Beyond Chickens - A look at fun farm birds

Published on Fri, 03/31/2017 - 8:00am

When we think of adding poultry to farms, our first inclination is to think of chickens. Chickens are, after all, the most common type of poultry, and they're practically synonymous with farm life.

But limiting yourself to chickens is exactly that—limiting, especially when you consider the wonderful variety of other farm birds that you could consider. Delightful ducks, exotic emus—these birds are just as useful as chickens and, some would say, even more interesting. If you’re looking to expand beyond chickens, read on for an introduction to some wonderful options. What appeals to you? Which non-chicken would make a great addition to your farm?

Ducks

If you're looking to explore a species of poultry that isn't a chicken, your first stop should be ducks. Most modern domesticated ducks are descendants of either the Mallard or Muscovy, but, as with chicken breeds, there is a wide range of duck breeds in varying shapes and colors. Ducks are raised for several purposes—including eggs, meat, and down—and ducks also make popular pets and ornamental birds in a small-scale setting. Hard-shelled duck eggs are slightly larger than chicken eggs (and last longer in the fridge!), and possess a larger yolk-to-white ratio. This results in a rich egg with higher fat content, and some people prefer duck eggs over chicken eggs for some uses.

One excellent side benefit: ducks have a passion for chasing and eating insects. Keeping ducks on your property can help you wage war on annoying mosquitoes, flies, and garden pests—isn't it nice when poultry can help out on the farm?

Be aware that ducks are known for regularly messing up their water dishes with mud and other debris. For this reason, if you keep other birds (including chickens) alongside ducks, they will need their own private water source that the ducks can’t contaminate. Your ducks' water source will also need to be cleaned regularly because of their messy tendencies.

Quail

Maybe you have a penchant for petite poultry—something smaller than chickens or ducks. How about quail? These charming small birds top the scales at a mere six ounces. Quail are fast-growing, easy to care for, and don’t require much space to get started. They’re also said to have a fairly “laid back” personalities—excellent for beginning bird farmers.

Quail have been raised by humans for thousands of years; the ancient Egyptians used a hieroglyph of a quail chick as part of their alphabet.

Because quail are not considered “poultry” in the same sense as chickens and other farm birds, it may be possible for those in more urban areas to raise quail on a small scale even when other types of birds are restricted. Quail are used for their eggs and for their meat, and even though quail are small, they mature quickly enough that meat production is a viable use.

Quail eggs are quite small compared to chicken eggs—it takes about four or five quail eggs to equal one chicken egg—but the birds are well known for being consistent layers that produce eggs almost daily in ideal circumstances, and that helps make up for the diminutive size of the eggs.

Turkeys

It’s one of America’s most iconic birds thanks to its annual appearance at millions of Thanksgiving meals across the country, and—once upon a time—it almost became our national symbol. Benjamin Franklin thought the turkey would be a much better choice than the bald eagle because it was, in his opinion, “a true original Native of America… a Bird of Courage." Unfortunately for turkey fans, turkeys lost the title, but they’re still the ideal choice of bird for many farmers.

Turkeys were first domesticated in Mexico by the Aztecs and they became a very valuable source of meat. At one point in the early sixteenth century, Spanish explorers of the New World were told not to bother returning to Spain unless they each brought ten turkeys back with them to help establish the species in Europe.

Today, domesticated turkeys differ greatly from their wild cousins in terms of size and looks. Most wild turkeys are fairly drab in appearance with little color variation, but domesticated breeds exhibit a range of colors from black to buff to pure white, with most breeds being somewhat multicolored.

Although most commonly raised for their meat, turkeys can also be raised as a source of eggs, although they do not lay eggs as frequently as chickens (in a good week, you might get two eggs from a turkey hen).

Geese

Geese are used for several of the same purposes as ducks. Roast goose is a traditional holiday delicacy in many parts of the world and goose down is a popular insulating material for certain products. In terms of egg production, however, geese are less prolific than ducks, so they are not the best choice if you want a farm-fresh egg on your breakfast table every morning. Geese are also more aggressive than ducks and are more likely to attack intruders on their territory.

Geese were first domesticated in parts of Europe, Africa, and Asia, and many breeds include their place of origin in their name (the African, the Egyptian, and the Chinese, for example). Take careful consideration when choosing a breed to add to your farm—some are more aggressive than others; to the point of being illegal in some states. However, there are plenty of breeds to choose from and you should have no trouble finding one that fits your needs.

Ostriches

Long-legged, long-necked, and beautifully plumed, the ostrich looks like it belongs to prehistoric times, but it’s an exciting and unusual addition to modern farms. The ostrich’s biggest claim to fame is its impressive size; adult domesticated males can grow a little past 9 feet tall and weigh up to 400 pounds, making the ostrich the largest bird on earth. Ostrich eggs are impressively sized, too, and weigh over 3 pounds each, dwarfing chicken eggs in comparison. The only downside is that a single female ostrich can only lay up to 30 eggs in a year. You won’t be getting a batch of fresh ostrich eggs every day unless you go in for ostrich farming in a big way!

Fortunately, ostriches have other benefits besides their eggs. They’re utilized as meat birds and their feathers are sought after as well; in fact, ostriches were originally domesticated so farmers could collect their feathers more easily and more often. And while the other smaller poultry breeds can be used for most of the same purposes, ostriches have one thing going for them that no other bird can boast; they can be ridden. Ostrich racing is a popular sport in some parts of the world, although it has yet to gain a major following in the United States.

Emus

There is something about emus that people find quite appealing. It may be the emu’s fun and energetic attitude, or it may be the birds’ unique appearance. If you’re looking for a large exotic bird but don’t wish to go as big as the ostrich, emus can be an excellent compromise. These flightless Australian birds have been raised as livestock in the United States since around the last half of the 20th century and are definitely multi-purpose birds.

Emus can be a source of red meat (as opposed to the non-red meat of more common poultry), feathers (used for crafts and other artistic purposes), emu oil (for anti-inflammatory purposes), leather (durable yet soft, and quite useful for small items like wallets, purses, and boots), and eggs! Emu eggs, with their distinctive green color and hefty (over 1 pound) size, make for a unique cooking experience, containing the equivalent of about ten chicken eggs while containing more “good” cholesterol than standard chicken eggs. These thick-shelled eggs are also sometimes used for decorative purposes.

Emus are generally easy to handle, but it is sometimes suggested that beginners start out with young birds while they learn the ins-and-outs of emu care. Emu farming works well in a small-scale situation.  

Being different is fun

So, what are you waiting for? Are you ready to move beyond chickens and explore the exciting world of ducks, geese, and other birds? Whether you choose the diminutive quail or the gigantic ostrich, you'll gain a lot of satisfaction through your bird-keeping efforts and you just might enjoy some interesting eggs along the way.

Have fun!