Having had direct experience with several types of chicken breeds, dating back to the mid-1950’s, I enjoy reading the news stories about people choosing flocks for their back yards in order to save money on eggs and meat. Some of the Extension Service literature, filled with technical advice for the owner of a small flock, can be equally amusing. Direct experience gives a person a different view of most of this, including the cost-effectiveness of a small home flock. There’s much that’s good about owning one, including a very noticeable difference in the quality of the food the flock provides, whether that’s eggs or meat. You can also expect many surprises and difficulties, and after having done it one time you might not choose to repeat the project again. Buying eggs in the store could again seem like a really practical bargain, after owning a flock of chickens for a few years. The most critical factor in all of this is something most sources of information treat frivolously: the kind of chicken you get.
The first complex decision you make about a home flock involves the breed. You can still choose from dozens of breeds of chickens, any of which will arrive in a convenient package shipped either by U.S. Mail or U.P.S. These days it’s probably coming on the UPS truck. Newly hatched chicks don’t need food or water for a couple of days after hatching, since they’re still carrying part of the yolk sac inside themselves, so a ride across country in a nice warm vented box full of soft bedding is just fine with them. The choice of sex and breed is all yours. Producers offer extremely accurate assortments, including bargain packages consisting of whatever extra chicks the company had that day, and will send you any type of chicken you think you want. Most producers even include a free “rare” chick with each purchase. The wise thing is to ask them not to send the rare chick. Oddball chickens make trouble for everybody. You’ll probably receive it, even if you decline it.
Over the years I’ve worked with over ten different breeds of chickens, and the one thing you can guarantee about all of them is that you’ll get meat and eggs from the flock. You’ll probably get far more eggs than you can possibly use, during the heavy laying season when hens produce an egg every other day. If you focus on eggs rather than meat, you’ll still have to deal with the sticky problem of culling and butchering the flock. Many problems with the chicken flock can only be solved by execution. Chickens are not necessarily easy to get along with, and if you keep chickens you’ll soon understand that. Every breed has its advantages and drawbacks, and some breeds fit the back yard much better than others. Some breeds are also much easier to kill, for emotional reasons. If you’re growing poultry for meat, that’s a genuine advantage.
For both culinary reasons and personal ones, you want a chicken that’s tasty, a bird that puts on weight in the right places, and also irritating enough to murder without conscience. Salt should come from the shaker, not from your tears.
Dark Cornish — Best Breed for Meat
These birds hold a solid streak of game chicken ancestry, descending from a mixture of farm birds and chickens raised for fighting. If the hens could reproduce themselves without the roosters, this would be a marvelous home flock, and without the roosters they actually do pretty well anyway. The birds are long-necked and long-legged and fast, with a heavy meaty body. Both hens and roosters sport small combs, a great advantage in cold weather climates where other breeds suffer frostbite. These chickens forage so efficiently you could call them hunters, and the hens are good layers. Their body build yields a lot of breast meat, and they have excellent flavor.
The Dark Cornish chickens are also one of the meanest breeds you can find. The roosters grow quickly into monstrous horrible dumb brutes, some the size of small turkeys, three times the size of the smallest hens. That makes a Dark Cornish flock of straight run chickens, about half of them roosters and half hens (sold as straight run at a bargain price), look like the worst chicken ghetto possible, filled with brutal sexuality, screaming and violence of all kinds. I’ve seen Dark Cornish roosters stomp on a Dark Cornish hen with one foot and molest them for hours at a stretch unless you throw a rock and intervene. You will have to kill the roosters eventually, and even if you’re a nice person you won’t mind. They’re not endearing at all. Even their crow sounds bad. Other roosters sing; Dark Cornish roosters blat.
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The hens seem very intelligent in comparison but still have that fighting streak, and if you have a few Dark Cornish hens in a mixed flock of other hens, the Dark Cornish will always be at the top of the pecking order. They’ll also battle for the top spot frequently. Two of my Dark Cornish hens were having an argument one day and sorting it out fairly well until the rooster of the flock, a Rhode Island Red, tried to intervene. He forced his way in between them and demanded a truce. He was about twice the size of either one and thought he could make it stick. The hens glared at him for a moment, glared at each other briefly, and came to a silent agreement about the situation. They attacked the rooster simultaneously and beat him mercilessly until he ran to a corner of the yard and stood there with his back to the fence, gasping in horror. Then the Dark Cornish hens turned to each other and went back to their own discussion with beak and claw and pounding. Dark Cornish chickens are like that. They’re very dark in moral ways, but extremely tasty. It’s a good balance. You can bite down on one of these chicken’s leg bones off a supper plate and smile about it, with no remorse for the killing. Mmmmm, dark meat . . . .