Fluffy chicks are making an appearance in pet and feed stores right now, just in time for spring. Gathering eggs is the biggest benefit to keeping chickens, but the birds also contribute to the garden. They produce tons of manure that you can compost and they gobble up weeds and slugs if you toss them into their run. If you're thinking about getting chickens, consider a breed that not only lays lots of eggs, but makes a great pet as well.
Ameraucanas, and the more rare Araucanas, lay large, bluish green eggs. The birds have feathery beards and very pretty plumage. The hens lay heavily, but they tend to have aloof personalities. Sometimes hatcheries sell Easter Egg chickens, which are birds that lay colored eggs but don't fit exactly into the Ameraucana or Araucana Standard of Perfection.
Barred Rocks are an heirloom American breed with gorgeous black and white feathers. They lay a prolific amount of brown eggs and have friendly personalities.
Black Australorps have gorgeous black feathers that flash iridescent green when the sun strikes them. Curious and sweet, they make really wonderful pets, especially because they are good layers of large brown eggs.
Buff Orpingtons are sweet and docile and don't mind being held, especially if you handle them a lot when they are chicks. The birds grow quite large and they have heavy golden orange plumage. They lay large brown eggs.
Golden Laced Wyandottes have lustrous golden brown feathers that are rimmed with black. The beautiful hens tend to be energetic and lively and they reliably lay large brown eggs.
Polish chickens have a powder puff of feathers atop their heads and lay white eggs. Part of a Polish chicken's charm is they are very tame and sweet and they bumble around because their floppy head feathers make it difficult for them to see. Just keep in mind that this cute quality also makes them more susceptible to predators and they should be included in a flock with other breeds that can warn them of any danger.
Rhode Island Red chickens are perhaps the most famous American breed. The large birds have reddish brown foliage and big personalities. Their bossy nature often places them at the top of the pecking order, especially when paired with calmer breeds like Buff Orpingtons and Australorps.
Purchasing chicks at a store is a great way to go because you can pick and choose from several breeds and the chicks are often sexed—which means you'll most likely get hens, not roosters (though roosters still manage to occasionally find their way into the mix). Many breeds come in standard and the smaller "bantam" sizes.
No matter what breeds you choose keep in mind that all chickens scratch the soil looking for insects and worms, often digging up newly planted seeds and seedlings in the process. They also love to sample almost any plant, with salad greens and basil being two particular favorites. When left to their own devices chickens can quickly cause a lot of damage in a garden, especially vegetable gardens. This is not to say you should never let them roam, just supervise them when you do and encourage them to explore areas with established perennial plantings or lawns. Chickens are also susceptible to a number of predators, including dogs, hawks, coyotes, and raccoons, so it's important to watch out for them whenever they are outside of their coop and run.
Willi Galloway writes The Gardener column. She lives in Portland, Oregon and writes about her kitchen garden on her blog DigginFood. Her first book Grow. Cook. Eat. A Food-Lovers Guide To Kitchen Gardening will be published in January 2012
(Image: 1. Amy Stewart, used with permission 2. Willi Galloway 3. Jessi Bloom, used with permission 4. J. Benner, used with permission 5. Willi Galloway 6. Amy Stewart, used with permission 7. Theresa Loe, used with permission 8. Jessi Bloom, used with permission)