Having decided to keep poultry we hope, and strongly recommend, that you will choose a pure breed - that is one which has been bred by a reputable breeder who puts together a pen of pure bred birds to produce offspring which conform to the British Poultry Standards. As with all types of livestock, the breed has to be recognisable from just a cursory inspection. Do not go out and take the first breed which is offered to you but try to find a Poultry Show which has many breeds and then see if the Show Committee can find someone to talk about the breeds you favour. If any members of the relevant Breed Clubs are at the Show they will help with background information. If you cannot find a show or anyone to help, contact the Poultry Club for assistance.
Chickens, ducks, geese and turkeys have specific names for the different parts of their bodies: it will help you discuss with others if you learn the correct names for these. Click on chicken (hen or cockerel), duck, goose, turkey, for pictures of the parts of the birds.
Whilst it is difficult to generalise as so much depends on the condition, health, and welfare of the birds, when choosing a breed remember that those designated Light Breeds are often more nervous and probably more flighty than Heavy Breeds, but they will generally consume less food for the eggs they produce. Eggs are generally the primary concern of beginners to poultry keeping with beauty coming second, and table qualities may not be entering the equation at all to begin with. Generally, Heavy Breeds are quieter, eat more, and lay less but will in most cases go ‘broody’ (i.e. try to incubate their own eggs). Famous Heavy Breeds include Light Sussex, Rhode Island Red, and Plymouth Rock, while the Leghorn is the most famous Light Breed.
Dark Brown eggs are the favourite of many, and the two breeds which lay these are the Marans (two-tone grey banding across the feathers) and the Welsummer (typical orange and black farmyard storybook cockerel colour). The egg of the Welsummer is slightly redder, more of a flower-pot colour than that of the Marans which is dark brown. A light brown egg is laid by the Barnevelder, the plumage being mahogany with double black lacing on each feather.
Of the British breeds, one of the most popular is the Buff Orpington, as were owned by Her Majesty the Queen Mother. There are several other colours, but none are noted for their egg production. The Sussex is a good egg layer, the most popular colour being Light (white with black points) Rhode Island Red, Australorp, Plymouth Rock, and Wyandotte, are also good layers of tinted eggs. The Croad Langshan lays a plum-coloured egg. The heavier breeds include the Dorking (with five toes) and the Indian Game which is very broad and heavy indeed. The remaining type of heavy breeds are those with feathered legs such as the Cochin, Brahma, and Faverolles.
There is great variation colours and types with many being imports. Virtually all of these lay white or light coloured eggs. The White Leghorn still out-produces most breeds, but there are several other colours. Other Mediterranean breeds are the Ancona (white spots on black), Minorca and Andalusian (blue laced). British breeds include the Derbyshire Redcap, Old English Pheasant Fowl, Hamburg (pencilled or spangled), Scots Dumpy (short legs) and Scots Grey, all of which should have good utility attributes. Within the Light Breeds are the Crested Breeds including the Poland, the Araucana (blue/green eggs) and that most fluffy of birds, the Silkie. The Frizzle looks strange with its backward-curling feathers but is a decent layer. Old English Game and the reachy Modern Game are particularly hardy and colourful.
There are miniatures of certain Large Fowl which should be one quarter the size of the large, usually referred to as Bantams. True Bantams do not have a Large Fowl counterpart and are primarily for ornamental and aesthetic purposes, but are excellent for young children and those without much space available for poultry.
Hybrids are particular commercial crossbreeds and were originally developed and selected starting from the 1950s for the battery cage egg industry, to vastly increase production over the pure breeds. They are based on just a few of the more productive pure breeds and tend to be brown in colour, uniform in shape and size, being productive for almost two years. Examples are available as Warrens, Isabrown, Hy-line. These are the cheapest as they are reared in large numbers. Beware very cheap ones as these will be at the end of their laying life and rescuing them, although admirable, will lead to heartache as they sicken and die within a few months. Best production 250-300 eggs per year for almost 2 years.
The original outdoor hybrid, especially developed for free-range systems with hardiness, good feathering and living about 4 years, is the Black Rock. There are now several others available such as the Bovans Nera, Calder Ranger, Speckledy, Columbian Blacktail, White Star, Blue Bell, which are more productive than pure breeds, hardier than the commercial hybrids and provide different colours of birds or eggs. A little more expensive than the brown hybrids. Best production 250-275 eggs per year for 3-4 years.
Pure breeds are the traditional breeds of poultry, developed in various countries for various purposes, mostly since Victorian times. They are also used for exhibition and have Standards for shape and colour. On the whole they only lay eggs during the longer days. They can produce meat and some of the rarer breeds are particularly beautiful. They live and lay eggs for 4-7 years. The light breeds will lay the most but can be a bit flighty and nervous. The heavy breeds lay less and eat more but will produce meat as well. Pure breeds are the most expensive. Expect 100-250 eggs per year, depending on breed and age. Bantams lay small eggs but eat less and children like them. See Chart below.
The turkey was first domesticated in Mexico by the Aztec Indians as early as 1000 AD and the first arrival in Europe of these birds was in 1524. The origin of the name is shrouded in different theories, but the Aztec name for them is toto, some place names in Mexico still containing this. The first turkeys to be exhibited in the UK was in 1845, with a Standard appearing in the first Book of Standards in 1865.
All domestic turkeys are the same species, differing somewhat in size, but they come in a wide variety of colours. They originate from America and of the five races there, the two which are the ancestors of the ones we have today are Meleagris gallopavo gallopavo (from Mexico, bronze with white tail border) and Meleagris gallopavo silvestris (from eastern seaboard of North America, bronze with brown tail border). The Mexican turkey was developed into the commercial meat type plus the paler colours and the Eastern turkey gave us the red and buff colour series.
Commercial turkeys have been selected for rate of growth and muscle mass, which gives them a waddling walk (the bronze record being 96lb (43.5kg)). These birds have been termed dimple or broad breasted and would be the sort of turkey seen in supermarkets. The coloured varieties, however, maintain the wild shape and activity and are known as high breasted. The meat tends to be superior in flavour in the high breasted birds as they are generally grown outside on grass.
Domestic ducks are all descended from the wild mallard (Anas p. platyrhynchos) except the Muscovy (Cairina moschata). The lighter breed ducks certainly lay more eggs during the year, but the heavy breed ones will lay in the spring and summer and the variation in colour, shape and size makes for a more interesting flock. The Muscovies and the bantam ducks are able to fly, so provision must be made either to net them over or to clip the flight feathers.
Do not keep ducks in the same area as chickens as they tend to be rather messy and DEFRA advises not to keep waterfowl and chickens together in order to lessen the risk of transfer of viruses and other diseases.
Check with your local authority that there are no regulations to prevent you keeping ducks and remember to inform your neighbours, re-assuring them that there will not be a sea of mud or smell. Female ducks can make a certain amount of noise, but not nearly as bad or as early as a cockerel. Remember, you do not need a drake for egg production and ducks are polygamous, mating with any female with the exception of the Call ducks who need to be allowed to choose their own mate.
There are two wild ancestors of geese, the greylag (Anser anser) and the swan goose (Anser cygnoides) and while most domestic geese are descended from the greylag, the African and Chinese come from the swan goose.
Geese are kept as pets, guards, for eggs, meat and as lawn mowers. All of the breeds will not suit all of these purposes, however, as some of the heavier breeds lay very few eggs indeed. The pure breeds are usually available as young stock in late summer but some may need to be booked in advance. It is still possible to obtain ordinary farmyard geese which are any colour and pattern but tend to be mainly white and these may be available as dayolds or growers (best sexed). Dayold commercial white meat geese are available in late spring.