My oldest daughter’s first pet chicken—a light-sport Java or “Javacauna” cross from our neighbor—didn’t turn out too well. She fitted the need o.k., and she laid a goodly number of eggs, but the only fun the girl could really have with her was to take care of her. She was sort of aggressive, even with people, and seemed stupid. Still, she wanted to breed her. We tried it, and only one chick hatched, and then only barely. When Henny Hen, the elder of the two, died suddenly, our daughter then chose the offspring as her new pet, and named her Daffodil. She was an improvement, and we all got a kick out of her hopping up and down in front of the wire of her pen whenever a treat tidbit was brought. But she was nearly entirely infertile, and she died of a heart attack (called a “flipover” in chicken lingo) right before my eyes one morning before she could reproduce successfully. So that was the end of that.
But by then I had gotten a hold of the second of our neighbor’s mix-ups (since the friend that had been keeping her as a backyard chicken in town was headed back to Flint, MI), and she had turned out to be so durn friendly I decided to make her my own pet and name her Marigold. She, by contrast, was nowhere near infertile. She produced lots of large green eggs for quite a few seasons and her eggs hatched well. I bred her just about as often as I could. One season she happened to spawn three light-colored hens that all carried their mother’s trait for docility, but one was a standout in that regard. She would exhibit very little fear of me at chore time, stepping right out the door of the coop and loitering around the feed bucket while the others held back. I could easily pick her up and return her to the coop, so this was no issue. I didn’t think of this as especially adaptive for any of the “agricultural” breeding I was getting going, but it was kind of fun, and when Daffodil flipped over, I proposed that our daughter take on this chicken for the next in line since I didn’t need her for breeding and she was almost obnoxiously friendly. She named her Buttercup.
Buttercup has proven to be the most outstanding pet chicken I have met. She is perky and interested in life, yet docile and tolerant of handling. While gardening we often let her roam around our feet and she is always scooting around underfoot nabbing cutworms, slugs, and earthworms from any disturbed soil. When our daughter got interested in breeding this bird, I had a hard time objecting, even though I knew it was off of the other trajectories. But the more I thought about it, the more it seemed that breeding the ideal “pet chicken” for people’s backyards had potential.
The reality is that there is a gap between the ways people often keep backyard chickens these days (in small, portable range pens on their lawns) and the suitability of the birds they choose to populate them with. What I mean is that it is easy to choose chickens from a catalog or website that suit one’s fancy, but are they well-suited to the conditions they are asked to bear up under? I maintain that those little range pens—often homemade to questionable design standards—actually constitute pretty tough conditions for a chicken in both the heat of summer and the cold of winter (though the summer heat is probably usually worse).
In response to this gap and the opportunity presented by Buttercup (and her sister Iris, my new pet chicken since Marigold’s calm and natural passing), we are working on the development of a chicken bred to suit the desires of the urbanite/small yard chicken keeper whilst not forgetting the needs of the chickens in the situations they find themselves in. To this end, enter the “Keezle”, named after the town closest to us—Keezletown—and bred for thriving in the extreme environment of the average cute little backyard lawn-based pasture pen.
Parameters for the breed are very specific in some ways to suit specific conditions, very wide in others to allow for the variety and interest that are part and parcel of the keeping of pet chickens. The specifics are:
- Despite the fact that Buttercup herself has a “single” comb (this is the ancestral “normal” type of chicken comb) no proper Keezle shall be seen wearing one of these. Too vulnerable to frostbite, which hurts. Any frost-resistant type of comb is allowable.
- Smallish size, but not too small. Big chickens get too hot. But tiny chickens get too cold and lay tiny eggs. We’re probably looking for a hen in the 4 or 5 pound range and a cock no bigger than 6 or 7 pounds. They should look smaller than they actually are, though, because:
- They should be plump and compact. Not only is this endearing, it is also adaptive, since cold resistance is partly a function of surface area to body mass ratio, I assert, and rounder birds have less surface area. This also makes it such that the males will be nice little gourmet roasters. No offense meant to those with tender spots for chickens (I am one of you), but please realize that when you choose to raise females only, something always happens to the excess males. In commercial egg operations I believe they are usually gassed or otherwise disposed of on the day of hatch, right after sexing. I prefer to grow them out.
- In a nod to their usefulness as roasters, I prefer for all birds in this breed to show buff, gold, tan, pink, or yellow feathers on their underside and legs, right down to the skin. This makes for a more appealing appearance on the table when plucked. Other than this, plumage can be variable. Let’s have fun and see what we can come up with…tufts of feathers here and there, neat or scraggly, color and pattern variations, Silky feathering…you name it. If it appeals to the breeder and doesn’t thwart the birds’ adaptation to their environment it’s in. Same goes for coloration and feathering on feet. Camouflage is not important—these birds are protected by their proximity to humans and good, stiff wire. So have fun. Goofy is good, pretty is good.
- These birds should be productive layers. Just because they are pets doesn’t mean people don’t want to eat the eggs. That is at least half the point, even for dabblers and urbanites. Egg size should be reasonably large. Egg color can be as variable as feather color.
- I favor broody-trait birds, but I’m negotiable on that point. On the one hand urbanites, etc. don’t need to mess with trying to deal with the complication of broodiness and probably often can’t handle a brood of chicks in their little houses, but on the other hand I’ve known urban chicken keepers who have really enjoyed their adventures with hatching under a hen, and there is a part of me that mischievously wants to tempt the naïve into deeper involvement by presenting them with an opportunity to get in over their heads, and to expose them to the full life cycle of the chicken (education is half the point, don’t you know).