Purpose of the Blacks Run Brown chicken
With the potentially wonderful surge in popularity over the past 10 years of urban chicken keeping and the growing recognition of the value of chickens as pets, I have noticed a few problems. First, new chicken keepers are often unaware of the physical challenges their management styles can present to their beloved birds. Backyard chickens, despite the pampering their owners think they are lavishing on them, sometimes suffer severe physical stress. Second, many chicken breeds are temperamentally unsuited to the close confinement of a coop designed to hold just a few chickens. Third, some chicken breeds are not particularly tamable, leading to unsatisfactory results as pets. Fourth, hens that have the instinct for incubating their own eggs make an inconvenient situation in coops with only one nest, and them taking a break from laying to hunker down and get crabby for weeks at a time was not welcome for families depending on a consistent egg supply from just a few hens.
Based on our own experience with small, movable coops that we at first used to hold all our birds before we had larger coops built (these now hold our breeding groups), I made some observations of what traits would help a chicken thrive in such settings and what traits made life difficult for the hens. Our Buckeyes and Silver-Laced Wyandottes were both too active to thrive in small spaces. Roosters with single combs often had their combs frostbitten on the coldest nights, the hens that were both large and heavyset suffered in the heat, birds with dark plumage couldn’t tolerate summer sun, and birds with thick and fluffy feathers had nowhere to go with their excess body heat in summer. Once frostbite was eliminated as a problem, generally in our climate heat was more of a threat than cold.
Urban gardening and animal keeping is an important option for ordinary people staying in touch with the challenges and rewards of living in connection to the land. Many people get their first taste of farming from this innocent beginning and move from there into a rural life or farming career (this is crucial for a society with a dramatically aging farm demographic…we need new farmers!). For others, it helps them appreciate the work of farming or simply furnishes a mental health reprieve from the stress of work and social life among humans. Having a chicken breed able to be a thriving and reliable partner in this sector is worthwhile, even necessary, for a successful and ethically sound urban version of chicken keeping.
Named for the stream that runs through the heart of Harrisonburg, VA–our nearest city–the Blacks Run Brown chicken exists to meet the needs of the urban flockster. Selected for a calm, tolerant, tamable temperament and adaptability to both summer heat and winter cold under sometimes difficult conditions, the BRB is a pleasure to have around. They are smaller in frame size than most standard heavy breeds, but are by no means bantams or lightweight breeds. They lay enough full-sized, multi-colored eggs to be worth keeping as layers (not the very best layers, certainly not the worst) and the males make nice heritage-style roasting birds after 16 weeks or so of age.
Plumage is a variety of brown tones, with many of the hens having some pencilling which can appear any place in the body feathers, and both sexes usually have black tails. Males are typically buff except for tail, but some males will have black feathers on the breast and a some black or iridescent feathers in a wing patch. The comb is usually a cushion or walnut type, which makes them nearly immune to comb frostbite in our high valley climate. Their small size makes them less prone to overheating, but their plump, round shape helps them retain heat on cold nights. Feathering is moderate: neither thick like a Cochin, nor close like a Cornish. Their short shanks and small feet, which can be yellow or green, or occasionally white or blue, contribute to their cute, tidy appearance. Most are yellow-skinned, but some white-skinned individuals show up from time to time. We haven’t eliminated this trait because within the parameters of the breed as established, we wagered that variety was an asset for birds intended as pets so folks could tell each from the others.
When we have picnics on our lawn, these birds show up, begging for treats and making friends. Many of them are calm during handling, especially if acquired as chicks and raised around humans. Their small frame seems to lend them an ability to subsist on smaller rations than larger birds. They are almost exclusively non-broody. They free range successfully at our farm, but we have them housed close to our residences because their calm disposition may make them less wary of predators than others. That said, they certainly seek cover when hawks are around and should do fine in many rural settings with reasonable predator protections (available cover, fencing, shutting in securely at night) in place.
There was a chicken named Marigold that was a favorite of mine. She was an accidental cross of our neighbor’s Black Java and Americauna chickens. She was a tawny tan with black penciling and a black tail. She was calm and quiet, and spent several years in a friend’s back yard in Harrisonburg, in a small portable wire cage–with a half of a blue plastic barrel for a house–that he moved around the yard. She seemed content in whatever circumstances, and never went broody. When they moved away, I asked for her, hoping she’d still have a few good hatching eggs in her, which she did! In all her days I never saw her make enemies of any other being; when she faded and died she did so quietly in a nest box, and for some reason (respect?) her flock mates left her to die in peace and did not disturb her.
Around the same time, we had had a good experience with a rare breed called Buff Chantecler, which is a Canadian chicken; historically the only breed (I think) with a “cushion” comb. They were calm and friendly and productive, and delicious to eat. They had only two problems for us. They were prone to overheating with that warm, Canadian pelt of densely fluffy feathers, and, color-wise, they were…boring. All buff all the time except for a few individuals with a few black, pepper-like flecks in their tails. I found myself drawn to those individuals, but I wanted more! The idea for a pet chicken for urban environments was forming, and I crossed the Buff Chantecler with Marigold (and maybe a few others) for its foundation. One of those offspring became our oldest daughter’s pet Buttercup, the most easily handled and tolerant chicken I have ever known. Her passing was genuinely mourned, and she is still missed. She lived for many years in a small coop in our garden with her sister Iris (my favorite after Marigold passed). They would be pulled out of the coop to dart around our feet after bugs and worms whenever we worked soil, and were easily retrieved when the work was done. I don’t know if we ever ended up getting offspring from Buttercup, unfortunately, but Iris was the mother of many (though, having never gone broody, she never knew it). Probably every Blacks Run Brown has some of Iris’s genes in them.
Over several years, a handful of urban chicken keepers have adopted small flocks of the BRB, and they tend to be enthusiastic, forming strong attachments to the birds and eating plenty of their eggs while they are at it. Recently I was in Harrisonburg and saw a mixed flock of chickens in a yard of someone I didn’t know, and had to do a double take: There was one of our Blacks Run Browns, I was sure of it! I don’t know how she came to live there…all I know is that this breed can be considered a full success when it becomes the classic, even iconic backyard chicken of Harrisonburg, and maybe beyond!
Note: Due to functional redundancy with the Cub Run Crele in our program, plumage redundancy with the Shenandoah, the limitations of our time and facilities, and given our own rural–not urban–setting, Tangly Woods is phasing out the Blacks Run Brown. Hatching eggs, older breeding stock, or maybe chicks are still available for purchase by special arrangement through summer 2022. If anyone wants to raise this breed for personal use, conserve the breed for future usefulness, or even start their own Blacks Run Brown breeding flock enterprise to supply the growing urban market with chicks and/or pullets, please be in touch with us at 540 236 1713 or firstname.lastname@example.org.