First off, you need to answer a few questions before you dive into all things poultry. It's time for your homework assignment. Get out that notebook and show your work so you'll remember why you've come to the decisions you come to. Believe it or not, it's easy to wonder "Now, why did I want that buff orpington instead of that rhode island red again?" Seriously, write down your answers to these questions.
- Know your local statutes concerning the keeping of poultry. Some areas have no regulations as to the keeping of poultry. Some allow for hens, but not roosters. Some allow for only a certain number of birds on your property. And still some areas prohibit keeping poultry altogether. Sadly, I've heard stories of people spending loads of money and time getting ready for their new additions to the family only to have Mr. Government Busybody come in and say "You've got 24 hours to get rid of this entire setup." Until you are sure of the statues in your area, don't put too much heart and soul into a project like this. That being said, things are rapidly changing. Many people have also lobbied successfully to get their local statues prohibiting poultry changed.
- Determine what you need/want in your chickens. Are you having financial difficulty and looking for a way to spend less at the grocery store? Do you want your birds to be on the cover of Bird Fancy and winner of best in show? Are you looking for both eggs and chicken soup, or do you just want a couple of pets that might occasionally give you a treat for your table? How soon do you want eggs and/or meat from your birds?
- What's your starting budget, and how much time do you have to work on this project?
Ok, so I'm back. Where were we? Ah yes, choosing the perfect chicken breed for you. More questions to answer.
- How dependent will you be on your flock's egg production? Are you willing to go egg free all winter if the breed you choose is one who goes dormant during the shorter days? Or would you rather go for a bird that may not lay as prolifically, but lays regularly all year long? If you will be eating your chickens as well, how important is it that your chicken's skin look similar to what you are used to from the grocery store? Sounds silly, but imagine butchering that first chicken and then realizing it has black skin and your kids refuse to touch it.
- What is your area climate like? Do you need to be sure your chickens have the ability to withstand extreme heat and/or cold? Will the breed you are interested in be in danger of frostbite due to its large fleshy comb? Or will it have a heat stroke during those hot humid summers due to that heavy body and feathering?
- What sort of personality are you looking for in your birds? Does it matter at all? Is the breed often used as a show bird and pet, gentle with kids (as is the case with the dark brahma), or is it likely to peck a toddler's eyes out (as is the case with the leghorn)?
- Do you want all birds of the same breed, or a hodgepodge of birds? If so, does each breed play well with others, or does it tend to let itself be bullied by others or be a bully?
There's a great source out there for breeds and what they offer at Henderson's Chicken Breed Chart. This is by no means exhaustive, but it's a good place to start. It also helps you to see the different traits of different breeds. If you are interested in the heritage breeds we've discussed before, I suggest using the chart along with the resources of the American Livestock Conservancy. Keep in mind that if you go this route though, you almost certainly will have to start your flock from day old chicks or hatching eggs, and spend a little more. These birds are rare antiquities, so they are quite prized by their owners.
Is the goal to have those eggs as soon as possible? Then you might look around with area farmers to see who sells adult birds. This can be a risk, however, if you do not know how to inspect a bird to be sure if it is healthy and not senescent (old and almost at the end of its laying days). Be sure the farmer you deal with is a trustworthy one.
Though you'll have to wait for that first egg or baked chicken if you decide to raise baby chicks yourself, there's nothing more fun than hearing those little peepers. Husbandry is really not as hard as one might think and there are plenty of guides out there. I'll let you do that research on your own. You might wonder how one actually gets a baby chick to begin with. There are a few ways of going about this. You can buy them from your local feed store if you are in a rural area. You can find a local farmer willing to sell his/her chicks as they hatch. Or you can order day-old chicks from a commercial hatchery or breeder. You can select just girls if you want to avoid roosters, but you will pay extra and it's not a 100% guarantee they will be 100% correct. This means you might end up looking for a home for your roo (which can be next to impossible) or planning a chicken pot pie that's really made from scratch.
I have only gotten my chicks from a local feed store and a mail order hatchery where the chicks came shipped through the mail and arrived at my post office. Frankly, I prefer that method. The reason is I greatly enjoy the imprinting process and this is interrupted if the chicks are handled by many inquisitive shoppers in a feed store. Further, the feed store manager told me I had purchased Dominique chickens, a heritage breed. But once they matured it was obvious a mistake had been made and I now have quite a few solid black hens of unknown breeding in the flock.
The reason hatcheries send their chicks out at one day old is that newly hatched chicks do not feed or drink for the first few days after hatching. Rather, they survive on the remnants of the yolk sacks of the eggs they called their first homes. It's very important not to miss this window, as after that first 72 hours they will surely die of starvation and dehydration. This is why it is critical that someone be home and waiting by the phone for the call from the post office telling you that your chicks have arrived. Additionally, baby chicks are extremely cold sensitive. In fact, they need to be in temperatures in excess of 95 degrees for their first week of life. It is for this reason that hatcheries will only ship larger numbers of chicks. So this is your first complication to getting chicks. Unless you can share a shipment with other interested parties, you will have to order a minimum of 20-24 chicks in order for a hatchery to agree to ship the birds.
So that's it in an eggshell. I hope this has been of some help in making more informed decisions on your backyard birds.