Casaubon's Book

Poultry Addicts of the World, Unite!

“It is soooo hard to wait, Mom!”

Isaiah is seven years old and when you are seven, uncertainty is torture. He asks me when the mail will get here 20 times a day, and can he go out and wait for the mail truck? I point out that it is 4 degrees F out there, and the mail won’t be here for three hours, but he and his youngest brother still go out until the cold drives them back.

What’s he waiting for? Not birthday presents or toys, he’s waiting for the Murray McMurray hatchery catalog to come in the mail. Isaiah, you see, is a poultry addict, and his addiction is all my fault.

Last year we had the idea that the children could each choose a variety of poultry and show them at the county fair if they liked. We ended up not showing (goat birthing came during the fair), but the boys were excited. Then four-year-old Asher was deemed too young to care for his own birds, but could help his brothers in hope of earning the right to have his own poultry when he was five (he did), and then-nine year old Eli wasn’t particularly interested, but SImon and Isaiah set about the critical project of choosing their birds. Simon looked through the catalog twice, pointed to golden-laced cochin bantam chickens, said “those” and was done. For Isaiah, however, this involved weeks of agony as the catalog (and those from Strombergs and Cackle) became more and more tattered from an excess of love. Finally, agonizingly, Isaiah chose crested ducks, which he lovingly tended all summer.

By late summer, Isaiah was speculating about next year’s birds. For Chanukah he received a copy of Storey’s Guide to Poultry Breeds, with pictures of hundreds of different chickens, ducks, geese and peacocks.

“I can’t pick peacocks, right Mom?” he asks for clarification.

Ummmm…no. I don’t really want peacocks.

“Ok. What about quail?”

Ummm…

The thing is, this is totally my fault. All my kids love the farm in different ways, but none of them inherited my passion for farming like Isaiah did doing. At three, could name more plants than his father. At five, he asked if he could use his spending money to buy a bamboo plant and some succulents to plant on our stone wall. As I wrote in “Doing Has No Need of Wishing”, Isaiah fits in this life like a glove:

You see, Isaiah from as early as I can remember, took to this life in ways my other children did not. They all love the animals and the open spaces, the creek and the gardens, the climbing trees and the woods to play in, but of all my children, Isaiah is organically, naturally, innately a farm child. Of my sons, he is the most fascinated by plants and animals, most anxious to participate in anything domestic. When he was younger, he hated to leave the farm, although he’s grown more adventurous with time.

Isaiah loves to cook and can bake a mean pan of cornbread almost by himself or a sheet full of chocolate chip cookies. He can name more plants than Eric can, and when Asher scraped a finger recently, Isaiah was the one who ran to the lamb’s ears to make a bandage for him. Every animal on the farm likes and trusts him, and he alone can pick up every bird on the whole farm. He loves to build and mend things. When he was two, as we left for a visit to his Grandmother in New York City, each child was allowed to pick something to bring with them for the trip. My other children brought favorite books and toys. Isaiah brought a salad he’d picked himself – sorrel, mint, lettuce, mizuna, arugula – as a gift for his grandmother. I think that salad still says something deep about my child.

Isaiah has a farm dream of his own – when we considered moving last year, Isaiah, normally the least adventurous of my children, was entirely for it – the barn, after all, had a hayloft. He barely looked at the house. Isaiah’s farm dream includes lots of poultry as well.

I can’t really criticize, since he gets it from me, and from his grandmother. It seems to run in the family – Uncle Billy loves ducks (Isaiah gave Uncle Billy one of his beloved crested ducks, since Uncle Billy was sad that his Dad died, and Isaiah wanted to make him feel better – Isaiah observed that ducks would make *him* feel better, so it seemed reasonable to believe that it would work for Uncle. I’m assured that it did.) Auntie Rachael has a thing about the Polish Chickens with the feathery heads. Nunu (his grandmother) just got permission to go from four to six hens in her tiny backyard in a small city outside Boston.

Secretly, of course, I’m hoping the catalogs come too. And that maybe they send two by mistake, so that I get to look at one of them. I could do it online, of course, but it isn’t the same. And, of course, I’ve got to engage in the important work of choosing what chickens we might add to our household. Of course we hatch some out, but I want more little egg-producing walking lawn ornaments for farm production and well, because I love them.

Most of the chickens are treated as livestock here, but as I wrote before, a few of them are pets. There’s a Cochin hen named Fluffybutt who, as far as I can tell, hasn’t ever laid much of anything, but has the gift of hatching out chicks and a name, so she’s become a pet. On one annoying afternoon the boys came back yelling delightedly that they’d named all the roosters. Several of those roosters had been slated for a visit to freezer camp in the near future, but as the boys proudly told me the names they’d come up with “This one is Toasted Marshmallow” “This one is Firecracker” “This one is Stinky Inky” I sighed and let them live.

None of the birds was ever as special as Blackberry, who I wrote about in “On Sentiment…And Against Sentimentality” earlier this year. Blackberry was quite elderly at that point, and perhaps unsurprisingly, he died in the coldest part of the winter. Isaiah misses Blackberry desperately, and I know that’s part of why he can’t wait to order his chicks for spring; He’s hoping that he’ll find another bird as loveable and gentle. And who knows, he might – because Isaiah is loving and gentle, and animals respond to him.

Isaiah doesn’t just want the animals, he wants the work that goes with them. He wants to help sell his own eggs at the farmstand. He is planning his garden – giant pumpkins, yard long beans, enormous Bloody Butcher Corn – the three sisters garden of the Brobdignagians, and he’s already plotting what he’ll do with it. Does he want to thin the pumpkins and try and win a prize at the fair? Or would he be happy to line the driveway with gigantic jack-o-lanterns? Will I teach him to pickle the beans, so he can enter his pickles in the fair? Should he choose chickens who lay better (more egg sales) or chickens who are more unusual (better shot at a ribbon?). These are complex and important decisions, and they can’t be rushed. They are best made curled up on the couch with a mug of tea and a pile of catalogs. And if Mom is next to him with the seed catalogs, casting the occasional longing glance over at the poultry catalogs, great!

There’s just something about chickens – I’ve called it the “chicken pax” that highly communicative disease that makes you want chickens…or more chickens. Symptoms include:

…praising egg quality, paging through the Murray McMurray catalog and craning your neck to see if that thing in your neighbor backyard is a coop or a shed. No one, no matter where you live, is immune.

A major public health menace, this pax – after all, it could deal a death blow to the confinement egg operations if everyone was to get it ;-). Wouldn’t want that, would we?

Meanwhile, if you want to know what we’re doing here, well, watching for the mail, of course. The addicts, big and small, are waiting for their fix!

Sharon

Comments

  1. #1 Janet Camp
    January 11, 2011

    You have too many children to be concerned about the earth and its limited resources. I wonder why they mostly have Biblical names?

  2. #2 Susan
    January 11, 2011

    Yep, loves me some garden porn! My catalogs are sitting on the kitchen table, waiting for DH to sit down with me and help choose more herbs to plant this year. And, too, this is the year we get new chickens — I would like to order enough (we have two coops) to both get more layers and to raise chickens for the freezer. So I’m looking forward to perusing the chicken catalogs as well. I am currently in love with Buff Orpingtons — so big and gentle — but that could change once I look at a catalog.

    It’s so cool that you support and encourage this in your children! I wish we would have had the stability and that I would have thought of doing something like that with my kids when they were younger. Visiting the chickens is always on their list of things to do when they come, and I get emails and calls for preserves frequently, not to mention eggs.

    And Janet, I have three. All three of mine were birth control babies. No kidding. Sometimes they’re just meant to be.

  3. #3 Sharon Astyk
    January 11, 2011

    Damn, caught! I thought I could get away with pretending to be a leftist Jewish environmentalist, but my children’s names gave my secret identity as a conservative Quiverfull cornucopian away, and thus destroyed my only hope of undermining the all-powerful ecological movement. I should have known my readers would simply be too brilliant to be taken in, and gone with my first instinct, and named the kids Lance, Trevor, Harold and Waldo.

    I probably shouldn’t answer this question in the “don’t feed the trolls” spirit, but Eli and Simon were named after deceased and deeply beloved great-grandparents. While I believe both great-grandparents were themselved named for deceased family members of the same name, I can’t deny the shocking fact that the Bible was probably involved somewhere back 1-200 years ago in the initial name choice.

    As for why we didn’t then give the younger boys other types of names, well, you can try saying “Eli, Simon…Steve” for a while and figure it out.

    Sharon

  4. #4 Tree
    January 11, 2011

    I do love chickens, too.
    My favorite breed is the Dark Brahma from Ideal hatchery. Friendliest birds I’ve ever had, and so cute with their feathered feet. They are big, puffy galoots that often come up to you for petting.
    Spangled Russian Orloffs are a fine, friendly, cold-hardy breed. The hens have long hackle feathers that somehow give one the impression of a long-haired child running around. They’ll follow you everywhere.

    Dorkings are lovely, calm birds. They are an ancient breed known to be in old Roman mosaics. 2 out of three birds were extremely friendly. They are cute when their long comb hangs to one side of their head. I sometimes call them the Yankee-doodle birds.

    I love the speckled Sussex for a lot of reasons. A friendly, beautiful bird and they can be insanely devoted brooders.

    One of my favorite breeds was the Golden Comet: friendly, curious, energetic, terrific forager yet gentle with other birds. Problem with these production birds is they burn out at a young age. I lost every one of them at around three years old to egg-yolk peritonitis.

    Since I decided to keep my hens even after they stop laying, I switched to older and heritage breeds that don’t lay as heavily as production birds. It has worked out very well. As I had hoped, the birds don’t die as young from egg-related problems and the bonus is: They lay into a pretty old age. I still get eggs from my 5-year-old birds….about one a week. I’m thinking I end up with as many eggs per bird with these breeds, the eggs are just stretched out for a longer period of time, and that suits me just fine as I keep chickens for a lot of reasons other than just eggs.

    I order new chicks every three years to keep the egg supply up. Baby chicks are one of my favorite things :)

    My oldest bird is 10.5 years old. She is a partridge rock.

    Have fun browsing your catalogs…i’m a bit envious :)

    Tree

  5. #5 Tree
    January 11, 2011

    Hey Susan,

    There aren’t many breeds of chicken I don’t like. The Mediterranean breeds aren’t suited for this cold climate, so I avoid those.

    Buff Orps and Barred Rocks are some of the most beautiful birds. I plan to get more of those breeds, eventually.
    My Black Australorps got very large and were quite gentle. A couple of my Australorps have had crop problems.

    Have fun,
    Tree

  6. #6 Zoe hare
    January 11, 2011

    Sharon, comments like those of Janet Camp above are so unnecessary and sad. I am sure you are far too busy making a fun, healthy and meaningful life for your family on your beloved farm to bother explaining or even responding at all to comments of that tone. It is just sad that sour people with nothing better to do than shed self-ritious negativity upon a positive, inspiring blog post like yours are willing to comment so absurdly. We just acquired a lovely old farm in our new home in Central NY State my hisband found your blog while researching chickens. Even worse, we are hoping for, dare I say it, a third child!. I plan to follow your wonderful blog for both ideas and inspiration as I try to give my own kids the experience of living closer to the Earth. Hopefully Ms. Camp will go elsewhere to rain on “our” parade. For her I wish healing, or some form of relief so that she can learn to take pleasure in another’s joy.

  7. #7 Greenpa
    January 11, 2011

    What I learned about chickens last year: there’s a lot I don’t know about chickens; and all the info on the internet, and all the info from the hatcheries- doesn’t help.

    For example; my main desire is for mama chickens, good at real free range, who can sit on many eggs, and raise many babies, with minimum fuss from me. Year one, I settled on Dominiques and and Buff Orps. After a year of tribulations, the biggest one canine, I had no hens surviving, and one rooster of each, the Buff Orp rooster, incidentally, sent Spice to the emergency room, with a 1″ deep dirty puncture wound from its bill.

    So, next iteration, I decided to focus on Dark Brahmas, with a few Dominique hens thrown in for backup. McMurray also sent us “5 free exotics!” – which we called and asked them NOT to send – but they couldn’t stop it; so we got 7 (not 5) free exotics, instead -“Blue Cochins” – 4 of which are not blue.

    Feed costs or no, we grew them all up – and – at this point- man, I really like the Cochins.

    Never would have considered them based on all the stuff I could read. I don’t dislike my Brahmas; but the Cochins actually grew much faster, and bigger (something I think is good, and nothing prepared me for). Most of the photos of Cochins to me make them look almost dysfunctional; as chickens. Too much ornament, etc. Mine don’t look so silly, in person. And the huge roosters, so far, are quite gentle.

    Anyway. What I think I know now; it’ll take me years to really make up my mind; and everything you can learn from the catalogs – is only the tiny tip of the iceberg.

  8. #8 Matthew Pressly
    January 11, 2011

    Sharon, I enjoyed reading your article. If you need an extra catalog, please let me know.

  9. #9 darwinsdog
    January 11, 2011

    The Randall Burkey poultry catalog came the other day. I ordered mixed run chicks from them last year. They arrived on Feb. 4 and we kept them in a brooder in the sun room. My son & I killed the cockerels over two weekends in early summer and I’m eating the canned chicken soup this winter. I’m not going to order any chicks this year. I have no one to help me care for them. I will probably get a few pullets from the feed store later on when it’s warmer. I’m amazed that the hens are handling the cold so well. It was -9^oF the other night. The hens are loose and roosting in a mugo pine at night. Predators (and a Beagle puppy) have killed some of them. I saw a chupacabra a month or so ago. It was after the hens. I think it was a gray fox with sarcoptic mange. I don’t know how it survives the cold. Maybe it hasn’t. In the summer of ’07 there was a mangy coyote up on the farm. I never saw it again once it got cold.

    My wife & I attended the county fair this past autumn, primarily to see the poultry & other livestock. She was in the process of getting on the transplant list at the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Az., at the time, so we were already aware that she would probably be leaving soon. She was getting around with difficulty and was slow & had to stop & rest often. We toured the poultry barns, though, and looked at all the birds. Somehow, the experience wasn’t as magical as in years past but this wasn’t the fault of the birds. If she was still around and was healthy I’d have more of Isaiah’s enthusiasm for chickens.

  10. #10 darwinsdog
    January 11, 2011

    ..Buff Orpingtons — so big and gentle —

    Yeah, almost too gentle. They allow other breeds to pick on them. The white Leghorns are mean little road-runners & are hard to catch, but they do put out the eggs. They seem to be handling the cold as well as the buffies & rocks. I think that the barred rocks are my favorite breed although I haven’t kept all that many different kinds of chicken.

  11. #11 Nat
    January 11, 2011

    On the one hand, it’s probably bad form to wish more trolls upon one of my favorite SB bloggers; on the other though, I *so* enjoyed your smackdown up there at #3 :)

  12. #12 Margaret in Wales
    January 11, 2011

    But quail are fun! A bit like keeping a handful of bees mind you. And they drown in a puddle as small as your finger. No concept of home. When the fox finally came DH didn’t start again. But they are still fun.

  13. #13 Sharon Astyk
    January 12, 2011

    The first catalog came yesterday! Woot!

    Notice I didn’t actually say “no” about the quail ;-). I want geese this year, though – we had some a friend gave us, until the male died. The replacement male we tried to introduce went over the fence and lived across the road and the female followed (we thought they couldn’t fly, since they were Pomeranians and very heavy…it turned out they just hadn’t ever wanted to before). For 3 years the geese lived on the pond across the road and periodically we’d try (and fail) to round them up (it became a “fun thing to do with the visitors…let’s try and catch the geese”) and people would say “have you seen the strange species of wild…” “Yes.” “But isn’t it….” “No.” So I’d like to try again ;-).

    Blackberry the beloved rooster was a dark Brahma, and I love the Cochins – I like my chickens big and fluffy! I enjoy our silkies (which do fine in the cold and are fabulous setters) at least in part because people think we have owlets in our yard and stop their cars in amazement.

    Buff Orps are probably my all time favorite, but we’ve had most of the heavy breeds and a few light ones. Isaiah wants Silver Speckled Hamburgs, Asher wants Dark Brahmas and Simon wants Black Jersey Giants. We’ve had the latter before and they did well, but weren’t the best we’ve had. I like the Americaunas for mixing in for egg sales (people are so impressed by this) and Marans for the same reason, and otherwise, I think my default birds are the Buffs for layers. Our Buff rooster is the dominant rooster in the barnyard, and I haven’t noticed our hens getting picked on among our motley assortment.

    We tried Delawares as meat birds and weren’t impressed, we’ve tried Dark Cornish as well, which did better. But that’s the fun of it – trying new poultry is a blast!

    Sharon

  14. #14 Greenpa
    January 12, 2011

    Sharon, do you have mama birds that are outstanding “setters”? Particularly the Brahmas or Cochins? None of the commercial suppliers are selecting for maternal behavior; and most breeds have had much of it bred out of them, since it conflicts with eternal egg production.

    I’d be interested in maybe buying some hatching eggs from you; from your best mamas. (Would be great if we knew who daddy was, too; but… I might be willing to take whatever I can get…) And/or, I could probably swap you- interested in guinea fowl hatching eggs?

    And/or – anybody else, out there? I figure since I’ve already got the birds; it makes no sense to NOT be selecting/breeding for the things I want.

  15. #15 darwinsdog
    January 12, 2011

    ..I haven’t noticed our (Buff Orpington) hens getting picked on among our motley assortment.

    I think that I recounted the incident of a rock squirrel digging under the side of the chicken tractor, getting in and biting many of the pullets on the feet, which led to an outbreak of foot pecking & cannibalism. White Leghorn, Barred Rock & Buff Orpington pullets were all bitten. My observation was that it was primarily the White Leghorns that were doing the pecking and Buff Orps that were being pecked. Leghorns & Rocks tended to defend themselves from the more aggressive pullets while the Buffies tended to just hunker down and endure it. I ended up just turning them all loose so they could get away from being pecked. This exposed them to predators, who got some, but I do believe that had I kept them confined together, I would have ended up with just one dominant Leghorn hen.

  16. #16 Tree
    January 12, 2011

    My best Mothers were the speckled sussex, and my Langshans co-mothered with a Brabanter

  17. #17 Stuart
    January 12, 2011

    Greenpa,

    I’ve been working on breeding broody chickens for about 10 years. After a few generations of crossing hatchery chickens from breeds that used to have good broody instincts, you can bring back the broodiness.

    I’ve been working with crossing Dorkings, Orpingtons and Dominiques

    Email me if you want at gift [dot] of [dot] corn [at] gmail [dot] com .

    Stuart

  18. #18 Brad K.
    January 12, 2011

    Janet,

    I hope your comment was facetious! I don’t see how loving your children could be expressed any way other than working to assure a safe, secure, and happy home – and house, and community, and nation, and world. How could we ever say, “Well, I won’t worry about how *That* might bother my loved one!”

    I consider ‘possessions’ like livestock, gardens, land, etc. to be gifts of G*d – with the responsibility to nurture, nourish, maintain, and harvest in season.

    I forget Sharon’s explanation for the children’s names. If I might name a child with a Biblical name to honor a virtue, accomplishment – or signal mark of love of/by G*d. A Biblical name would be an affirmation of my devotion, my hope for the child’s love of and for G*d, and a symbol of dedicating my parentage and child’s development to the service of G*d.

    Each of Sharon’s sons has a name of love and discipline. What could be wrong with that?

    Sharon,

    I wonder if Isaiah has considered which pumpkins would make better chicken fodder, since chickens will eat pumpkins, watermelon rinds, etc.? I mean, if we are looking for the best answer for all the questions, . . lol!

    Blessed be!

  19. #19 Tree
    January 12, 2011

    Oh, I do like the Cochins, too. I’ve had a couple sweet partridges. They aren’t very active, though. My Blues were a bit too skittish.
    Easter-eggers are always fun, they come in so many different plumages, are very good layers, and most of mine have been tough birds.
    The Golden Comet is the best layer I’ve ever had, though. If you are going to kill the older hens they are a good production choice. They’ll often lay a jumbo egg when they get a bit older, so they are worth keeping a couple years. They are really fun to have around as they’re quite smart and energetic. They were always the first to run up for treats and a lot of fun for kids. The sex linking is nice, too. Drawback is they aren’t very meaty birds.

    So sorry to hear about Blackberry, it’s always sad to lose a special bird.

    Tree

  20. #20 homebrewlibrarian
    January 13, 2011

    This winter, we tried incubating some of the community’s chickens’ eggs. We got 10 out of 24 hatched and survived from the first batch and the second batch (of 10 out of 24) just hatched. The first batch is 7-8 weeks now and have been in an outdoor pen since Christmas. We tried encouraging our more broody hens to set but mostly it seems they liked to set in the boxes because they were the bottom of the pecking order and that was a way to keep from being picked on. I wish I knew what kind of chickens we have! Some are Rhode Island Reds that were year-olds from an egg operation destined as meals to local zoo animals and once they healed up have been some of our best producers. Those are extremely friendly – coming running to see you and then loiter about when you’re working on something. The rest are a mixed bag of colors and sizes – that were themselves incubated from the previous chickens. On our second generation of “mutt” chickens now – and wow! Are they ever adorable!

    Kerri in AK (currently in the UK)

  21. #21 dewey
    January 14, 2011

    So I see on MSNBC that they’re very excited to have bred a GMO chicken that does not easily get, and (allegedly) does not spread, bird flu. What a great way to prevent bird flu outbreaks – no, not give the chickens more airspace, don’t be silly – make everyone purchase GM chickens that will be resistant! They did say that it would take a while to extend the technology to backyard flocks. I’m sure they plan to GMO-ify all these obscure breeds, entirely for free as a public service, right?

  22. #22 Ewan R
    January 14, 2011

    Dewey – to what extent are backyard flocks implicated in acting as reservoirs for or prime transmitters of bird flu?

    Is it more likely that chicken producers will adopt a variety (or adaptation thereof) that allows them to maintain current production or to completely and utterly change the system in order to prevent the spread of bird flu?

    I’d argue that the answer to the first point is very little implication, and add that if mass produced chicken flocks are modified (and lets face it the path from doing the modification, which is scientifically incredibly cool, to getting said modification on the market is less than guaranteed – if you read the article rather than the press hype around it you’ll see that this study was merely a proof of concept work – using RNAi to block the viral polymerase – which could be applied widely) to be resistant/non transmitters then this would act as a sort of herd immunity to small flocks.

    To the second point – I could see the industrial chicken producers adopting GM chickens to prevent the spread of bird flu purely from an economical standpoint – reduce the risk of having to destroy the flock – I don’t see them deciding to provide more space to prevent outbreaks (would giving a billion chickens more space but still having them adjacent to each other actually prevent spread of bird flu or jsut increase costs of production etc?)

    While obviously the readership of Sharon’s blog is going to be somewhat hostile to conventional Ag animal production practices I’m not sure why you’d be hostile towards methods for making said practices safer for the general public and potentially protective of backyard flocks (making the rather bold assumption that avian flu in production flocks poses a credible threat to the backyard chickeneer)

    Although all that said – the GM chicken study was relatively small in scale and the time over which chickens were observed wasn’t particularly long – if 2/10 chickens in the GM group die in 5 days then clearly the modification is doing something, but would this be sufficient to be commercially important? I’m thinking you’d still have the risk of the whole flock eventually keeling over and dying, and the potential to spread to humans would still remain albeit somewhat reduced – at the end of the day I figure you’d still have to eradicate the flock to be certain.

  23. #23 dewey
    January 14, 2011

    There’s no evidence whatsoever that backyard chickens are at, or cause, more risk than unhealthy, crowded factory chickens. Yet there has already been bird-flu-related propaganda to the effect that open-air raising of birds (i.e., anything but a confinement warehouse) should be banned. If this technology caught on, I can easily imagine a new push to ban the backyard raising of heirloom breeds “because they’re not GM, therefore dangerous.” Big business has no interest in making life easier or more profitable for local competition. It’s likely that only breeds suitable for industrial production would be genetically modified, and in any case, many home gardeners would object to being required to buy GMO chickens.

  24. #24 Sara in Alabama
    January 16, 2011

    Sharon! I just got the same catalog! Did you have something to do with that? If so, thank you. I think this year I am going to graduate up to keeping chickens, adding them to my ducks. Do you keep yours in the same area? Blessings. Sara

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