There are hundreds of chicken breeds.
Chickens are divided by physical traits: plumage, size, weight, color, comb type, skin color, number of toes, feathering distinctions, earlobe color, egg color, and place of origin.
Different chickens lay eggs with different characteristics too.
In the United States, chickens are also divided by use: egg or meat, ornamental, or dual-purpose; standard size or bantam. There are standards set down by The American Poultry Association (APA) in the U.S. as well as organizations in Europe (most notably Britain).
The APA began to define breeds in 1873 and published the definitions in the Standard of Perfection. The breeds it outlined had certain standards to meet: adapted to outdoor production in various climatic regions, hearty, long-lived, and reproductively vital.
Chickens were an important source of protein until the mid-20th century in America. Until, the factory cattle farm could provide enough inexpensive cheap beef flooded the market. (At that point we became a “steak and potatoes” society. )
Before that, nearly every household had chickens, and many people depended on the eggs and meat to survive. The government encouraged home chicken raising (as shown in this 1918 government circular).
In WW2, chickens were encouraged as an integral part of the Victory Garden. Many homes (rural and in urban centers) in America raised chickens, to help with the war effort.
However, with the end of WWII, this became seen as old fashioned, and zoning laws changed, to prohibit poultry.
It’s only been in the last decade that there has been a move back to backyard poultry, and a push to loosen the zoning laws to allow chickens and ducks in suburban and urban centers.
Industrialization saw the decline of many chicken breeds, with preference given to a few rapidly growing hybrids. This trend has continued, to the point of insanity.
(Consider that 90 percent of the United States commercial food production now includes only 15 plant and 8 animal species.)
This concentration on mono-breeding is an unwise trend. A mono-breed can be overcome by an illness to which a wider genetic group might have natural resistance. In the most common breed of white (battery caged) chickens, a recent study of genetics showed that half of the ancestral genetics has been lost. One chance pathogen could potentially wipe out the entire chicken industry.
Different breeds keep alive a pool of genetic diversity with wider potential for natural defenses against defects and disease.
The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy (ALBC) is a nonprofit organization founded in 1977 to protect historic breeds and the genetic diversity of farm livestock, including poultry. It lists chicken breeds that are threatened with extinction, categorized by the degree of risk: critical, threatened, watch, and so on. (Sadly, some breeds have already become extinct.) The ALBC lists more than three dozen chicken breeds in danger of extinction. Extinction of a breed would mean the irrevocable loss of the genetic resources and options this diversity embodies.
The ALBC’s Website explains the organization’s concerns:
These breeds are threatened because agriculture has changed. Modern food production now favors the use of a few highly specialized breeds selected for maximum output in a controlled environment. Many traditional livestock breeds have lost popularity and are threatened with extinction. These traditional breeds are an essential part of the American agricultural inheritance. Not only do they evoke our past, they are also an important resource for our future.
Another group, the Society for the Preservation of Poultry Antiquities, also keeps yearly lists of the endangered species. A hot topic in hobby chicken groups is how to protect the variety and diversity of chicken breeds.
If you are giving any thought to having a home flock, you might want to investigate some of the heritage breeds. Beyond the need to keep the breeds alive, these are often the most beautiful and decorative of the chicken breeds. Several breeding groups (hatcheries) are attempting to reinvigorate interest in the rarer breeds.
Backyard chickens are the best. They eat bugs. They like scrap food: vegetable trimmings, the half eaten peanut butter sandwich, leftover meals, and food that’s old and stale (just not moldy). Forget the disposal, and forget compost piles, chickens will eat it all — and then make you some fresh garden fertilizer. Chickens will lay an egg a day in their youth, and then slow down to an egg every third day. Usually three or four chickens will supply enough eggs for a family of four.
You don’t need a rooster for chickens to lay eggs. (And roosters are a pain to deal with.)
I never realized how many people do keep chickens in an urban area, until I had my first four girls.