Many of the most popular chicken breeds do well in Alaska and in northern climates. A general rule of thumb is that large, robust birds with thick feathers do best. Also, the small-combed breeds are a better choice, as large wattled and combed birds are susceptible to frost bite. The list below is by no means exhaustive, but gives some of the easier, more popular breeds with which to begin your flock.
NOTE: Observations about breed characteristics are my own – culled from years of keeping chickens and discussing them with other flock owners. You may hear otherwise, or have other experiences.
Barred Rock: Alternate or short-hand name for the Plymouth Rock. The Barred Rock was the first commercial meat production bird. It is a good dual purpose bird, and does not mind confinement, making it a good choice for Alaskan flocks. Barred rock hens are excellent egg producers, but they are seldom broody. They lay light brown eggs. Their manner is mild and fairly gentle, but they are a curious bird and often peck at things inquisitively.
Rhode Island Red: The classic red hen, Rhode Island Reds are tough birds that are reliable and prolific egg layers. They are, however, feisty in nature and can be pecky. Rhode Island Red roosters have a well-deserved reputation of being extremely defensive of their flock. This may be a good choice of rooster for a free-ranging flock but not so much for a flock that is contained within a pen, where you have to deal with a protective rooster on a daily basis within a enclosed space. Rhode Island Reds are large birds, and thus make good meat birds as well as layers. They lay brown eggs.
(Buff) Orpington: These lovely caramel-colored birds are generally calm, even-tempered and gentle; even the roosters tend to be laid back, mild and not aggressive. Orpingtons come in several colors (blue, white, black and buff), but buff is often the most common breed carried by feed stores. Orpingtons are a good choice if you have children that want to be involved in your hen yard. Also a dual purpose bird, they lay light brown eggs; broodiness is occasional. They tolerate confinement well.
Ameraucana: Often called the Easter Egger because of the color range of eggs: lilac, pink, blue, turquoise, green or brown. In reality, there are three breeds: Ameraucanas, Aracunas and Easter Eggers; the latter are mixed breeds resulting from crosses between Ameraucanas or Aaracunas and other breeds. As a result, you will find these birds come in a range of feather colors. Their distinguishing features, in addition to their colorful eggs, are the tufts of ear and/or chin feathers. Many Ameraucanas appear to be sporting mutton chops or soul patches beneath their beaks. They are a great choice for Alaska because of their tiny, pea combs and because they don’t mind confinement. They are a single purpose bird (eggs), and generally are mild and calm birds – roosters as well.
Australorp: Developed in Australia from Black Orpington stock, this is an amazingly hardy, long-lived and productive breed that is one of my top favorites. They are beautiful large black birds with glossy, iridescent feathers and large soulful eyes. Their manner is sweet, even tempered, and they tolerate being handled, making them a good choice for children. A brown egg layer, they often lay very elongate eggs; they are also good meat birds. I had one hen live to 10 years old; at seven and eight she still occasionally produced an egg. They are a wonderful addition to any backyard flock.
Chochin: One of the three more common breeds in the Asiatic Standard Breed class, this breed, as with the Langshan (see below) originated in China. Cochins come in a wide variety of colors, including Partridge, Barred, Golden-Laced, Buff, and White. They are distinguished by having heavily feathered legs and feet. I avoided having feathered-feet birds for a long time, imagining very dirty and poop-clogged feathers, but I have been pleasantly surprised to find that they seem to have no trouble keeping their feathery toes clean. They are not as prolific in egg laying as the other breeds listed here, but they are a handsome and interesting addition to a flock. They are not a particularly large breed; their profuse feathers underlain by thick down make them look larger than they actually are.
Langshan: Langshans are native to China and are believed to be a pure race of domesticated poultry. They are thought to have originated in the eponymous district north of the Yangtze River. The Black Langshan (sometimes called Croad Langshan after Major Croad who first introduced the breed to England in 1872) is the most common variety, although Blue and White Langshan are also recognized as breed standards. Langshans have feathered legs, but are not as heavily feathered as cochins. Their most distinctive feature is an extremely upright and tall tail, which can often top out as high as their head. This gives Langshans a “U” shape that is unique among chickens. They are excellent layers of dark brown eggs and are very gentle and sweet. They are also fairly quiet birds, although some will make a peculiar “whah” sound that is very different from the more common clucking sounds of other breeds.
Wyandotte: Although this chicken bears the name of the Wyandotte Nation, a tribe originally from the Lake Huron area but forcibly relocated to Oklahoma and Kansas, it most likely reflects the midwest locale where the breed first appeared in the late 1870′s, It is a medium-sized bird that is dual purpose. Wyandottes lay light brown eggs and can average 200 eggs a year. They are reported to be excellent mothers, and I have observed this in my own flock. Last spring, one of my silver lace Wyandottes, well past egg laying age, adopted and protected the seven new chicks I added to the flock. Wyandottes are popular show birds and come in a variety of colors: white, partridge, buff, brown, golden and silver lace. The latter two are particularly handsome feather patterning: edging of black around ovals of white or brown. Wyandottes softly cluck a lot and are friendly and engaged with their flock owner – making them a good choice for beginning flock owners.
Although not more fully described here, other breeds that do very well in northern climates are Chanteclers, Jersey Giants, Brahmas, and Red and Black Sex Links. You can find more information on these breeds on the web.