Home is Where the Flock is
My love of chickens started when I was very young. Madras was my first chicken, an old English Bantam Fighting Cock, perhaps not the most appropriate chicken to start out with as a child, but my whole family grew to love him.
I was 10 years old when I found him one summer day while riding my horse through a Brewster wood to swim in a kettle pond. As I rode into the pond I spotted a large gunny bag floating. I pulled it ashore and inside found a pile of sopping wet chickens. They were young, not quite fully feathered and all still alive. It turned out to be a bag full of roosters and one hen that had obviously been discarded in error. My parents weren’t too excited about keeping that many roosters (fighting and crowing for dominance) but we did anyway. Soon the one hen in the bag hatched a clutch of chicks and in no time we had quite a brood. That was the beginning of our flock.
Madras was the most exquisite Bantam rooster I have ever seen. His body feathers were brilliant cranberry-maroon trimmed with black tips that shone purple in the sun. His neck was a golden blonde and he had two strikingly long tail feathers extending above the rest. He stood confidently straight and tall, willing to defend his territory at all costs. He strutted the grounds of our home, crowing night and day.
Madras became the dominant male and ultimately the rivalry among the roosters calmed down. One rooster, Harry Halloween, became Madras’s sidekick and the two traveled together. I brought them everywhere, propped up on the handlebars of my bike and hanging on for dear life in the wind. To this day I don’t know how or why they tolerated it. Harry usually became my friend Donna’s “chicken for the day” and would ride with her. We would cruise down to Bass River on our twin Schwinns and swim across in the stiff current, chickens clinging to our heads.
The domesticated chicken has a history stretching back 7000 to 10,000 years. It is one of the most common and widespread domestic animals. The chicken’s wild ancestor is the red junglefowl, Gallus gallus, according to a theory advanced by Charles Darwin and recently confirmed by DNA analysis. The junglefowl, which still exists today, resembles the modern rooster with its red wattles and comb, fighting spurs, and crow. The dun-colored females brood eggs and cluck just like barnyard chickens. In its habitat, which stretches from northeastern India to the Philippines, G. gallus scours the forest floor for insects, seeds and fruit, then flies up to nest in the trees at night.
One important change for humans in its domestication, the result of selective breeding, is the chicken’s ability to breed and lay eggs all year long, and perhaps that is the best reason to keep a backyard flock. There is nothing like a colorful basket of fresh eggs. Depending upon the breed, hens can lay blue eggs, green eggs, white, brown, cream, speckled or even chocolate colored eggs.
Blue eggs seem to be everyone’s favorite. The breed that lays them is the Araucana, an unusual variety of chicken that has its origins in South America, and was bred in southern Chile by the Mapuche people. Araucanas, some of which are tailless, have fluffy tufts of feathers around their ears. They make quite a whimsical first impression. Although not the most docile breed of chicken, they are friendly birds and are consistent layers of beautiful, sky blue eggs.
More recently, there have been a few other varieties bred to lay blue eggs, like the Easter Egger and the Ameraucana. The Ameraucana breed was derived from blue-egg-laying chickens, but they do not have the breeding problems inherent to Araucanas. In addition, rather than ear tufts, they have muffs and a beard, and are very hardy and sweet. They lay extra-large eggs in shades of blue, green and even pink. Less rare than Araucanas, they are still quite scarce.
Easter Eggers are so named because their eggs resemble those in an Easter basket, producing eggs that vary from pale to dark blue, to various shades of green, to brownish-pink eggs. Easter Egger chickens themselves vary widely in color, and are exceptionally hardy. Since they are usually quite friendly to children and humans in general, they are a great choice for a family flock. If you are interested in showing your birds, make sure that you have true Ameraucana or Araucana, not Easter Eggers, since they do not fully meet any breed standard defined by the American Poultry Association.
Crosses from breeds such as Ameraucanas, Marans and Faverolles are being bred to produce green and olive eggs. Another uniquelycolored egg comes from the Marans, a variety that can lay dark chocolate-brown eggs, if they are from good breeding stock. The Marans are a moderately large, docile breed. The French Black Copper Marans are a bit rarer; striking in color with feathered feet and perhaps laying the darkest eggs of all.
The Welsummer is also revered for its deep reddish-brown egg color. Many of the eggs are also speckled. They are a pretty bird, the hen as well the rooster, with hints of gold around the neck and tail feathers tipped with a rich brown. The males are the stereotypical idea people have of roosters, like the rooster portrayed on the Kellogg’s cornflakes box. Welsummers are good foragers, meaning you’ll save on feed if you allow them to free range.
Wyandotte is also a popular breed due to their dependable egg laying, docile nature and hardiness. They come in a great variety of beautiful feather patterns, some with evocative names like Silver Penciled, Golden Laced, and Blue Laced Red.
When choosing a breed or breeds for your backyard flock, you need to decide on the qualities that will be most important to you and for the chickens’ well-being. Winter hardiness is probably the most important quality to consider. Some birds just don’t do well in colder climates. Large combs and wattles can freeze in severe weather, turning black and falling off. Look into a breed’s origins; a bird from a warmer region is certainly not going to fare as well on the Cape as a bird bred in New England like the Plymouth Rock, my favorite, a dual-purpose chicken with a great personality.
Also important to consider is whether you want them purely as egg layers, as meat birds, or dual purpose. No need to spend more on feeding a larger, dual-purpose bird if you only want eggs. Personality should also play a part in your choice. Some breeds are very “flighty” and nervous, like the Andalusian and Leghorn, while others are docile and people-oriented, like the Buff Orpington and Sussex.
If you are looking strictly for a pet, especially if you have a small yard, Bantams are a great choice. They come in every shape and color. They are tiny birds; some are miniature replicas of the standard breeds. Although they do lay eggs, they are quite small, about one-half to one-third the size of a regular hen egg. Quite agile and quick, Bantams can fly better than a standard-size chicken, and are able to escape ground predators with a bit more success. What they lack in size they make up for in personality!
Chickens are very social animals among themselves, with other animals, and with humans. They maintain a hierarchy and establish a “pecking order” within the group. They also form special friendships between one another and often group together by breed as well as age. If handled as young chicks and hand fed, they can become real pets who enjoy sitting in your lap and can learn to obey simple commands. My chickens will march right back to the chicken house when I clap my hands and tell them that it’s time to go to bed. They come when called, and they are able to understand other cross-species language, being aware of warning signals from other creatures like blue jays and crows, even humans. Yes, chickens are very vocal, and I’m not just referring to a rooster’s crow. They communicate with a plethora of clucks, growls and high-pitched squeals, indicating food, predators, and the miracle of life. The hens shout from the rooftop, “I laid an egg, I laid an egg!” every morning.
Chickens make a great “starter pet” for children, teaching them patience and responsibility at an early age. I never remember a time when I didn’t have to get up early to let the chickens out and feed them or be home at a certain hour to put them away for the night. A child will spend hours playing with a flock. Learning to observe life and not disrupt it is probably the best social skill one can learn as a child. And exhibiting her flock at a county fair is much more fulfilling compared to just attending, and a great way for your child to show off all her hard work.
You can start your new flock in numerous ways but bringing up your own chicks, especially for children, is certainly the most rewarding. Hatcheries offer a great selection of “day old” chick breeds delivered through the post office, but you do have to order 15 chicks or more to assure their safe travel through the mail. If you have access to an incubator, hatching eggs are also available and can give you the option of fewer hatchlings and more uncommon breeds.
Artificial incubation of eggs has been going on for a very long time. It is believed that the Egyptians first mastered the technique dating back at least until the Pharaohs’ time. This was no easy matter in those days! It takes three weeks for the eggs to hatch, but only if the temperature is kept constant at around 99 to 105 degrees Fahrenheit and the relative humidity stays close to 55 percent, increasing in the last few days of incubation. The eggs must also be turned three to five times a day. During those days in ancient Egypt, fertile eggs were collected and hatched in caves and clay houses. Heating was, and still is in some ancient hatcheries, done by lighting a fire, drawing natural heat from the sun or using oil lamps. Ventilation and humidity was controlled by means of doors, curtains and a chimney at the top of each incubator cell, as well as by wearing wet clothes and hanging wet rags. Lucky for us our modern incubators are equipped to do all these things automatically.
Although the days of a few chickens wandering around every homestead have passed, chickens still evoke that old-time traditional feeling of the way life is supposed to be.
Keeping chickens is having a resurgence amongst people who are concerned with where their food comes from and how it tastes. The birds are easy to keep and a pleasure to own, and some might agree that a house just isn’t a home without a small flock of backyard chickens.
Veronica Worthington is an organic farmer who grows heirloom vegetables for market and breeds heritage sheep for wool in West Dennis.