Bantams are chickens which are known for their unusually small size, often around one fifth the size of an ordinary chicken. In some cases, bantams are selectively bred from standard chicken breeds, so they could be considered miniature versions of larger breeds. In other instances, bantams have no large-breed counterpart, so they are considered to be “true bantams.” True bantams are highly diverse and they are prized as pets, ornamental chickens, and of course for their eggs and meat.
The bantam originates from the small, plucky chickens raised across Southeast Asia. When sailors started traveling in this region, they often picked up local chickens to have live fowl on deck for fresh eggs, and they quickly grew fond of these chickens, which they called “Bantams” after a city in Indonesia. Even today, bantam chickens are famous for their equanimity and ability to deal with a wide range of circumstances, which would have been useful on a ship, and the chickens are also very expressive, intelligent, curious creatures, which would have undoubtedly provided some entertainment on long sea voyages.
In addition to being generally small, bantams are known for being very bold and assertive. Bantam roosters especially tend to strut around as thought they are full sized, which can be quite a comical sight, and in many regions of the world “bantam” or “banty” is used as a slang term to describe someone with a puffed up, aggressive ego. Bantams are also excellent brooders; in fact, bantam hens are so determined to sit on eggs that they were famously used to brood eggs from the endangered Takahe of New Zealand when these eggs were carried out of a remote valley by backpackers.
These chickens are often very brightly colored and festive, with the roosters having famously long, arched tails. Bantams may be black, brown, golden, greenish, white, and anything in between, with many bantam breeds have brightly colored contrasting plumage. The plumage of bantams can vary considerably, from the bizarre-looking bantam frizzled Cochin, which looks like it has traveled through a wind tunnel, to the striking Seabright bantam, with white or golden plumage edged in black. Many bantams have feathered feet, like the stunning Dutch Booted Bantam, and Cochin bantam breeds are famous for having very fluffy plumage which causes them to look bigger than they are.
A few bantam breeds have some very unique characteristics. Silkies, for example, derived from a larger Asian breed, have feathers which are like down, being very soft and fluffy. Silkies are also notable for having black skin, regardless as to the color of their plumage. The Japanese Bantam has distinctly angled wings, while the Dutch Bantam is the smallest of the bantam breeds, making it the smallest chicken breed of all.