I'll bet most of you who live in cold climates and raise chickens are familiar with the terms "Cold Hardy" and "Does well in Confinement". What are the pros and cons of each of these? And which are the better breeds for your circumstances? "Cold Hardy" means that these birds can withstand colder temperatures. These birds usually have smaller combs and wattles that are less likely to get frost bit. They might have feathered feet to protect their feet from the cold. "Cold Hardy" has nothing to do with how well a bird does when it is cooped up all winter. I have seen some breeds listed as "Cold Hardy" but "does NOT do well in winter confinement" simultaneously. In these cases I think that the birds have been bred for hardiness and not temperament.
Some breeds are listed as "Does well in confinement" This means that they have better temperament when it comes to spending the winter cooped up. They have not been bred as much for cold hardiness and may be more reluctant to leave a warm coop for the cold outdoors. They are probably more prone to getting frost bit if forced to spend time outdoors when it is very cold out.
We live in a zone 3 climate and see some very cold winters, with temperatures regularly dropping below zero. Here in the hills we do not see thirty or forty below zero regularly, but it can happen. Just down the hill is considered zone 1. As far as I know we have not observed any of our chickens to ever have significant frost bite. Our chickens come outside most days of winter. I am usually home, so I am able to let them out during the warmest hours of the day. So they have access to the outdoors from roughly 1-5 or so. Their coop is cooler during the day hours when their door is open. But when we close them in we hang a blanket on the inside of the door and their coop stays fairly warm and draft free. I estimate their indoor temperature to be in the upper thirties and low forties. It feels comfortable on my skin when I check for eggs.
It is more important to me that our chickens not be aggressive or flighty and have a docile and mellow temperament, than that they be "Cold Hardy". If I lived somewhere the temperatures were not as extreme and I was trying to keep them without building a well insulated shelter, perhaps then I would be trying "Cold Hardy" breeds.
Here is a list of the following breeds we have raised for at least one year and what I recall of our experiences with them. I tend to stay away from breeds that do not do well in winter confinement so I have little experience with "Cold Hardy breeds. When I hear people complaining about their chickens pecking each other, it is always hard to say what the cause is without seeing their set up. However, given that I keep a large number of birds in a small coop for long dark winter months, and after seven years have rarely had any pecking issues, I think that breed selection is a significant factor in how well your chickens will winter over.
Ameracauna: I would not call this a calm or docile breed, not very cuddly. However as they are on the smaller side, I do not see them as instigators or bullies among the other chickens. They tend to be quick and stay out of the way of other breeds. Not my favorite breed personality wise, but they lay high numbers of eggs, and you gotta love those nice sized blue green shells.
Barred Rock: I haven't raised a lot of these. I am drawn to their flashy plumage, but I've had a couple just up and dye spontaneously without any obvious cause during the winter months, and so haven't been prone to trying them again. They don't seem to be as hardy for our conditions, nor do they lay as frequently as some of the other breeds. They do have a sweet mellow temperament.
Black Sexlinked: One of our favorites. In seven years, we have always had several of these. Hardy birds! Great layers of large eggs. They tend to be one of the larger birds in my coop and at the top of the pecking order, but I have had no serious aggression issues with them. Note, the Red and Gold Sexlinked birds do not seem to be as hardy. I've had a few just up and die randomly which I haven't ever had happen to a Black sex linked bird.
Brahma: We raised Dark Brahma's for a couple years. We had shipped them up from a small hatchery somewhere. They were probably the biggest and cold hardiest birds we ever raised. They would hang out outside when no one else would. They had thick down feathers, feathered feet and small combs. They were also docile and good natured and just about the sweetest birds that we've ever raised. We only kept them for a couple years as they just didn't lay near as frequently as we would have liked. They did lay very large light beige eggs. If I wasn't so focused on egg production I would raise these birds again. How often do you get cold hardiness and sweet docile birds all in one package. We had a couple Dark Brahma roosters and they never challenged anyone, not even when my kids were small and entering their territory.
Buff Orpington: This is my first year with Orpingtons. I never liked the picture of them, but find them more attractive in real life. They are some of the first girls out of the coop when I open the door in the morning. Not as wussy as some of the others. They look like they have thicker undercoats. They seem to be in the middle of the pecking order. I can't get a good feel for how well they are laying. Not as well as the Ameraucana's or Sexlinks, I don't think. But seem to have a mellow enough disposition.
Speckled Sussex: I once heard a man say that these Sussex were so friendly they were annoying because they were always underfoot. Less downy plumage than some of the others. Weren't great layers. They didn't seem to lay as well as most our other breeds and steeply declined after their first year. They were mellow and seemed to do fine cooped up. Very flashy and fairly vigorous.
Welsummer: We have had different batches of Welsummers from different sources. Our first batch had over the top aggressive roosters. The females laid a good quantity of beautiful dark brown eggs and did just fine over the winter cooped up. Not flighty. Not a lot of extra down on them but seemed fairly cold hardy. They would always come out for scraps. This last batch that we got locally lay pretty enough eggs but no where near as many as I would expect. They also seem less friendly than our previous batch and I don't see a lot of them. They seem to stay out from underfoot and haven't been coming out of the coop as much as the other birds for their daily scraps.
Wyandottes: We raised beautiful Blue Red Wyandottes that we'd special ordered. They were big, beautiful plumage, very downy and well padded. They were mellow and sweet doing well both indoors and outdoors. My only complaint was that they didn't meet my egg laying requirement. I think we got a couple kinda ugly misshapen light beige eggs a week out of each bird. Someday I won't care as much about production and I'll keep Wyandottes and Brahmas just for the pleasure of their company.
Other Breed Notes: My mother raised Rhode Island Reds when I was younger. We had enough problems with them pecking each other indoor in the winter, that she quit raising them. After which, she no longer had problems with winter pecking. I have heard other reports of this breed not doing well with winter confinement. They are said to be hardy.
Chanticlers are advertised as being a very cold hardy breed, but their breed description also says that they do not do well in winter confinement. So, I have stayed away from trying out this breed.
Well, that's all I've got for now. As always, I am interested in hearing back from you! So, If you have experiences with breeds not listed, or have had different experiences than mine, please share!
By the way, if you want really hardy egg layers that withstand brutal outdoor winter temperatures, get ducks! They tuck those feet right into their downy sides. They are outside enjoying the snow every day of the winter no matter how cold. Now, dealing with their water is a whole other issue.