My History with Chickens

When I was eight years old, my parents decided to acquire chickens.  As I recall, they purchased or were given a mixed flock of hens…about six or eight of various standard breeds.  I was highly intrigued by the preparations: the smell of the fresh pine shavings, the old wooden ladder cut and positioned for roosting, the plywood nest box (which they still have and use thirty years later), the grain mash that was so fluid yet dry and with its distinct and appealing, but distinctly not enticing, aroma, the water glug-glug-glugging into the shallow circular trough of the galvanized steel water fount…the little prefab shed took on a feeling that was at once homey and foreign.  And then the whole thing was animated, upon their arrival, by chickens!

IMG_5565 They were real animals (I have always been fascinated by animals of all kinds) with scaly, clawed feet with only four toes; they had hard, curved beaks that they had to use to do everything they needed to do except walk and fly and scratch; they could fly but only when necessary; fleshy, red protuberances appeared on their foreheads and under their chins; they bore only the finest of feathers on their expressionless red faces; they communicated with each other in a language of position and motion; they knew when they needed food and water and rest; they clucked and purred and made other soft sounds that I found soothing, interrupted occasionally by the jarring racket of their cackling.  Like the young Jesus in the temple, when my parents needed to go looking for me they soon learned they could often find me seated among these gentle sages.  I don’t remember being especially excited by the actual egg production of the chickens or by eating the eggs, but I clearly remember a time or two when I reached under a chicken on the nest and caught her warm, wet egg as it dropped from her backside.

Soon thereafter my parents expanded the scope of their project by purchasing two dozen broiler chicks, which they (at least at first) housed in a separate, small wire enclosure within the larger coop.  The first few days we had the chicks (before they became stinky and messy as broilers always seem to do) I spent several hours inside the enclosure, which couldn’t have been much more than two feet high, reclining among the chicks—watching and smelling and touching them and allowing them to climb onto and rest on my stiff blue jeans.  Sometimes they pooped on me, of course.  I didn’t mind: you never fault a baby for its cute little excretions.  I don’t remember that I helped much with the butchering but I didn’t mind the idea of it: it was all part of the process and fascinating, too, in its own gross and smelly and fearsome way.

As time went by the flock evolved, with new additions coming in sporadically and crates of chickens heading out to auction from time to time.  At some point we ended up with a chicken that retained the incubation instinct, and after that there were a few broods that hatched, much to my fascination, and as they grew and developed I memorized the features of each individual; my siblings and I took the naming of the young birds seriously.

IMG_5704My parents managed the flock by confining them to the coop for most of the day, and then allowing them out to range in the late afternoon.  The gratification of opening the coop door for ecstatic birds was a memorable thrill (it’s still kind of a rush), and the image of a scattered group of chickens contentedly pecking things out of a lawn under fruit trees in the low light of evening sticks with me and is closely tied to my notion of home.

I think I was probably ten when my parents started giving me more responsibility for feeding and watering the chickens and collecting the eggs.  I don’t remember how consistently the job was mine, but I know I wasn’t as responsible as I should have been with it.  Moments of realization that I didn’t know how long it had been since I’d paid attention to them are some of my most poignant memories of personal, self-administered shame as a child; I still have stressful dreams in which I realize I have been forgetting about one of my coops or flocks.

I think I was 13 or 14 when my parents decided to zero out the chicken project.  I don’t remember why, but I don’t remember fighting the move…perhaps I and or they had lost interest, or perhaps they had grown tired of reminding me to do the chores.  The coop stood empty for a few years.  I still found chickens fascinating, though, and every time we went to one of my Dad’s sisters’ homes who had always kept chickens I would at least once during the visit feel a need to go see how they were coming along, and perhaps feed them some green leaves through the wire.  I was particularly intrigued by her mongrel chickens…she had allowed her Silkies to cross with others and hatch the results, which were a bit oddball but charming in their own scruffy way.

It was this aunt who noticed my interest in her chickens and who, thinking to herself “this boy is going to be a farmer” made a fateful move: she showed me her Marti Poultry Farm chicken catalog.  The print quality of the catalog was mighty poor, the descriptions were full of misspellings and odd grammar…I didn’t care in the least!  The world of poultry variety and characteristics had opened to me.  She sent the catalog home with me, and that season I placed my first chicken order.  I was probably 15.  I think it consisted of the following: 5 Jersey Giants, 5 Silver Phoenix, 5 Speckled Sussex, 5 Golden Laced Polish, and 3 White Sultans.  An eclectic mix if ever there was.  This time I took proper care and attention with them, though I’m afraid my estimates of their food needs were probably a little low (more shame).  Still, they grew steadily and around Christmas time they began laying.

In the spring the Phoenix and Sussex hens hatched out some chicks—my own mongrels—and I loved the process.  My chickens were a big focus for me to a degree that everyone around me recognized as unusual, but which I now am a bit startled by when I look back on it.  One of the peer-generated captions under my picture in the Christopher Dock Mennonite High School yearbook for my senior year was, “Want to hear about my chickens?”  In the senior picture my parents still have displayed in a frame in their dining room I am sitting on a stool wearing black cowboy boots, stonewashed jeans (hey, it was the nineties!) a denim button-down shirt and a black tie, with a Silver Phoenix cockerel perched on my thigh.  What a kid!

Going away to college soon put a damper on this project, though, and I honestly can’t remember what caused me and my parents to decide to end it.  It may have had something to do with winter chicken chores needing to be performed for an absentee flock owner.

But I couldn’t keep my hands out of it.  In college at Eastern Mennonite University I studied International Agriculture, which program had a bent that would now be called Sustainable Agriculture (indeed that is now the name of the program there, but I believe it is no longer a stand-alone major).  For an independent study project, I was allowed to build a coop behind the Science Center and keep two flocks of Araucana bantams for the purpose of a comparative study of commercial rations versus cafeteria scraps on egg and meat production.  Again the project was cut short, or my involvement with it was, when I decided to take a year to serve at a children’s home in Bolivia.  A friend who had joined me in the project continued it, though, and carried it through to completion.  Incidentally I think they found that the chickens mostly did o.k. on the scraps.  Their rate of lay was lower, but, hey, their feed was free!

The children’s home was set up as a small farm.  I was deeply interested in all the plants and animals (including the children), their needs and yields, as I always have been, but once again I took special interest in the chickens.  They weren’t working with any special breeds: they had a broiler house and some sex-link hybrid layers out behind it in a filthy run (not too surprisingly there was an episode of hen die-off from Salmonella).  For some reason I got it in my head that I wanted to try breeding the broilers to the sex-links and see if we couldn’t get some dual-purpose chicks out of it, so at sale time I kept out the two most likely-looking (read “closest to able-bodied and healthy”) broiler cockerels and put them on a diet to prevent overgrowth problems.  I had been to see Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm as a field trip for Agroecology class in college and was enthusiastic, so I built an open-bottom, movable pen for a few hens and when the cocks seemed to have stopped growing and started crowing I put them together.  Long story short it didn’t work.  Were the cocks too young or too big or the hens too little or were they just not attracted to each other?  I don’t know, but I also don’t know how I would have hatched the resulting eggs.  The sex-link hens certainly wouldn’t have had a clue what to do!  Maybe we had an incubator available…I don’t remember.  Anyway I ended up butchering the cocks for Thanksgiving and Christmas feasts.  One of those fellows was 14 pounds dressed!

I had asked my parents to send me a Murray McMurray catalog, and almost as soon as my foot touched U.S. soil again I had placed an order for 10 White Wyandottes, 10 Silver Laced Wyandottes, 10 Light Brahmas, 10 Buff Orpingtons, 10 Cornish X Rock Broilers, 5 Broad-Breasted White turkeys, 5 Broad-Breasted Bronze Turkeys, 5 White Pekin ducks, and 5 Rouen ducks.  I also got a pig.  I built movable pens for all of these creatures out of my dad’s generosity and his copious scrap wood supplies.  This was supposed to be some kind of comparative experiment between breeds as to which fared better in a pasture-pen situation.  I learned a lot, including that turkeys die easily but are hard to kill, and that hybrid broilers are the stupidest, most maladapted (for natural systems) genetic invention one could hope for: none of them survived long enough to butcher.  At the end of the summer I sold all the chickens to local fanciers except the White Wyandottes, which my parents kept for several years.  I butchered the ducks and my parents graciously arranged for the butchering of the turkeys and the hog after I left to finish college.

Janelle and I had met at the children’s home and by the time we headed back to school that fall we were engaged.  Not a year later we were married, and the establishment of a home together, wonderful as that was, didn’t feel complete without chickens pecking in the yard.  Or SOMEWHERE, for crying out loud!  We lived near EMU, Janelle was still a student there and we were using some old experimental plots for garden space, so sometime in those first few years I begged permission to build a movable pen and station it at EMU, again behind the Science Center.  This time I had saving money and openness to serendipity on my mind, so I ordered the “Heavy Breed Special” (or some such) from Murray McMurray which was supposed to guarantee me nothing but a smattering of all old-timey, big birds.  This was fascinating and things were going well until a dog in the neighborhood came around at the same time that a neighbor kid had left the pen door open.  Sort of an anti-serendipity, I guess.  We showed up to a massacre scene some time not too long after the fact.  One ornery naked-neck cockerel was all that was left of the original 25.  I loaned out the coop and gave away the bird, and decided to probably wait until we had a place of our own.

When we became pregnant with our first daughter and wanted to buy a home, we couldn’t find the right place in the country, so we bought the right place in the city.  It was a reasonable choice and worked out well for us, but I agreed to it with a bit of a heavy heart, knowing what it would mean for my gardens and chickens.  Two years in, though, I began having a hard time with this arrangement, and Janelle and I both yearned for rural life.  I had been working part time for Hickory Hill farm for a year or so when an opportunity came up to buy the fixer-upper next door.  This was the chance we’d been waiting for, albeit a daunting task.  We sold our cute little house in town and dove straight in to the project of a lifetime, remodeling the house, developing and nurturing the land, our children, ourselves.

This implied chickens, of course.  A year after we moved here, while still in the deepest throes of the initial home makeover, I built four of the newest Jason version of the movable pen, and filled them with Buckeyes, Dark Brahmas, Buff Brahmas, and Buff Silkies.  Of these, the Buckeyes were my standout favorites (though I was big on the Buff Brahmas, too); they were resilient and productive with ready attitudes.  I also liked that they are the only known breed developed entirely by a woman.  I might still be breeding Buckeyes today if it weren’t for our second child having been born with substantial genetic compromises.  Our necessary focus on her health made chicken keeping seem impractical to say the least.  Once again I dispersed the flock.

After her death, one of my first impulses on the road to life becoming something like normal again (we’ll never be the same…thank you, Nora) was to get back into chickens.  This time I’d gotten interested in Buff Chantecler and Silver Laced Wyandotte.  The Buff Chantecler were a little slow to develop, but I deeply enjoyed their cold-hardiness, their contented dispositions, their neat appearance, their history, their decent rate of lay and their deliciousness in the roasting pan.  I’ve still never had a tastier roast chicken than Buff Chantecler.

But I have a restless, perfecting sort of mind, and I was a little bored by their monochromatic color scheme and concerned by their suffering under that thick Canadian pelt of feathers in the heat of summer.  I am nothing if not inventive, so after a few generations of breeding Buff Chantecler as is, I accepted the conclusion that I just gotta be me, and gave in to the impulse to mix and match and stir and blend.

Now, in the time we had lived at this place and I’d been working next door, two of my neighbors (one of whom was my employer) had also become interested in chickens and chicken breeding.  They have taken two different approaches: one has mostly narrowed it down to one breed at a time with a focus on recovery of historically accurate traits and development of productive characteristics and the other has focused on acquiring a sample of any breed that catches his attention and propagating them for local sales.  Both have made contributions to my current project, in different ways.

My part-time employer (at the time…now I have no employer) was the one who focused on old-time breeding.  He started as most people do with a little of this and a little of that, but things got interesting when he got a hold of some Black Javas with a mind to conservation breeding.  He worked with them for a few years, making impressive gains in trait recovery.  His health has been a challenge for him, so he needed my help to execute his plans.  This was a gift to me; I learned a lot of technical skills for chicken breeding and coop building.  But more than this I got a taste for his knack for diligence and attentiveness to the details that matter, applied to chicken care and selection; that apprenticeship has contributed so much to my endeavors and his mentorship is still valuable and ongoing.  He is now working with Dominiques, again with impressive results, but I don’t get in on much of that in recent years.

Despite the narrowed focus of his project, he couldn’t resist dabbling on the side with a small myriad of breeds, and in the beginning there was a learning curve with how long hens can be residually fertilized by a rooster that is no longer sharing space with them…hey, accidents happen!  Once a few of his Javas didn’t turn out black and had pea combs.  Oops.  There was an Americauna rooster involved.  I took one look at those pullets and liked them very much.  I saw beauty, and green eggs, and camouflaged feathers, and probably FREEDOM!  That is to say I admire the work of those who act to restore/preserve historic livestock breeds and perhaps one day I’ll find myself among them.  It’s not boring work.  But it is limiting by nature (not a bad thing) and I happen to have the impulse to be among those who expand the boundaries of what we know as possibilities; i.e., I want to create new possibilities.

IMG_5569So I took one of the chickens home, as a pet for my daughter (and breeding stock).  The other went to a friend in town for a few years, then came here.  The latter became some of the foundation stock for my current work.  But I’ve gotten chickens other places, too.  A friend over the hill had some Cuckoo Marans with some good eggs left to lay…I liked them and folded them in.  My employer’s son had some fertile eggs from one of the Java/Americauna mutts plus maybe some Buff Orpington hatch out at his Dad’s place…I traded some of my extras for them.  Another friend was getting rid of some Americauna x Barred rock extras…I snagged my favorite cockerel.  The neighbor with the big collection had a rooster get loose and it started hanging around my coop…it looked perfect for one of my crosses so I bought it…one of my faults/virtues is that I can see potential in almost anything.  It is often a little harder than I would like for me to sort between potentials and narrow down my focus to the likeliest of the opportunities.  Seeing potential in and using what is at hand can result in some inexpensive, quixotic, whimsical, even soulful handicrafts, structures, and carpentry around here, but it can also be debilitating when it is hard to let go of things I know will be otherwise regarded as useless and discarded.

In this case my penchant for using what is at hand has resulted in a collection of chicken genetics that is as full of stories and relationships as it is of traits.  The chickens that I breed, indeed the breeds that I am working to create, will (if I am successful) have been created from the flocks of my friends and neighbors (and hopefully for the flocks of my friends and neighbors), sometimes by way of their favorites and sometimes by way of individuals that they regarded as extraneous to their goals but in which I recognized some missing piece of this evolving puzzle.

It’s time I described that puzzle.  As I observe and participate in agriculture today, I see and sense changes underfoot.  Agriculture is nothing if not adaptable, and the changes I see happening and/or coming: lowered energy availability, deeper blending of disparate elements into integrated systems, customer demand for ethical treatment of animals and for high quality, a meaningful return to harmony with the native/naturally occurring ecosystem, average people wishing to dabble in their own food production in urban landscapes, etc., etc…all of these imply a shift in the performance of the domesticated species, plant and animal, we depend on for our sustenance.  Not least, chickens.

The role, then, that I have taken up for myself is that of genetic inventor, perhaps even genetic artist.  The inventor in a society is the one who is out front of the industrious, making a way for them in the wilderness of unknown richness and opportunity that is our universe.  The artist is even further beyond, imagining, manipulating, and playing, delighting or disturbing their fellows and expanding the possibilities in their minds and in our collective consciousness.  In my work I hope to accomplish several things:  I hope to get the ball rolling on some new breeds to serve some of the new agroecological niches I have observed emerging (I’m not the only one).  I hope to show that ordinary people can solve their own dilemmas and modify their own environment to meet their needs with what is at hand.  I hope to move my own farm and family further toward true sustainability, natural harmony, and ecological participation.  I hope to bring and inspire some measure of delight and imagination to my contemporaries.  I hope to shed light on the power of human ingenuity—for good or ill—applied to the evolutionary process.  I hope to help return us to our birthright as responsible members of the constantly unfolding, inextricably interconnected biological and energetic milieu that is life on this wondrous planet.

No problem.  I can do that.

O.k., so that sounds a little pretentious, presumptuous, preposterous perhaps.  I am fully aware of that.  I am not trying to say that I’m some kind of chosen one who will, by breeding some chickens he found in the neighborhood, be the one to accomplish this stuff.  I am saying that I tend to have an inventive mind, I happen to have glommed on to chicken breeding (though I breed plants, too) as my main medium/area of work, and I have a set of values that recognizes a need for change from the status quo and for taking responsibility.  When you add these up (throw in a little spizzerinktum), you get the above set of outlandish claims from a fringe chicken geek.  It is my belief that to the degree each of us has an awareness of our membership in the commonwealth of life, each of us is working on this same project, from our own angle and with our own set of strengths and weaknesses.

So what have I come up with so far, and where is this thing headed?  Well, I have managed to pare it down to four distinct breeding projects, with the ambition to originate four distinct and new breeds of chicken.  Each of them is intended for a specific role in contemporary small-scale agriculture, and is designed to respond and be adapted to a particular set of challenges and standards.  I’ll describe them below:

The Alleghenies

The Allegheny Chicken is intended for small farm and homestead egg production—preferably free range but adaptable to most typical management systems—in the hill and mountain country of Appalachia, most especially the stretch of mountain ranges in western Virginia, West Virginia, western Maryland, and central and western Pennsylvania.  It seems to me that this is where I sometimes hear the word “Allegheny” used to refer to particular mountains, ranges, or the whole regional geological system, hence the naming of the breed.  These environments are often characterized by lush, heavily shaded moist deciduous forests, the shade being cast even deeper in the innumerable ravines and hollows found in this old, eons-eroded mountain landscape.  This lends support to the notion of dark coloration being favorable camouflage, especially in the warm half of the year.

Personally, the Allegheny Mountains, particularly of West Virginia and Pennsylvania (my original home state) have always held something deeper than charm for me.  They are the emotional site of some kind of unnamed longing, probably for reconnection to self-organized nature and felt human interdependence with wild environs, but I’ve not yet been satisfied with any arrangement of words I’ve attempted to put to it.  So I’m trying breeding a chicken instead.

As such, the Allegheny Chicken is the most artsy of the projects, with symbolic aesthetics playing a strong role in its formation.  The Allegheny Mountains are coal country; coal culture is strong and at times even a source of pride for the people who work the mines, or whose ancestors did.  I am of course appalled at the devastation to land and climate that coal production has wrought and is wrighting, but I must not shrink from the realization of all the ways our whole society (of which I am an undeniable product) has benefitted/is benefitting from that abundant energy source, and I do not disparage the people who have gathered in the hill towns to work the mines or the pride they have felt in their work and communities.  And so coal country and culture gets an artistic nod from me in the Allegheny chicken:

At hatch, the chicks are mostly as black as little chunks of coal (though you see some with rusty tinges).  As they grow and feather out, a few feathers appear with shades of red and gold, which always strikes me as a slow-motion representation of the coal catching fire.  The outer feathers of adults are up to half red/gold tones in varying patterns; the black portions are usually a little iridescent.  The fluffy undercoat of all birds is a rich, sooty black (no gray, please).  As birds age they may show a few “ashy” whitish feathers around the head.  The feet are free of feathers with the ancestral “normal” number of toes, and are also black on the shanks and the tops of the toes, with the breed’s yellow skin showing on the bottoms of the feet.  An interesting trait (not totally unique to this breed, probably) is that often the tip of the middle toe including the nail will be yellow also, which I fancy as the miner’s “flashlight.”  More unusual is the black pigmentation that frequently occurs (and which I favor for breeders and am trying to increase) on the facial skin and even somewhat on the comb.  I think of this as representing the miner’s coal-stained face.  Lest you think I’ve overdone it on the coal symbolism I’ll let you in on the symbolically transformative secret of this breed: the eggs, which represent the future, come out green.

Combine this general visage with the pea combs I’ve chosen for resistance to the intense cold these birds must face in their mountain homes, and to me you’ve got a pretty snappy-looking chicken.  But despite its dramatic coloration and attractiveness up close, these birds do seem to blend into the woods pretty well, especially at dusk, and the ones that have more gold feathers can disappear into the leaf litter on the forest floor surprisingly well.

In terms of non-aesthetic characteristics, I have thus far accepted a wide range of sizes and shapes when selecting my breeders, preferring—to paraphrase Carol Deppe—to let diversity live where it may.  My main criteria are that I want birds that lay a lot of good-sized and nicely-shaped eggs, I want a bird that is worth butchering (no skinny birds allowed), all birds should be physically fit and not overly fat but not wound tight either (think Black Java, not Rhode Island Red).  The general body type is of an average-sized, well-balanced bird roughly on the order of the Plymouth Rock series, though I favor fuller, well-organized tails.  As far as temperament, they should never be aggressive with humans (I make soup from the males that get uppity), and not overly aggressive with each other, either.  A calm, pleasant flock is what we’re after.  Handling them should not be too stressful or exhausting.  But this does not imply stupidity.  On the range these chickens know how to hide from hawks and flee from foxes, and their general suite of survival and foraging instincts are in pretty good order.  The presence and level of broody instinct varies on these birds, and I don’t yet know which direction to take things in that regard.  I personally prefer chickens that can hatch their own young, but for egg production purposes this can be a liability when the hens start taking six-week vacations from egg duty.

I hope this and other questions that might come up can be answered not by me but by us.  My hope is, for this and the other breeds, to engage with several other interested flock owners to create and maintain the breed.  If it comes from only me, I fear it will be disconnected and irrelevant, and also the process will be less meaningful.  For this breed especially, I don’t even live in the environment for which I intend the bird, so it will be hard to truly hit the mark.  The actual experienced conditions give the most reliable feedback.  Consider this paragraph a solicitation: can I interest you in joining me in developing this beautiful and productive potential contribution to the Allegheny regional rural and food culture?

The Massanuttens

In 2014 we took a hike from our doorstep to the dramatic peak of Massanutten Mountain, which is the mountain in full, close-up view out our front windows.  The further we climbed, the more I understood about the basis of the particular habitat we inhabit, because the bedrock and the weathered chunks of sandstone and limestone that had been wrestled from it by time and water and temperature and the force of motion were laid increasingly bare.  To some extent, the same effect can be seen on the slope behind our place to the north and west, though most of our own soil shows no exposed rock.  The effect is to render the woodland a little more spotty and ragged than it might be in deeper soil…sort of threadbare, with scrubbier trees and more light making it through the canopy and the shrub layer to the splotchy rocks.

I’m describing a hard place to make a living, unless you’re a lichen.  But the wild creatures manage it mostly pretty handily.  My aim with the Massanutten is to breed a chicken that is a survivor.  Fully free ranged during the daytime in edgy, maybe even harsh and relatively barren conditions, this chicken relies on excellent instincts, alertness, and camouflage to thrive in its home.  It needs to be able to deal with extreme weather and varied ecological zones from full tree cover to rocky slopes.  It is a productive bird for the margins.  If it is to be fed primarily with grain and supplements, and only augment its diet with forage, then egg production will be able to be year-round, which is the currently accepted standard for egg breeds.  If it is to be fed primarily through forage, egg production will probably have to be tempered and perhaps revert to ancestral seasonal fluctuation, and meat production will be a more practical focus…like chicken ranching.  I haven’t decided this point yet, but I do think this bird will be tipped more the second direction, so at current I am favoring strong incubation and brooding instincts in anticipation that meat production will be more advantageous for these marginal habitats.  That’s not to say I don’t want a lot of eggs…when the resources are there, I want them to respond with plenty of them.

Right now the bird occurs in two color phases seen most clearly in the chicks: one phase hatches chicks with indistinct, cloudier color zones and variations (I like the parallel with the cloudy weather on Massanutten Mountain), the other resembles the more ancestral “chipmunk” coloration.  The cloudier ones are more grizzled, less patterned as adults except on the neck, whereas the chipmunky ones show a pattern more like what is known as “partridge” coloring, though the tones vary from traditional partridging.  I am refraining from making decisions about which direction to take the coloration yet, as I want some input from Mother Nature (golly she can be harsh).  But I like the cloudy ones, and I’ve never seen others like them.  It may end up that both phases are kept permanently and intentionally together rather than separately.

As far as body shape, I am favoring long, low (like the mountain itself), and well-meated birds that have plenty of room in the egg-laying compartment but are not especially deep in body.  Especially I do not want a deep keel.  I want a bird that looks good and fits well in a roasting pan and that keeps a juicy breast in the oven.  I butchered a batch of Dominique hens once that impressed me greatly and which I am holding as the shape standard.  I’ve not seen hens like them since and I don’t know which hatchery they came from.  Weights are currently variable and I’m not too sold on any particular weight, though I think as big as we can achieve while still maintaining athleticism and vigor is probably the sweet spot.

Egg color is currently blue and blue-green…I’m thinking the blue/gray continuum is right.  Cloudy, you see.

The Shenandoahs

The Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, our beautiful home region, was, before European encroachment, prairie country.  The double rain shadow from both the Allegheny Front and the Blue Ridge creates a semi-arid climate that favored fire, which favored grasslands of types not often seen again until you hit the Midwest.  There was a bison herd here, I understand.

With that in mind, rotational/holistic pasture-based beef production is one of the most reasonable choices for a regionally adapted agricultural specialty.  Joel Salatin, also a Valley resident, has made this model famous, and a key to his system is to follow the beef herds with old hay wagons converted to Eggmobiles, as the chickens are experts at pest control and fertility resource integration: i.e., they love eating maggots out of the ripe cow pies they eagerly disperse into the grass.

But when I visited his farm in 1995, and when I see his chickens on nearly every food/environmental-themed documentary that comes out these days, I see chickens not as well-adapted for their circumstances as I think they could be.  He typically uses, I think, Rhode Island Red and Black Australorp, though he may use others, too.  These are not shabby choices by any stretch, but Joel himself has called for the development of a new breed or breeds to suit the needs of a changing agriculture.  It is my hope that Tangly Woods can have a role to play in filling the need, whether through direct collaboration with Polyface Farm or otherwise (I’ve not yet attempted to contact them to discuss the potential).

What I and a few collaborators have come up with so far is a collection of light-colored, large-bodied birds loosely based on two hens I saw in my neighbor’s Black Java flock.  These were pure black Java hens, but had hatched with Buff Columbian color pattern.  In breeder’s lingo, they were either “sports” (spontaneously arisen by mutation) or “throwbacks” (a recurrence of an older pattern).  In either case, I saw the potential to take the Black Java’s excellent grazing/grassland foraging ability, good vitality and large body and egg size and formulate it with a cold-resistant comb, light coloration for heat resistance, and hopefully improved egg production (though some Black Javas are pretty productive for a heritage breed).  A friend wanted some pet chickens, so I brokered a deal and then had access to them later for crossing with a cock I had acquired from my neighbor’s son’s brood that was ¼ Americauna, ¼ Black Java, ½ Buff Orpinton (probably).  One of the offspring from that cross is still my best breeder in this project.  Her name is Helen.  She’s big and rangy, light brown/tan with black highlights on neck and tail, and lays lots of big, olive-colored eggs.

The picture I have in my mind for this breed is a flock of large, angular, long-legged chickens of a light, drab assortment of tans, browns, and yellows (even varied on the same bird, ideally), with occasional ticks and highlights of black on some of the feathers of the neck, back, and tail ranging widely over a recently grazed paddock, enthusiastically tearing up the cow flops, chasing grasshoppers, stretching tall to harvest grass seed from the heads, and eating plenty of fresh grass themselves.  And once each day, almost every day, sneaking into the eggmobile to tuck yet another large, olive-toned egg into a nest box.  I picture them being watched over by an imposing (ten pound minimum and it looks even bigger), alert, courageous, and athletic rooster with a great big black flag of a tail that shimmers and flashes its iridescence, held high in the prairie wind.  Something of a confluence of the Buckeye, the Black Java, the Black Langshan, and the Buff Brahma, but which lays like a Leghorn, and eats like a bird.

Sounds great, huh?  O.k., we’re not there yet.  I probably won’t get it there on my own, either, even though I think I now have enough starter stock (some really good birds) on hand to provide the traits and the diversity we would need to establish the breed.  The trouble is that we don’t have any cattle (yet!), we don’t have much grassland, and chicken keeping on our scale is not profitable enough to support the project on its own, even if we could lease the neighbor’s pasture.  Please contact me if you might want to get involved by raising a flock of my hatchlings for your own purposes, but from which I might select breeders, or by adopting a flock of breeders outright and joining me in the task of origination.

The Keezle

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: 1) 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. 2) 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 3). 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. 4)  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.  5)  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.  6) 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).

Thus concludes my summaries of the four projects.  Please be advised that this is only a current manifestation, and is subject to change without notice!  I deeply welcome all feedback with regard to these ideas and our experiences, and even more deeply welcome your involvement either by trying out some birds or even hosting a breeder flock of one of the emerging breeds.  Be in touch if you have any interest and I’ll be happy to help you discern which category of chicken might be right for your situation.

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