Like dogs, chickens come in all shapes, sizes, and colors. There are more than 400 breeds of chickens. Some have fancy feathers and big combs, some lay blue eggs, some are tiny, and some are all fluffy. They are all descendants of the jungle fowl and are the result of selective breeding. We breed chickens for their looks, their fighting characteristics, their flesh, and their eggs. Since the beginning of industrial farming in the 1950s, the chicken industry developed specialized hybrids for meat and egg production who really don’t look like the jungle fowl anymore. Like a Chihuahua and a Great Dane are totally different dogs, a White Leghorn and a Cornish Cross are totally different chickens. Broiler is the term used by the industry for the chickens raised for meat. There are 61 billion broilers raised and slaughtered worldwide every year! The main breed is the Cornish Cross. They have been bred to grow big muscles super fast, and reach the slaughter size around 6 weeks old. Their muscle growth is so fast that their heart cannot keep up, their skeleton collapses, and their legs aren’t strong enough to support their weight. Egg laying chickens are the second most numerous chickens with 7.7 billion hens in the world. The main breeds are the White Leghorn and the Red Sex Link. They have been bred to lay 300 eggs a year while requiring minimal feed. To put things in perspective, the jungle fowl only lay a dozen eggs, just enough to ensure the survival of her species. The breeds we have in our backyards are usually fancy egg laying chickens. They are bred to not only lay lots of eggs (about 100 eggs a year) but also to have different egg colors and fancy plumages. They are hardier than commercial egg laying chickens and have a longer lifespan. Ornamental chickens are kept to exhibit at shows and to add some color into a backyard flock. They are purely bred for their looks: wild colorful plumage, large combs, froufrou feathers on their head, feet, and body. They are usually smaller size chickens, called Bantam. Depending on the breed, their feathers may not keep them warm in cold and wet climates and thus require extra care.
We don’t often think about the parents and grandparents of the chickens we see. They live in breeding facilities that provide fertilized eggs to hatcheries. These parents are selectively bred by geneticists who optimize the chickens for a specific purpose (egg, meat, plumage...). These scientists do not directly modify the genes of the chickens. They do that indirectly by killing the birds who don’t fit their criteria and breeding the ones who do. These breeding facilities are very much like factory farms where the chickens are confined in sheds with no outdoor access. One particular challenge of breeding broiler chickens is that they grow so fast that they are crippled before reaching sexual maturity. To keep them more or less fit and able to mate, breeders under-nourish them or resort to artificial insemination. The fertilized eggs are sold to hatcheries who in turn sell the baby chicks to small backyard farmers and large operations. Both the male and female broiler chicks are sold, but only the females of the other breeds have any market value. This means that the hatcheries are killing all male chicks as soon as they hatch. As backyard chicken keepers, we can make a difference by adopting our chickens instead of buying chicks. See our Adopt, Don’t Shop newsletter. Any breed can make an excellent pet. All chickens are awesome!