By Tasha Greer
If you’re looking for the Golden Retriever of chickens, think Orpingtons! The original Orpingtons were bred with black feathers that wouldn’t show soot during the industrial coal era in England. That made them an excellent urban meat bird with good laying potential.
Today Orpingtons come in a range of colors and are bred for better egg production and a docile disposition. With their amiable natures and ability to thrive in confinement or on protected pasture, these loyal, lush, and loveable chickens offer lots more than golden-brown eggs. They’re the classic choice for kid-friendly pet layers with stew pot potential.
Orpington Chicken History
The Orpington chickens are named for the town in Kent, England where they were initially bred. There, in 1886, a chicken enthusiast named William Cook crossed Minorca roosters with Black Plymouth Rock hens. Then those offspring were bred to the clean legged Langshan chicken that only arrived in England from the Langshan region of China 14 years prior in 1872. 
The resulting chicken helped rekindle dwindling interest in chicken breeding. Those original Orpingtons were easy to manage, black-feathered, fast-growing meat birds that dressed well or worked as productive winter egg layers.
Later, as Orpingtons increased in popularity, William Cook introduced other colors including White, Buff, Jubilee (Speckled), and Spangled (Mottled). Additionally, Cook’s family members introduced Blue and Cuckoo (colored with white stripes) Orpingtons to the color line-up.
To date, only the Buff (1902), Black (1905), White (1905), and Blue (1923) Orpingtons have been accepted as breeds or varieties by the American Poultry Association (APA) with established Standards of Perfection.  Bantam Orpingtons of the same four colors are also recognized by the APA.
Orpington Breed Characteristics
Even though all those varied and colorful birds bear the name “Orpington”, every color line actually has a unique hereditary lineage that influences factors like how many eggs they can lay and how hardy they will be. However, before we get into their differences by color, let’s cover what they have in common.
Appearance wise, all Orpingtons should have a deep breast with a curved back, short legs with thighs covered by thick feathering. 
Their feathers should be soft and loose, nearly covering their feet. This makes them appear larger than they are. However, they aren’t supposed to be fluffy like Cochins or frilly like Polish chickens. Instead, their feathers should lay smoothly like a draped, cozy feather blanket around their short broad frame.
Most Orpington chickens have a medium-sized single red comb. In their earlier ornamental iterations of these breeds, rose combs were also common. If you look hard, you may still find some rose-combed Orpingtons today.
Full-Size and Bantam Orpington Chickens
Orpingtons also come in two sizes. The full-sized and bantam Orpington chickens each serve different purposes.
Full-Size Orpington Chickens
Full-size Orpingtons are more common and easy to find. They’re also the more practical choice for homesteaders since they lay more normal-sized eggs, have better meat potential, and make more manure for the garden than the bantam-sized ornamental Orpingtons.
Full-sized Orpington chickens are considered dual-purpose or equally useful for eggs and meat. They’re good layers with production ranging between 170-280 eggs depending on color and breeder. Their light brown eggs also range in size from medium to large depending on lineage.
Orpingtons have relatively large breasts and thighs for a heritage breed. They also have light colored skin and easy to pluck feathers that make them easier to dress out as meat bird. However, compared to meat-type chickens, Orpington chickens size up slowly and aren’t as feed efficient. As such, their use as a meat breed is usually reserved for extra roosters and non-productive laying hens.
How much do Orpington chickens weigh?
- Pullets: 7 lbs.
- Hens: 8 lbs.
- Cockerels: 8 lbs.
- Cocks: 10 lbs.
Bantam Orpington Chickens
Bantam Orpingtons are smaller versions of the original that have been mainly bred as pets and for ornamental purposes. They lay small eggs and a lot less of them than their bigger counterparts. Those petite pets also aren’t ideal as a meat source.
The first bantam Orpington was believed to come from Germany in the early 1900’s. However, they didn’t catch on until legendary poultry keeper John Burdett bantamised the Black in 1929. The White, Blue, and Buff color options followed suit over the next two decades.
Those four have been accepted in the APA for bantam Orpingtons as well. However, like the full-sized Orpington, there are other bantam colors of Orpingtons available.
How much do bantam Orpington chickens weigh?
- Pullets: 32 oz.
- Hens: 36 oz.
- Cockerel: 36 oz.
- Rooster: 40 oz.
What Color Are Orpington Chickens?
The original Black Orpingtons that kicked off the craze are still popular today. However, after their introduction as working class birds, they spent many years being bred to improve their appeal for ornamental and exhibition purposes. As a result, they didn’t increase egg production as quickly as some other color did.
Thankfully, with the increased interest in backyard chickens, these black beauties are now being bred with a focus on egg productivity again. When choosing sellers, pay close attention to descriptions so you can determine if the Black Orpington line being sold is more appearance and disposition focused or utility-oriented to help you choose the right breeder.
Also, if you want a black chicken with ideal egg production, consider the Black Orpingtons distant cousin the Australorp. Australorp is short for Australian Orpington. Black Orpingtons crossed the pond from England to Australia. There they were crossed with other breeds to become a more productive egg layer but with Orpington beauty and personality qualities.
Black Orpington chicks are mostly black with yellow underbellies. But don’t worry they’ll pair well with your favorite black farm t-shirt with their first set of mature feathers.
According to William Cook, White Orpingtons were a cross between White Dorkings and Silver Spangled Hamburg’s. However, there are disputes about this history. Many believe that the single combed, white-colored Orpington available today was originally bred by Godfrey Shaw in 1899. He named his breed ‘Albions’.
Regardless of the actual history, the breed was accepted into the American Poultry Association in 1905 under the name White Orpington. Interestingly, White Orpington chicks start out gray in appearance and turn white as their mature feathers grow in. Additionally, these hens tend to be brooder than some of the other Orpington colors.
Blue Orpingtons are a cross between the White and Black Orpingtons with a touch of Andalusian mixed in for some fancy feather lacing. The addition of the Andalusian bloodline makes the Blue Orpingtons a favorite for ornamental chicken lovers.
The blue that the breed is named for results from the gentle muddling of black and white feathers. Like mixing paint, those two colors merge to create a soft blue gray.
Unfortunately, that blue gray color is genetically unstable. Only a small percentage of hatchlings will remain true to the APA Standards. Most will develop more black or white or a mottled appearance. That makes them impossible to breed true.
That’s why the new Lavender Orpingtons are so exciting!
Lavender Orpingtons are not an APA accepted breed. However, chicken keepers love them because they are “self-blue”. That means they breed true to their parentage. Generation after generation they’ll retain that lovely lavender like feather color.
Since this color has only recently become popular as a result of the backyard chicken renaissance, it doesn’t have the long-term health and breeding experience of other breeds. As a result, there are many reports of Lavender Orpingtons being less hardy than other Orpingtons with longer, more diverse genetic histories.
Check breeder reviews to find out if there are any health or behavioral concerns. Also, even with healthy birds, these seem less predator aware and best-suited for confinement.
I saved the best for last. Today, the Buff Orpington is the most common color choice in the US. It was bred by crossing the Gold Spangled Hamburg with a Buff Cochin.  The offspring were bred to a Dark Dorking, then crossed again with a Buff Cochin. The result is that ray of golden sunshine, wrapped in feathers that flow nearly to the floor, walking around backyards everywhere!
As I said at the outset, if you want the Golden Retriever of chickens, any Orpington will work. But the Buff Orpington even looks the part with golden color. The little yellow chicks also call to mind Easter and yellow packs of PEEPS candy.
Other Color Options
Despite the lack of APA recognition, there are lots of other color variations including those introduced by William and his family available from breeders. Additionally, the Silver Laced English Orpingtons and Chocolate Orpingtons are now growing in popularity and availability.
As with the Lavender Orpington, with any less common color choice, do a little research to make sure your breeder is health-focused if you don’t want extra work.
Another nearly universal quality of these pretty poultry is their capacity to be lap chickens. As chicks, they tend to be a little larger and slower than other classic homestead breeds like the Rhode Island Red. That slightly sluggish nature makes them easy to handle and acclimate to human company.
If you handle them often, they will often develop dog like qualities such as following you around and even climbing in your lap to be cuddled. Orpingtons that are raised as precious pets sometimes get bullied by more independent chickens in a mixed flock. However, if you work hard to tame even less personable breeds, then that likely won’t be an issue.
Also, with Orpingtons, you do run the risk of having a spoiled rotten lap chicken that won’t let you get any work done. I had one Buff Orpington squawk and peck at me if I didn’t hold her when she saw me. And when I sat outside, she curled up in my lap like a cat and purred the whole time.
Caring for Orpington Chickens
Most descriptions of Orpingtons rate them as “hardy” with few health problems. I generally agree with that description with a few caveats.
Their heat trapping, heavy plumage makes Orpingtons susceptible to overheating in hot, humid conditions. Offer a regular supply of cool water, lots of shade, and protection from exertion on hot days.
Also, even though their feathers make them cold-hardy, their mid-sized combs are still susceptible to frost bite. Winter wind protection in the coop will mitigate that risk.
Read more: Chickens in Winter
Since these chickens are so focused on their human keepers, they can be a bit predator prone. The White, Buff, and Lavender Orpingtons can also attract extra predator attention. Offer those light feathered standouts a protected run or supervision while free ranging for best results.
Read more: Tips for Protecting Your Livestock from Predators
For these heavy, short-legged lovers, use low roost bars to avoid injuries. I keep mine at 2 feet. Also, use flat, wide surfaces, like a 2 x 4, to support their body type.
In general, Orpington roosters are as laid back as the layers. A ratio of 1 rooster to 6 ladies is all you need if you want fertilized eggs for hatching. Also, given their large size and less active ways, they do sometimes cause damage to the ladies backs trying to do the deed. If you notice any damage, use saddles or consider getting a rooster with more gentle finesse.
I’ve had some chickens that can basically feed themselves. Orpingtons aren’t one of them. For this breed, you’ll need to use a quality chicken feed if you want eggs.
Read more: Feeding Chickens without “Chicken Feed”
Historically, Orpington hens have been known as good broody mothers. However, I don’t know anyone who’s had a broody Orpington. I suspect that recent breeding trends towards higher egg production might be diminishing their interest in mothering.
If you want a nest sitter, look for a breeder who rates their Orpingtons as extra broody.
Pros and Cons of Raising Orpingtons
If you need a little help figuring out whether Orpingtons are right for you, let me offer you some pros and cons from my experience.
- Amazing Temperament
- Good Egg Production
- Usable as a Supplemental Meat Source
- So much fun!
- Too sweet to eat
- Not great at foraging
- Not the most productive layer or meat bird
Overall, Orpingtons are terrific friendly chickens that will devour the chicken feed and garden scraps you deliver to their well-protected living areas.
There are a few more things you might find interesting about Orpingtons.
Are Orpington Chickens a Heritage Breed?
Technically to be a heritage breed, you need to be accepted by some recognized poultry authority. So, if you want to be a stickler, then that would only include the Black, White, Blue, and Buff options that are recognized by the American Poultry Association. However, if your definition of heritage breed is open to interpretation, than any of those color variations from the Cook family have a long history.
Do Heritage Breed Orpingtons Need Conservation?
With so many lovely options, it’s hard to believe that Orpingtons spent some time on the Livestock Conservancy Heritage Breed watch list . However, for a time they did. Thanks to chicken lovers like us everywhere, they were removed from the conservation list in 2016.
Plenty of chickens do still need our help to ensure their survival. So, if you have room for a few more breeds, I recommend the Crevecoeur or Faverolles on the Livestock Conservancy conservation list as great companions for your Orpingtons.
Keeping up with the Orpingtons
I want to leave you with one final suggestion for keeping Orpingtons at home. These sweet creatures really are a joy to hold and behold. If you don’t already have a comfy seat near your coop for cuddling and enjoying the company of your chickens… get one!
Trust me, you are going to need it because you’ll want to spend all your tea, coffee, and cocktail drinking time outside with these pleasurable pet layers! But don’t leave food items unattended unless you meant to share. Just like Golden Retrievers, Orpingtons are extremely happy to help clean your plates.
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Tasha Greer is an Epicurean Homesteader and author of Grow Your Own Spices and Weed-Free Gardening.
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3 thoughts on “Orpington Chicken: A Backyard Pet with Benefits”
I loved my Buff Orpingtons, but they were always hawk bait no matter where I lived! I have found red-sex linked to be very similar in personality with a much higher egg yield and not quite the aerial predator draw. I definitely have a backyard flock though with a mix of breeds for color on the yard and the basket.
You’ve got it right when you said “The result is that ray of golden sunshine, wrapped in feathers that flow nearly to the floor.” I really like my Buff Orphingtons. I’ve only had three in my flock of 20 hens, but they have been the most friendly of all the breeds. In fact one that we named Chelsea was so friendly that she would hop up on your lap. And she was the most broody setting on two clutches back to back resulting in several beautiful cockerels layed by a sister Americauna hen; throwing other eggs out of her nest. She was a remarkable chicken usually foraging alone. In fact we thought we lost her once only to discover that she had taken up roosting residence in the thick coverage of a spruce tree. We rescued her and gave her a little abode in the chicken house so she preferred to be separate from the other chaos. We miss her greatly. As she passed on I suspect she might’ve been egg bound Perhaps as a result of my having left her out for too long away from her nest as she usually made every effort to lay her eggs in her nest. and I did not help her quickly enough – finding her dead in her nest. A lesson that I learned about chicken behavior I will be more sensitive to their needs. She was a lovely girl and I’m trying to condition her sister Taylor to take up the position of “people chicken.“
Thank you for sharing your story.