Living

Chickens are something to crow about

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The songbirds are chirping, the maple sap is running, and the snowbanks are slowly – very slowly – melting. What season is it? Most New Englanders would quickly answer: “Mud season, of course.”

For backyard farmers, however, the longer days and warmer temperatures portend a season more exciting than car washes and brake work: “chick season.” And if all these signs are too subtle for you, the signs in front of the feed stores remind you to place your chick orders soon.

But that begs the questions: Which breed should I order? And from whom? A boon to the curious and bane to the bland is that never before have the options been as great.

Once upon a time, chick selections were limited to a handful of New England egg-laying mainstays: Plymouth Rocks (in several colors), Rhode Island Reds and their paler cousins, the New Hampshire Reds, Orpingtons, and perhaps a White Leghorn. And if you wanted to eat your pets, you could buy some
Cornish/Rock crosses and have a broiler in two months’ time.

The choices – ain’t capitalism wonderful? – are dizzying: Not only can you buy hens that lay blue, green, olive, pink, and chocolate-brown eggs, you can have chickens of many colors and plumage styles roaming your backyard. If you want meat, you can buy slow-maturing (hence more flavorful) birds that fatten well on grass and bugs. And if you are interested in spectacle, you can get chickens with wild headdresses, fluffily feathered feet, preternaturally long tails, or blue-feathered plumage. This is chickendom’s Golden Age.

Part of this variety is because of the efforts of organizations like the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, people dedicated to preserving farm animals existing in American before the advent of industrial agriculture. It is also because of enterprising breeders who have taken this genetic capital and created new breeds, such as the Buckeye. Importers seek to save endangered European breeds by bringing them to America. And plenty of ordinary people – many of them in southern New Hampshire – sustain these breeds by buying and caring for them in their own backyards.

“OK, now, so get to the point: What do you recommend? When I go to the feed store, the online hatchery, or the local backyard breeder (check out Craigslist), which boxes do I check?” Here are some of my favorite breeds. (Disclosure: I breed – and sell from my backyard – some of these myself.)

For the relatively trouble-free production of brown eggs, you can’t go wrong with the traditional New England breeds that you can order from your local feed store, such as Orde Farm. These are the ones I mentioned above: the Reds, the Rocks, and the Orpingtons. If you are new to chickens, get these. Don’t buy the Leghorns, even though your middle-schooler will beg you to take them home. They like to roost in trees and get eaten by raccoons (the chickens, not the children).

If you are interested in colorful eggs, try Ameraucanas or Cream Legbars (blue); Ameraucanas, Isbars, or Olive Eggers (green); Swedish Flower hens (cream); Barnevelters (darker brown); and Marans (chocolate brown). I also like the pinkish color of the stolid Rhode Island Red.

If you are interested in meat, I recommend the Dorking and the Cornish. The Dorking is a large, slow-growing bird; the hen is a decent layer, but the juvenile male has very thick and tasty flesh. Particularly enjoyed in our household is coq au vin made from an old Dorking rooster. Another good heritage meat bird is the Cornish, aka, the other half of the Cornish/Rock cross. Unlike the Dorking, the Cornish is small and compact, but has very dense and tasty meat. Unlike its half-breed offspring, who reach maturity in a matter of weeks, the Cornish grows more slowly, so it has time to acquire a rich flavor from a free-range diet.

In case you’re curious, a “Cornish Game Hen” is none of the above: It’s a Cornish/Rock cross; it (unlike quail, grouse, or pheasant) is not a wild game bird; and is just as likely to be a cockerel (young male) as it is a pullet (young female).

As to ornamentals, de gustibus non disputanda – it’s a matter of taste, and there is so much to taste: Wild crests (Polish), long tails (male Java), intricate feather patterning (double-laced Barnevelters), and the many different colors that ingenious breeders have created on the basis of spontaneous mutations in the chicken genome (I am partial to blue). My favorite ornamental of all, however, is the male American gamefowl; not only are his station, gait, and plumage magnificent, his intelligence makes him a superior flock protector. And his small lung size make him less noisy than his heavier brothers.

These are but a few possibilities. The Internet, being the glorious product of people with too much time on their hands, is laden with poultry photos. Enjoy your search. And choose well.

Randall B. Clark is vice chairman of the Hollis Agricultural Commission and proprietor of Appleworm Orchard. The opinions expressed in this article are his alone. To learn more about the commission, a governmental body dedicated to the promotion of local agriculture, go to www.hollisag.org. To learn more about Appleworm Orchard, see www.appleworm.us.

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