By Christine Heinrichs, California – Bantam chickens are the introduction to chickens for a lot of people. They aren’t a breed, but an entire set of chicken breeds. They are just like full-size chickens but only one-fifth to one-quarter, 20 to 25 percent, the size.
“You can have 10 bantam chickens in the space you would need for two large fowl,” said Doris Robinson, director of the Youth Exhibition Poultry Association. “Bantams are for folks who want to raise backyard chickens but don’t have enough room for large fowl layers.”
Don’t confuse the term “Standard” with large fowl. Both large fowl and bantam chickens have standards to meet.
“Standard means you are raising birds that are accepted by the APA or ABA,” Robinson said.
There’s a certain “Wow” factor to bantams, as bantam chickens come in all imaginable colors and feather patterns.
The variation is dizzying: 34 color varieties of Old English Game bantams, a dozen of American Game bantams, 18 Modern Game bantams. The Silkie chicken has hair-like feathers and black skin. They are shown in seven color varieties, with beards and without.
Exhibiting bantams at shows is part of the fun of owning them. Many bantam breeders are dedicated to preserving pure breeds. The APA and ABA Standards provide guidance as to exactly what that means.
A breed is distinguished from other chickens by readily recognized by traits that can be described. Breeds breed true — their offspring resemble their parents in predictable ways. A breed has unique appearance, productivity, and behavior. Varieties have differences within the breed, such as feather color or pattern, comb type or beards and muffs, the feathers around the head.
The APA and ABA standards describe what the birds of each breed should look like. Judges are schooled in the different breeds, serving apprenticeships to acquire the skills to judge body conformation and plumage, as well as the objective aspects such as size. Bantam chickens are prized for their small size, so limited weight ranges are part of the Standards. The smallest, the American Serama, must not be larger than 16 ounces for a rooster, 14 ounces for a hen.
Don’t skimp on buying your own Standard. It’s the only way to know exactly what is expected of your breed. It’s the best investment you can make. Joining one or both organizations keeps you connected to serious poultry keepers.
The American Bantam Association helps connect prospective bantam keepers with breeders. Its annual Yearbook is chock full of breed information, photos, listings of judges and winners and advertisements for all kinds of bantam chickens.
ABA President Matt Lhamon of Ohio gets requests almost daily for the full range of bantam breeds. He usually refers them to the appropriate breed club, but information about all breeds is available in the Yearbook.
Kids and Bantams
Bantam chickens are great chickens for kids and can be a good way for kids to get involved in poultry. Their small size makes them easy for small hands to manage. Most are gentler than large fowl birds. With some supervision, kids can take responsibility for care and husbandry. They are easier for children — and adults — to shampoo for a show.
Poultry can be a lifetime enjoyable hobby or it can lead to a satisfying profession, but having facts on the number of breeds and varieties shown helps ABA leaders know what birds are being raised. Old English Games remain far and away the most popular bantam, and Silkies have a strong following. Polish are regaining popularity, especially the White Crested Black and White Crested Blue varieties. Lhamon raises Modern Games and is a member of that breed club.
“No single breeder can save everything,” he said. “A breeder needs at least five males and 10 females to have a solid foundation. There’s a difference between multiplying them and keeping a breed going.”
Bantam chickens that have been on the Inactive list are occasionally shown, and the breed brought back to Active status. Cornish bantams have declined in popularity, but the Ko-Shamo, newly recognized in 2013, has attracted a flurry of new breeders. Their unusual erect stance, split wing, and sparse feathering mark them as distinctly different from their conventional image of a chicken.
Lhamon has updated the ABA books on Silkies and Cochins and is working to revise the book on Wyandottes.
Many bantam chickens are excellent layers, although their eggs are, predictably, small. One friend prefers her bantam eggs to large fowl eggs. She finds one large fowl egg not enough, and two too many. But like Goldilocks and her porridge, two bantam eggs are “just right.”
Bantam eggs weigh only 1 to 1-1/4 ounces. A large chicken egg weighs 2 ounces, the usual ingredient in recipes. A small egg weighs 1-1/2 ounces; extra-large ones weigh 2-1/4 ounces, and jumbos weigh 2-1/2 ounces. Figure accordingly for cooking and baking. Weight isn’t the sole consideration: the proportion of yolk to white is higher in bantam eggs, which may affect some delicate gourmet recipes. If in doubt, give yourself time to try using bantam eggs in the dish before preparing it for a special occasion!
“My grandmother swore by those little eggs for cooking,” said Mr. Lhamon. “She would sell off or give away all the large fowl eggs we would get but hold on to every bantam egg.”
Bantam chickens are often known for their broodiness and willingness to be good mothers. Chickens need to be instinctually driven to set for the 21 days required to hatch eggs. Not all chickens retain this natural drive. Chickens stop laying eggs when they become broody, so breeders who are focused on egg production select hens who don’t get broody for their flocks. Over time, many breeds, especially large fowl, have lost the ability to brood their own eggs. Bantam hens are often willing to hatch any eggs placed under them.
This quality became part of the plot in a book, Flossie and Bossie, published in 1949. “As a hazelnut is to a walnut, a Brussels sprout to a cabbage, an Austin to a Cadillac — so is a bantam to a regular chicken,” Eva Le Gallienne wrote in her novel about two bantam hens in a barnyard. Ms. LeGallienne drew on her observations of her own bantams to write the book. It’s now out of print, but your local library may be able to locate a copy for you.
The best breed is the one — or more — you love. To get started, visit a poultry show and look at the chickens being exhibited. Talk to the breeders. Join the ABA and get your own copy of the Yearbook, which profiles the different breeds. Attend a meeting of your local poultry club.
Hatcheries provide professional service, shipping day-old chicks. Chicks don’t need food or water for two or three days after hatching, living off the retained yolk. Shipping is safe, although it’s helpful to notify the local post office to expect a shipment of live birds.
Husbandry is the same as for large fowl chickens: they need a safe place to live, nutritious food and clean water. However, large fowl chickens require more space and feed than bantam chickens. Inexperienced suburbanites who jumped into large fowl chickens as layers without adequate preparation and felt overwhelmed might do better with bantams.
“They don’t eat much,” Robinson said. “They just scratch around and enjoy life.”
If you live where you can keep roosters, you may decide to breed your birds. Specialty breed clubs can connect you with expert breeders in your area. You can become part of breed conservation. Every flock develops its own identity. Each flock helps protect the breed against loss.
Unusual breeds and color patterns such as Sebrights, Cochins, and Mille Fleur d’Uccles attract attention but can be high maintenance and difficult to breed well. Mr. Lhamon advises starting with practical breeds that can be bred well such as Plymouth Rocks and Wyandottes.
“It’s a big transition to go from a few backyard birds to the show ring,” he said.
Enjoy Your Birds
“Right now myself, I’m raising all bantams,” Robinson said. “They are easier to handle and they lay beautifully. They don’t need as much room or protection. To me, bantams are better able to take care of themselves.”
Their many colorful varieties let you choose more than one favorite. Lewis Wright, writing in his 1890 Illustrated Book of Poultry about bantam chickens, reflects in language of a different time about advantages that still apply today:
“Many a lady, tired of having nothing to pet but a tom-cat, has wondered longingly whether she might not keep a few fowls; but looking at her garden with regretful eyes, has decided that half of it would be needed and that she could not spare that; when the happy thought has crossed her mind, ‘Why not keep bantams?’ A little space — just that strip which can so easily be spared — will content them; and as to crowing, who in the world would mind the voice of a little fellow no bigger than a pigeon? She is made happy; and even the tom-cat, ousted at first from his olden place, but who has provided for him a never-ending subject of interest in the perpetually intense speculation as to the possibility of some peculiarly tiny chicken coming some day through to the wrong side of the wire — even he is made happy too. Decidedly, bantams have their place in the world.”
Bantam Chicken Classifications
The American Poultry Association has a bantam division, divided into five categories for exhibition: Games, Single Comb Clean Legged Other Than Games, Rose Comb Clean Legged, All Other Combs Clean Legged, and Feather Legged. They are usually shortened to initials only at shows, resulting in an alphabet soup of letters — SCCL, RCCL, AOCCL — that looks obscure to the uninitiated. Now you know.
The American Bantam Association has its own separate Standard. Although the two organizations work together cooperatively, the ABA recognizes more breeds and color varieties of breeds than the APA, 56 breeds and 392 varieties. The ABA divides Bantam chickens into six classes: Modern Games; Old English and American Games; Single Comb Clean Leg; Rose Comb Clean Leg; All Other Combs Clean Leg; and Feather Leg. The ABA has a separate class for bantam ducks. Exhibiting bantams at shows is part of the fun of owning them.
What is the Difference Between Bantam Chickens and Standard Chickens?
Size is the biggest difference with bantam chickens being one-fifth to one-fourth the size of a standard chicken. A true bantam is a chicken that has no standard counterpart. Examples include Japanese, Dutch, Silkie, and Sebright.
There are also bantam chickens of the standard breeds. These are considered miniatures.
Life spans decrease as size decreases. The lifespan of a standard chicken is 8 to 15 years and bantams about 4 to 8 years.
Bantam chickens do lay edible eggs — about three to four bantam eggs are equal to two standard eggs. Many love to eat bantam eggs because they contain more yolk and less white.
Bantam chickens are often prized for their setting ability. And they are popular; especially in urban settings, because they need less space than standards.
As a rule, you can house 10 bantams in the same space three standards would occupy. Plus, the rooster’s crow is much quieter.
True Bantam Chickens
Every large fowl breed has a corresponding bantam breed. Some bantam chickens, however, are unique. Those are considered “True Bantams.” That includes Japanese, now recognized by the ABA in 17 varieties and by the APA in nine. The Black-Tailed White was included in the first APA Standard in 1874.
Other true bantams are Belgian Bearded d’Anvers, Belgian Bearded d’Uccle, Booted, Dutch, Pyncheon, Vorwerk, Rosecomb, Sebright, and Silkie. Nankins are a true bantam, recognized in both single and rose comb, by the ABA.
Bantam chickens are prized for their small size, so limited weight ranges are part of the Standards. The smallest, the American Serama must not be larger than 16 ounces for a rooster, 14 ounces for a hen. Their light weight and ratio of body size to wing makes them good flyers. They will fly right over the fence.
Kids who are interested in chickens can get started with bantams. They’re easier to hold and usually gentler than large fowl. With some supervision, kids can take responsibility for food, water, and cleanup.
Christine Heinrichs writes from California and works closely with the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy. Founded in 1977, the nonprofit works to protect more than 150 breeds of animals from extinction. For more information, visit www.albc-usa.org.
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Originally published in the April/May 2016 issue of Backyard Poultry.