Many poultry enthusiasts are in search of the best free-range chicken breeds. These chickens, after all, require minimal attention as they can both forage and protect themselves from predators. With all the best free-range chicken breeds to choose from, picking the right one for you can be a challenge. This guide can help you with that.
1. Silver Spangled Hamburg
A good choice among the best free-range chicken breeds is the Silver Spangled Hamburg. Known for its alertness, this compact breed is beautiful and, at the same time, resourceful. he Silver Spangled Hamburg is naturally good at foraging.
The background story of the Silver Spangled Hamburg goes as far back as the 14th century, all the way to Europe, specifically the Netherlands and England. The Netherlands has its version of the Silver Spangled Hamburg, as locals call it, the Holland fowl, while the United Kingdom also has a variety. Nonetheless, both the Dutch and British Hamburg share the same qualities.
In terms of appearance, the Silver Spangled Hamburg is a beauty. The breed features a slender body with lustrous greenish-black spangles and plumage that is silvery white. This gives off a polka dot appearance which makes it look unique and exquisite — perfect for being a show bird. It also has white earlobes, bright red wattles, rose combs, and leaden blue shanks and toes.
As they are relatively smaller in size in comparison to other breeds, Silver Spangled Hamburg roosters weigh five pounds an average, while hens weigh four pounds.
Chicken farmers call them economical as they require less food consumption than most breeds. As for their temperament, these chickens are free-spirited and have a sunny disposition, especially when they have the chance to roam free in big areas. Though they like to keep a distance from humans, they get along well with their flock.
Interestingly, this breed experiences early maturation. Hens tend to lay eggs earlier compared to other breeds. Fondly called the Dutch Everyday Layer, the breed can lay a good number of medium-sized white eggs regularly, making it a beautiful and practical choice.
2. White Leghorn
If you are looking for a free-range chicken breed that can give you a good supply of eggs, the White Leghorn is for you. This breed is quite popular among both commercial and backyard chicken farmers thanks to its remarkable egg production capabilities.
The Leghorn breed originated in the Tuscany region of Italy and was brought to the United States in the mid-1800s. An interesting fact is that people then referred to these chickens as Italians. It was in 1865 in Massachusetts when locals started calling the breed Leghorns.
Poultry associations around the world recognize the different color varieties of Leghorns, among which are buff, buff Columbian, Columbian, barred, black, black-tailed red, dark brown, light brown, red, silver, and the most popular being white, to name a few.
This free-range chicken breed is efficient in terms of feeding and, thus, is usually skinny, with hens having an average weight of 4.5 lbs and roosters of six pounds.
White Leghorns are naturally good foragers and are innately flighty, too. That means that they usually are on high alert and are able to ward off predators. Caring for and handling them might always tame them, but their strong personalities might still prevail.
This unfriendly temperament does not make them good pets, but what they lack in that aspect, they make up for in their egg production. Some poultry owners see them as egg factories as they lay large white eggs five to seven days a week, totaling an average of 280 eggs in a year.
Hardy is the best word to describe the Ancona, which makes it among the best free-range chicken breeds. This breed is a good choice when raising chickens in your barn or backyard.
It was in the mid-19th century when poultry enthusiasts developed the Ancona chicken breed in Italy, having the same roots as the Leghorn. In fact, the two breeds are so closely related that the Ancona is sometimes referred to as the Mottled Leghorn or Black Leghorn.
The appearance of Ancona chickens very much resembles that of Leghorns, thus, earning them their Leghorn nicknames. Their plumage is black with feathers that have white tips that become whiter after every molting. In addition, they have white earlobes, yellow legs, and combs that may either be single or rose comb.
Anconas are comparatively small, with their average mature weight of six pounds for roosters and 4.5 lbs for hens. Cockerels typically weigh 5 lbs, while pullets weigh four pounds.
As mentioned, Ancona chickens are hardy and can withstand even cold weather. They thrive in open areas or free-range setups because they are active and excellent at foraging.
On top of that, they are quick on their feet and have superb instincts in detecting and fighting off intruders. Chicken enthusiasts say this is because of their mixed ancestry.
Besides their hardiness, Anconas are also popular because of their egg production. Ancona hens can lay 4 to 6 medium to large white eggs per week, especially during laying season.
4. Egyptian Fayoumi
With its exotic look, flighty temperament, and notable foraging skills, the Egyptian Fayoumi is a good addition to your backyard flock.
This breed hails from Egypt, specifically raised along the Nile River when pharaohs still ruled the land. They entered North America in 1940, though they are still not recognized by the American Poultry Association.
In America, Egyptian Fayoumis are not as common as the other free-range chicken breeds on the list. However, more and more poultry farmers are now considering the breed.
Egyptian Fayoumi chickens have a unique-looking appearance with large onyx-dark eyes on a silvery head and a large single comb. Their slim bodies have black speckles, with hens having silver-white hues on their necks and heads and a barred body.
Roosters, on the other hand, carry a plumage with silver-white on the head, neck, saddle, and back, and the remaining parts barred in black and white.
Aside from their feathers, their body structure is distinct as well. They have a forward jutting breast and neck, and their tails are upright, just like that of a roadrunner.
With ancestry tracing back to jungle fowls, chickens of this breed are small and gangly looking. Hens are usually around 3.5 lbs, while roosters barely go heavier than 5 lbs.
Also, because of their background, Egyptian Fayoumis do not have a friendly temperament and are not recommended as pets. On the other side of the coin, this trait makes it hard for enemy birds, such as hawks, to target them.
They are also independent and can fend for themselves just by foraging. Veterinarians also acknowledge these chickens’ resistance to common poultry diseases.
Though scrawny-looking, they mature early and start egg-laying at around 4 months old. Hens can produce around 150 small white eggs in a year.
5. Golden Buff
Another name to add to your list of best free-range chicken breeds is the Golden Buff. This breed’s popularity stems from its friendly temperament, foraging skills, and egg-laying capabilities.
The Golden Buff is not a breed recognized by poultry associations as it is more of a hybrid chicken. It is a mix of various breeds, such as the Leghorn and the Rhode Island Red.
Quite contrary to its name, the Golden Buff does not have golden feathers. As a sex-linked breed, male and female Golden Buffs have different physical traits. Hens have a reddish-brown color, while roosters come in white with tones of light reddish-brown near the neck, wings, and tail feathers.
The advantage of raising sex-linked breeds is that you can tell the sex of the chicken as early as chickhood.
On average, mature male Golden Buffs weigh six pounds, and mature females weigh four pounds.
You will have no trouble raising Golden Buffs in generally cold climates as they can adapt and still be able.to forage. They thrive well in free-range conditions but can adjust to confinement as well because they are not aggressive. Calm as they are, you can even consider these chickens as pets.
Golden Buffs are also egg layers as they produce 5 large brown eggs in a week with an annual estimate of 250 eggs. Due to early maturation, you can expect eggs from your pullets as early as 5 months of age.
A breed that is functional and easy on the budget is the Buckeye. Both an egg and meat producer, the Buckeye breed is no doubt one of the best free-range chicken breeds to raise.
The Buckeye originates from Warren, Ohio, where chicken enthusiast Nettie Metcalf developed the breed in the 19th century, with the aim of creating a breed that could survive the harsh Midwest winters. To do this, she put together a Buff Cochin rooster with Barred Plymouth Rock hens. The offspring of which was later mixed with a Black-Breasted Red Game rooster.
Unlike other breeds, Buckeyes only have one color variation. They have deep mahogany red feathers, a black-tipped tail, yellow legs and skin, and a pea comb.
Because there are no color variations, there is a decline in terms of numbers. In fact, the American Livestock Conservancy considers it a threatened breed. At present, America only has 8 primary breeding flocks for Buckeyes, and its total population around the world is roughly 5,000.
Body-wise, the Buckeye breed has a slanted back, broad shoulders, and thick thighs. Its wings and breast are muscular. If you look at the chicken from the side, you can see that it is triangular in shape.
Buckeyes are good in size, with roosters weighing approximately nine pounds and hens weighing about 6.5 lbs.
These chickens are evenly tempered and compliant with instructions. Buckeye hens also tend to go broody but only occasionally. Also, watch out for roosters’ tendency to get aggressive because of their game bird mix.
Buckeyes enjoy foraging and may sometimes prefer it over getting chicken feed. Because they are also active, they do well when left to free range.
As a dual-purpose breed, expect meat and eggs from Buckeyes, with hens laying 200 medium-sized eggs in a year.
7. Plymouth Rock
When it comes to American heritage breeds, the Plymouth Rock is always top of the list as it carries all the traits poultry farmers look for. It is also a good choice for a free-range chicken breed.
People first documented the Plymouth Rock breed in 1849 in Massachusetts. However, the population of the breed declined, and it disappeared for around 20 years. Poultry farmers reported its presence again in 1869 after locally bred Java hens with barred plumage roosters. Many believe this origin story of the Plymouth Rock chicken.
It grew in popularity in the midst of World War II because it was a good egg layer and a reliable source of chicken meat. Eventually, it was overtaken by the Rhode Island Red as the most common breed in America.
It is fairly easy to spot a Plymouth Rock because of its black-and-white barring. Male Plymouth Rocks typically have more equal barring patterns compared to females whose black barring is more prominent than white, making them appear gray.
With a triangular-shaped body, the Plymouth Rock has full breasts and a wide back. Skin and legs are yellow, while earlobes, com, and wattles are bright red. You can find seven recognized varieties of the Plymouth Rock breed, namely barred, white, blue, buff, silver penciled, partridge, and Colombian.
Farmers of this breed say that their variety affects their temperament. Barred Plymouth Rocks are calmer and friendlier to their flock compared to the other varieties. However, Plymouth Rock chickens are generally docile and have no problem with human interaction.
They enjoy open spaces where they can roam freely and explore their area. However, they can also adjust to confined coops and spaces.
As mentioned earlier, Plymouth Rock hens are good egg layers, with 260 and 300 brown eggs in a year. However, poultry raisers note that their egg production declines over time. Hens can lay abundant eggs in their first few years, but laying slows down after the three-year mark.
The Ameraucana chicken breed is an “Americanized” version of the Araucana breed. The Araucana was used as the base when breeders mixed it with other chicken varieties, mostly to get rid of the undesirable Araucana genes.
As a result, they got a blue-egg-laying chicken breed that is independent and resourceful. This happy breeding accident led to the creation of the free-range gem that is the Ameraucana chicken breed.
First of all, the Ameraucana chicken breed is a pretty sight to behold. She takes after the Easter Egger and the Araucana chicken breeds because, genetically, they are mighty similar. The resemblance starts with the comb; both the Ameraucana and the Easter Egger have the pea type of comb. The wattles match the combs, and they are both brilliant red.
In terms of size, the Ameraucana is an impressive specimen. The average weight of their queens is 5.5 lbs. As for the kings, they weigh 6.5 lbs on average.
As for color, only the rainbow could rival this flamboyant chicken. With this breed, you get the following color options:
- Brown red
- Blue Wheaten
Side note, all these colors are accepted by the prestigious American Poultry Association. And nothing is stopping the breeders from making new color combinations. So expect new colors in the future.
The Ameraucana is an excellent free-range chicken; that much is clear, but what do you get in terms of bang for your buck? First on the menu is breakfast; the Ameraucana lays 3-4 eggs per week, with an annual yield in the neighborhood of 200 medium-sized eggs.
The Ameraucana is not bad either, in terms of meat production, but they grow rather slowly, a turnoff for many poultry farmers.
Choosing From the Best Free-Range Chicken Breeds
With a lot of options to choose from when it comes to the best free-range chicken breeds, it can get daunting to pick the right one for your farm. Each breed has pros and cons that make it unique from the others. Overall, though, these breeds are ideal for no-fuss free-range setups.
Joseph Hudson has been raising chickens for over 15 years. In 2018, he completed the Agriculture & Natural Resources program at Mt. San Antonio College. He currently raises over 1400 chickens on his 7.5-hectare farm. He keeps sharing his experience on raising healthy and happy chickens on Chicken Scratch.