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Many breeds of chickens exist, with many varieties and colors between them. Positive identification requires some knowledge of chicken breeds, or photographs, charts or other means of distinguishing between birds of similar colors and types. However, all chickens have certain characteristics that can help identify them by purpose, sex, and color -- and many of these characteristics can help identify your birds by breed.
Chickens are bred for two purposes: egg-laying and meat-producing. Some chickens, called dual-purpose or general purpose breeds, are used for both purposes. Body shape can help determine for what purpose a chicken was bred. Egg-laying breeds typically have smaller bodies, so they can put all of their resources into producing eggs. Meat chickens, called broilers, typically have heavy bodies and bones to support their weight. Dual-purpose breeds are lighter than meat-production birds, but their bodies can usually support a significant amount of meat on their bones.
Different breeds have different combs. Some combs are almost entirely associated with the breed of chicken: Silkis combs, which are round, bumpy and perched on the front of the head are unique to the silkie breed. Pea combs, characterized by three low ridges set lengthwise on the chickens' head, are associated with Brahmas, Cornish and Sumatras among other breeds. V-shaped combs are often associated with "fancy" breeds, such as Polish, Sultans, and Houdans. Other combs, such as the single comb, are not as useful for identifications, being more common.
Chickens’ feathers provide a lot of information about their breed and origin. Chickens’ feathers can be close-lying or loose-fitting, depending on the environment from which their ancestors came and depending on their purpose. Decorative chickens, like silkies and related fancy varieties, have distinctive hairlike feathers that give them fluffy, shapeless appearances.
Most breeds of chickens also have gender-based differences in feathers. Male chickens, roosters, have fine, pointed feathers covering their necks and the bases of their tails. Roosters have sickle-shaped feathers in their tails. Some breeds do not have these characteristics. Silkies and related fancy breeds do not have these differences. Neither do the “hen-feathered” breeds, such as Campines. Colors and patterns are often shared between breeds, making them less useful for identifying breeds than other feather characteristics.
The color of a chicken’s leg shanks can provide valuable information about a chicken’s breed. Although many chickens have yellow shanks, some breeds have white legs (buff Orpingtons), slate colored shanks (Ameraucana) or even greenish or “willow”-colored shanks (Auracana). Hair on the shanks gives clues to a chicken’s identity. Some breeds of chickens, such as Leghorns, are clean-legged, meaning their legs are free of feathers. Other breeds of chickens, such as Cochins, are “feather-shanked,” meaning their legs are hidden by a profusion of feathers. Roosters tend to have thicker legs than hens. In addition, roosters tend to have heavy, hornlike spurs protruding from the backs of their legs. Roosters use these spurs for fighting and for protecting their hens.
Chickens are either large fowl, also called standard-size, or bantam-size. Within these two categories, sizes vary. Large chickens such as the Jersey Giant can reach 10 or more pounds. The Sebright, a bantam, can weigh 1 pound or less. Some breeds will have both large fowl and bantam varieties, but not all of them do.
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