Smart and Independent: Leghorn Chickens Do Their Own Thing | Midwestern messenger

Stewart Howell started raising chickens as a youngster on his family farm near Sioux City, Iowa. Now living near Maskell, Nebraska, 8 miles south of Vermillion, he breeds Leghorns, among other breeds.

He says the birds are known for their independent streak, foraging ability, and flying and running skills.

He has Leghorns that won’t go into the coop at night. Instead, they choose to roost 30 feet up in trees. On a hot summer night, they like to sit on top of the cedars near the chicken coop.

He’s had predators to get some of his other chickens, but Leghorns can often outrun a dog.

“I think they do a combination of race and flight,” he said. “They are good flyers and fast runners.”

Leghorns are good foragers with an independent streak. They are also good in flight and fast runners.

Photos submitted courtesy of Stewart Howell

They also enjoy foraging for food, much to the chagrin of Stewart’s wife, Brenda.

“These birds are running around,” Howell said. His chicken coop is 400 feet from the house, and the birds “are here all day, in the flowers and the garden, picking insects, chasing grasshoppers and eating my wife’s flowers.”

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The Livorno chicken breed is the breed’s egg-producing workhorse.

Believed to originate from Italy, the bird was brought to the United States in 1828. They were crossed to create a rose comb and then shipped to the United Kingdom in 1870.

The American Poultry Association admitted the Leghorn in 1874.

The most common color is white and they are known for their slender build with a defined U-shaped profile and high tail. There are 16 varieties, including some pink combed and single combed with different color variations, but the most common, after white, are brown, light brown, dark brown, black, and black-tailed red.

The birds are best known for being excellent layers, producing, at their peak, between 260 and 280 eggs per year. Females start laying eggs around five months of age, and as they get older, their eggs tend to get bigger.

Males mature more slowly; the average weight of a Leghorn rooster is 7 ½ to 8 pounds. For a female, the average weight is between 5 and 6 pounds.

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The Leghorn hen is a productive layer.

Photos submitted courtesy of Stewart Howell

Leghorns do well in cold weather, as long as they are dry and free of drafts. Howell heats his chicken coops, but even on cold winter days, if the sun is shining, he can open the barn door and the birds will sit next to the barn.

“As long as birds stay dry and out of drafts, they generally do well in the cold,” he said.

They are unlikely to freeze their combs or wattles, but Howell has noticed that if the barn has higher humidity due to other animals housed there, the humidity can increase the chance of these appendages freezing. . The pink comb, which is shorter and closer to the bird’s head than the simple comb, is more resistant to cold temperatures.

Leghorns can be eaten, but their primary purpose is egg production. Howell cooked some, but they are better “fry” chickens than “broiler” chickens.

“Like range birds, they become tougher and stringier,” he said.

It is not a fast growing bird, so it is not commercially viable as a broiler.

Howell has never had any serious health issues with the Leghorns and appreciates that they are independent. They are not pets and they don’t like to be picked up.

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Leghorns don’t need to be “pampered,” says Howell. “I release them and they do their own thing.”

Photos submitted courtesy of Stewart Howell

“If anything, they’re a bit of a flighty bird,” he said.

But if egg production is what is desired, the Leghorns can produce.

After 20 years in the Marine Corps, Howell and his wife moved back to the Midwest, and as soon as he had the facilities and space he got back to chickens. In addition to Leghorns, he breeds Dutch bantams, black rose comb bantams and three colors of English bantams. As for the Livorno, it breeds dark browns and whites.

Howell shows them all, going to four or five big shows a year.

It also hatches chickens, having hatched around 380 last year.

He enjoys raising birds and watching them grow and change. The common perception might be that chickens are stupid, but he knows by observation that’s not true.

“They will have one or two that will stand sentry while the others look for food,” he noted. “And they call each other when they find something interesting or something to eat.”

In the winter, when his chickens and pigs share the barn, the Leghorns roost on top of the pigs as their body heat increases.

“They are by no means stupid,” he said. “There are days when I’d like to think they are, but they’re hard-headed at the time.”

He appreciates their robustness: “I let them go and they do their thing.”

Freelance writer Ruth Nicolaus loves (almost) everything about the Great Plains, But mainly his people. She lives in eastern Nebraska. Contact her at

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