Ornamental Chickens — Best Breeds for the Hobby Farmer

golden polish hen

Beautiful crested breeds of poultry require special protection from airborne predators. Photo by AlishaV at Flickr.com; CC 2.0 License.

I’m going to assume that anyone willing to spend a few hundred or even a thousand dollars on a chicken coop kit built to resemble a storybook playhouse isn’t really worried about the economy of the poultry flock. If that’s your approach to rearing chickens, you probably want something pretty as well as beneficial to the household. You likely will treat your chickens as pets rather than livestock, and you’ll enjoy whatever eggs you get without spending time comparing value to feed cost. That’s fine with me, because even though I’ve raised chickens on a very tight budget, building everything myself to cut costs, I fall into that trap, too. I like chickens, as people, in addition to being food and egg producers. I’m very unhappy on slaughter day, but if you have chickens that’s a part of the deal. Many types don’t play well together, and if you bought extra roosters there’s just no way to impose peaceful agreements upon all of them.

My chicken house was not
this pretty, but I built
it 30 years ago and you
could probably raise a
flock in it today.

I feel differently about the butchering and murders when it’s supper time, because that’s the food I grew up with and today it tastes just as good. There’s an amazing difference in quality between a chicken raised on grass, bugs and freedom; and a chicken raised in one square foot of space in a huge poultry barn filled with thousands of other chickens. The free range chicken tastes like the best food imaginable, and the other chicken tastes like the environment it lived in, a mixture of dust, feathers and chicken manure. Bugs and grass don’t taste that good by themselves, but turn them into chicken and they’re delicious. Free range chickens make supper a guilty pleasure and you just wish you’d bought more.

crested rooster crowing

As determined to excel as any rooster, the crested variety is truly handicapped by its feathery blindfold. Photo by AlishaV at Flickr; CC 2.0 License.

Eventually the flocks I owned were nibbled down to a basic laying flock, all hens except for a boss rooster and possibly one or two backup roosters. If “rare” chicks were included in the assortment I bought, I’d probably have one or two representatives of the crested breeds in the mix. Having raised a few I can certainly see how they’d make good pets. The crested breeds have a very friendly temperament and lack the aggressive qualities of the larger farm birds, possibly because the larger farm birds regularly kick them around the chicken run if they threaten to move up the pecking order. Through generations of that treatment you might figure out genetically that being docile is a good thing.

There are many creative solutions
to the problem of housing a flock.
Cruise the ideas and make one.

My laying flocks survived until they died of accident or natural causes, because I had no interest in killing off hens that laid eggs occasionally and caused no trouble. Egg production does decrease as hens get older, but I don’t think I’ve ever known a hen to live long enough that they stopped ovulating entirely. Usually something other than old age gets them. In the countryside, there are too many predatory neighbors that will intervene in the chicken retirement program. Skunks, weasels, foxes, hawks, raccoons, coyotes and chicken-killing dogs all take their fair share. Eventually you don’t have any chickens left and can’t really remember what happened to each individual. As a flock owner, all you have to do is make one little mistake, and chickens die. Be late to close the chicken house at night, and chickens die. Be somewhere else when the hawks migrate in Spring or Fall, and chickens die. If that chicken-killing dog visits while you’re at work, all the chickens die. Stuff just happens to chickens.

white crested black polish chickens

The white-crested Black Polish breed, from Murray MacMurray Hatchery.

For a country farm flock, I do not recommend crested fowl as the main population. Mix a few in with sturdy tough breeds like the Rhode Island Reds and they’ll be ok and become the darlings of the homestead. They need other chickens who can see clearly to warn them of trouble, because their view is literally obscured by that pretty, drooping crest of feathers. They can’t see anything in the sky above them, and that’s the main source of danger.

Chicken hawks, usually the red-tailed hawk, are also very fascinating birds and very intelligent. One Spring a migrating hawk took up temporary residence on my little Ozark farm, and did his best to harvest at least one of the chickens there. I tried all sorts of things to deter him, including a straw scarecrow that didn’t impress him at all until I sat it down in a lawn chair with a fake shotgun in its lap. That worked for a week or two, and then the hawk decided the scarecrow was a very poor shot. One day I was going about my chores and noticed an odd shadow on the ground just beside the chicken yard, shifting and fluttering slightly, and looked up just in time to see that hawk gliding slowly in for the kill. A yell and an airborne rock fended it off, but it landed in a treetop not far away and waited for me to leave. I gathered more rocks, tried more yelling, and threw some rocks that barely missed the mark but did not dislodge the hawk. That made me mad, so I went back to the trailer for my shotgun. As soon as the barrel of the gun cleared the doorway, the hawk vanished. Hawks and many other competitive living things are really smart in basic ways.

mottled houdans

The Mottled Houdans, a poultry breed from France, sold by Murray MacMurray Hatchery.

I suppose it was a battle of pride on the hawk’s side, because it stayed until it made a kill. The resident rooster at that time happened to be a Mottled Houdan who took over when my last Rhode Island Red died in combat of some sort. That’s happened so often I can’t recall the details of his parting. Roosters die a lot and you just lose track of all the tragedies. I found the Mottled Houdan’s body in the yard nearly undisturbed. Roosters lower their heads and stretch their necks out when they’re getting into fighting position, and obviously he’d done that. In that position, he couldn’t see a damn thing, and the hawk standing on the ground in front of him apparently leaned forward and ripped out the important parts of the back of his neck before flying away. I never saw that hawk again.

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