Best Laying Hens for the Back Yard Flock — Take Your Pick

rhode island red chicken

Keeping an eye on the sky, the job of the Rhode Island Red rooster. Photo by Alisha V at

Although hens lay eggs on the average of once every two or three days during the summer, when long days trigger their reproduction systems, individual production varies. Some unusually fertile laying hens might average an egg a day for long periods. If you own a flock of twelve hens, usually what you get when you buy the standard lot of 24 straight-run chicks (the rest of the chicks turn out to be roosters inevitably destined for the pot), you can count on several months of intensive egg production every year during the flock’s lifetime. Twelve hens can produce three to four dozen eggs a week, more than the average family can eat. It’s possible to store eggs for use during the winter, using old time techniques like the water glass method or even as frozen food if broken from the shell first. You’ll probably have eggs to eat, eggs to sell and eggs to give away if you base your flock on any heavy breed or medium breed. The lightweights might not produce eggs in such large quantity, but unless you’re prepared to deal with an excess in season, that can be a good thing.

rhode island reds

Rhode Island Reds, an All-American strain and all-around good bet for the small flock. Illustration from Murray MacMurray Hatchery.

In the winter when nights lengthen and their reproductive cycle slows, hens still lay a few eggs. Numbers depend on the cold-tolerance of the breed as well as the day length. Small hens with less plumage suffer more winter stress and might not lay eggs again until Spring, but usually just having a laying flock keeps you well supplied with eggs the year round, unless the hens learn that inside those adorable shells lies a tasty nutritious treat. Then you have trouble.

Heavy breeds fall into this cannibalistic pattern easily, through accident rather than intent. Hens aren’t the most careful birds in the world, and heavy hens sometimes step upon and crush their own eggs. In the course of preening their egg-soaked feathers, they discover the wonders of liquid eggs, and soon learn to open them intentionally. Leftovers spread the habit quickly to the rest of the flock.

I’ve had the best luck with a classic American breed, considered one of the heavy types but in comparison to some, a medium-sized bird.

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Rhode Island Reds — Best Laying Hens and Good All-Around Choice

If you know chickens from the movies, you know the Rhode Island Red, an American breed developed in Rhode Island around 1900, according to Murray MacMurray Hatchery. In many ways, the Rhode Island Red is an American classic, and not just a relic breed but a hard-working production bird for both meat and eggs. The hens have a friendly character, and the roosters are extremely professional. You don’t need to worry about the hens much, since they just pleasantly go about their business and lay eggs. The roosters require more attention.

One of the best reasons to own a flock of chickens isn’t eggs and meat — a flock can be a fascinating entertainment if you find animals and birds interesting. Chickens exhibit surprisingly complex behaviour and a wide range of individual personalities within the breed. Some hens might range far afield during their daily outings, while others stick close to the coop and depend on handouts. Rhode Island Reds in general seem to have good survival skills, alert and fairly fast on their feet. The roosters show considerable courage in defense of the hens but often can’t back that up efficiently. Their best role is watchbird.

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Chicken language includes one word in common with human speech, surprisingly, and quite possibly the word derived from the warning sound a rooster makes when it spots something suspicious in the sky. That thing could be anything with a gliding wing, including red-tailed hawks, eagles and distant airliners. They all become announced with a quiet, cautious, “Hawwwwk!” cry that sends all the hens running for safe cover. The rooster stays out in the open.

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I provided plenty of cover for my flock, inside the fenced chicken run as well as outside. Usually outside there’s natural cover, unless you live without woods and underbrush and fencerows. Any sturdy debris including tree limbs and tall weeds can create a safe haven for chickens. Select a few forked sticks and push them into the ground, leaving about a foot of forked stick upright, and then lay some straighter, longer limbs across the forks. Layer on smaller branches and coarse weeds to make a low screen of debris, giving the chickens a safe place to hide from both airborne predators and the hot sun.

On occasion a rooster can actually defeat a hawk in ground combat, but it’s a dangerous game for them to play. I lost several roosters that way over the years, but one cocky Rhode Island Red actually attacked a red-tailed hawk that had a footful of hen in its grip and pounded the raptor into disgraced retreat. I’ve never seen a rooster look so surprised as that one did when the hawk flew away. He didn’t know he had it in him, I suppose. Rhode Island Reds are surprising in all sorts of ways.

“Regardless of breeding and appearance, a heavy layer is a good hen to own. And laying ability is not confined to any one breed or class of fowls. There are exceptional layers, dependable profit-payers, in practically every fair-sized flock ….”

Pratt Food Co. (2011-03-24). Pratt’s Practical Pointers on the Care of Livestock and Poultry (Kindle Locations 996-998). . Kindle Edition.

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About JTHats

Avid backpacker and outdoorsman with old skills and interests in old ways of doing things; equally fascinated by electronics, from the days of Sputnik, to the Zilog Z80A, to the present day of black box circuitry. Sixty years of experience with growing my own food and living simply. Certified electronics technician, professional woodturner, woodcarver, and graduate of two military survival courses -- Arctic and Jungle.

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