'll be interested to look more in to. Most measures of meat production are based entirely on time to butchering weight, and how much feed per pound they take.
Temperament covers a wide variety of factors and is something that needs to be paid attention to very closely since there is hidden information even in short comments. The thing to remember about all temperment commentary is that as with all animals, individuals don't always follow rules.
* Docility: Docility obviously covers how calm the bird as a breed tends to be. I'm guessing from my experience with other birds that not only will a docile animal be easier to handle, they will be less likely to injure themselves when startled. It's amazing how much damage a bird can do to itself when looked at by a predator. More calm birds will do less of this.
* Aggression/Neophobia: Whether this breed tends to attack unfamiliar individuals or stimuli. This usually is focused on roosters, but it's not only roosters that can be aggressive. To be fair, not all roosters are aggressive.
This factor is obviously important as it covers what breeds work best in what areas. Given that we live in an area where temperatures of 95 are common in the summer and below 0 are common in the winter, this is a big issue for us. There are a few factors to this that you can evaluate cold tolerence at least, even without a chart.
* Feathers: A tight feather density means that the bird is going to be more able to shield itself from wind and retain heat. The obvious other side of good feather density is it's going to be more of a pain to pluck.
* Comb: The fleshy bits not covered by feathers on the head of the chicken. The more uncovered skin the bird has, the worse it will respond to cold. Larger and more exposed combs can lead to frostbite, and potentially death for the animal in question.
An example of a larger comb
Last but not least for those interested in free ranging is foraging. The ability and inclination of the bird to look around for, and find its own food beyond what you feed it. If you are looking to mitigate your feed costs and have your birds control your bug population, this is a focus for you.
All photographs are Copyright Michelle Vigeant 2011