Choosing your flock (Which Came First, Part II)

Which Came First? Cluck’s Guide to Starting a Flock (part 2)

We've covered the basics of choosing how you want to get started ('from fertilized eggs to laying hens' was covered in Part 1) and hopefully you have considered all the variables in your life and come up with a choice that suits everyone in your household. Now, of course, the question is-what kind of bird – what breed – is best for you?

Breed choice is highly personal and I encourage you to spend time looking up breeds and reading about them and, when possible, seeing them in person and talking to their owners. But I am also a firm believer that breed choice should also be based in practicality. For example, if you live in New England, there are certain breeds that are better suited to the climate than others. Or, if you really love eggs, some birds have higher egg yields than others. If you just want “adorable” and eggs are less important, you may be leaning towards a show bird.

Only you can know what you imagine when you think of yourself tending to your flock. That being said, I strongly recommend that you think about all aspects of your “Life with Chicken,” and acknowledge (even if it’s just to yourself) the real reason you want to raise chickens. The more honest your answer, the better your choice of breed is likely to be.

I can’t talk chickens without making a plea for choosing heritage breeds. Spend some time on the Livestock Conservancy website (http://www.livestockconservancy.org/index.php/heritage/internal/poultry-breeds) and you will begin to understand that your micro-flock can be part of a larger commitment to breed preservation. Production farms keep chickens for maximum egg output, but you don’t have to. So, mix it up and get a variety of breeds and gradually put together a flock that is uniquely yours.

It would be impossible to cover all the breeds available to you (and that would take away all the fun of your own research) so I’ll focus on my own bias-birds I have kept, or keep, in my flock at Hurricane Hill. Hopefully this will help you think through your own selection process and offer a guide to what to consider as you select your ladies.

 1) Brahma: Oh, how we love them at Hurricane Hill. Their feathered feet make them a mix between Cher in an eighties concert and a herd of Muppets. They come big (nine pounds is not unusual) and there are only two colors: white or buff. They won’t lay an egg a day, but they will give you a good number of pale tan eggs consistently, each week. Sweet birds, these. No breed will ever replace my fondness for this one - of this I am quite sure.

http://www.albc-usa.org/cpl/brahma.html

2) Cochin: We have the golden-laced variety in our flock but they come in quite a few more color combinations. They are not unlike the Brahma in terms of their feathering patterns and booties-but they are also (sorry, Brahma!) what can only be called a refined version of their more-down-to earth cousins. They tend to broodiness-not always ideal in a rooster-less flock, but not the worst thing in the event you decide to add some pullets to the mix. They lay big brown eggs with tremendous consistency.

http://www.albc-usa.org/cpl/cochin.html

3) Plymouth Rock/Barred Rock: These are the hens of children’s literature and the ones that we all might imagine as “ye olde” in New England. Although not as matronly and full-bodied as the Brahma (sigh) or the Cochin, Rocks are still considered a heavier bird (and thus also a hearty winter fowl). No feathers on these girls feet: instead, glorious yellow chicken legs. A traditional American bird, you embrace history with these sweethearts and they embrace your cooking needs with brown eggs, even if not every day.

http://www.livestockconservancy.org/index.php/heritage/internal/plymouthrock

4) Ameraucana: These ladies are often confused with Araucanas and I won’t get into why, nor will I get into the debate over breed purity. I will, however, tell you that an Ameracauna is a bird worth having. We have had a few and our solo remaining lady is my favorite bird. ‘Caramel’ is a perfect specimen: silver legged, high-chested and on the small side (she can clear our fence), this bird also sports the breed standard fuzzy muffs and beard (hence her moniker: ‘Abe’). These ladies are not part of the ALC (although the Arucana is) but you should keep them anyway. They come in lots of gorgeous feather colors, integrate well with many breeds and lay those pale blue eggs all your friends want.

http://www.ameraucana.org/faq.html

We’ve kept (and keep) other breeds too, but they don’t warrant an entry here. Why? This is hard to say, but they have not stood out to me, despite their good record of ‘chickening.’ All this is to say, breed choice is personal and it will change as you learn more about chickens, and about yourself as a keeper.

You’ll probably notice I have not mentioned the Rhode Island Red, our state’s bird. I have never kept a Red, and may never do so. They are great producers, but they are also not the friendliest (to each other and to other birds). They tend to be dominant in a small flock and, while someone has to be, I consider that an unfair breed advantage! In all fairness, they simply don’t appeal to me. Cluck! has customers who love their Reds, but to a fowl, if the bird is friendly, she has been raised by a human hand (don’t say I didn’t warn you). *** The Red’s cousin the Rhodebar is, on the other hand, a fascinating bird and one I would really like to see in my own flock one day, possibly with a view to breeding them for sale. Until then, you can learn about them here: http://greenfirefarms.com/store/category/chickens/rhodebar/

This year, we are adding ten new birds at Hurricane Hill, four of which will be new breeds we have never kept before. We do this in the interest of learning about new breeds and in the interest of bio-diversity. We also do it for fun: I have ordered my first Polish-a bird only Phyllis Diller could love (or at least feel at home with). Why? Why would I, the most devout- about-being-a-practical flock-keeper decide to throw caution to the wind and add a showy, minimally-productive bird (who may be partially vision-challenged by her own plumage)? Because, in the end, I am fascinated by the juxtaposition of chickens’ beauty and their sheer pre-historicness; I am enthralled by their breed characteristics and delighted and honored by the opportunity to live so closely with a feathered being that can produce such a perfect food. Plus, they make me smile. And that is something we can all use.

*** After reading this blog post, our friends and teachers from Valentine and Sons reached out to remind us of the distinction between Production Reds and Heritage Reds. We appreciate this correction-it is a good one-and we want to pass it along. Unfortunately, most of our customers end up with the production bird (intentionally or not), and it is their characteristics I describe here,  with the hope that we won't be counseling too many more disappointed chicken keepers wit flock issues. Another shout out for heritage breeds (which Valentine and Sons know inside and out! Come see them at cluck! in April).***

Which came first? cluck!'s guide to starting a flock (part I)

 

Yes, here it is, at last and by popular demand: the ‘How to Choose Your Bird’ edition. Please note that this is in no way a comprehensive guide, but it should serve to support you in making your decision about how to start your flock.

 

There are essentially four ways you can get started with your backyard flock. Fertile eggs, day-old chicks, started pullets and laying hens. I’ll cover those here, with my own personal thoughts on each. I will also discuss some of the ways to get your chickens (at whatever age you choose).

 

Fertile Eggs: To hatch these eggs you need a broody hen or an incubator. Assuming you don’t have the former, incubators range greatly in type and cost. If you are not good at routine, I’d go for one that automatically turns the eggs. We have only one type in stock at cluck! but there are often incubators available second hand through craigslist. Some folks incubate with friends and this works out well if you have to buy a large number of eggs from your source.

 

Pros: you can choose your breed(s), you know how they are raised and you are involved in the entire process of raising a bird.

Cons: eggs may not hatch, a percentage will be roosters. Even with an auto-incubator, you have work to do! You must be committed to the process demanded of your specific incubator.

 

Timing: typically eggs will hatch in 21 days.

 

Expense:  egg cost depends on breed, but can be as little as free to a couple of dollars each. Incubators can be affordable to very expensive depending on features.

 

Chicks (usually referred to as “day-old chicks:” Once you have the chicks, you have to care for them with precision-no vacationing or extended periods away. You’ll need a brooder set up with a light, a feeder and a drowning-proof watering set-up. And patience-you’ll need that too. And you must be prepared for health issues (‘pasting up’ for example, when a chick cannot poop it is almost always fatal if not caught in time). In the event that you have a straight run of chicks, you must be prepared for what to do with the roosters if you live in an area where roosters are not allowed. And, even if roosters are allowed where you live, depending on flock size, you may hatch too many for your hen/rooster ratio.

 

Pros: As with fertile eggs, you get to watch the whole process, choose your breed(s) and know that the chickens you keep have been well taken care of. Some say this results in a “nicer” bird, more familiar to humans, but I think that is somewhat magical thinking (more on that when we discuss breeds).

Cons: some loss (during transit and once you have them) is likely and, if you buy straight-run, you have a 50% chance of having roosters. You can sometimes, for a bit more money per bird, buy sexed birds (usually hatcheries only and some chance of mis-sexing does exist) or sex-links. Most hatcheries (and most breeders) have minimum chick orders and that minimum may be too many for you alone.

 

Timing: to go outside, weather dependent, 8 weeks is usually safe-assuming secure housing and ample “feathering in.”  Determining sex takes a bit longer, up to three months (although you may suspect sooner!).

 

Started/ Started and Sexed Pullets: These young birds pick up where those of you who raise them from fertile egg or day-old chick leave off and it is by far my personal favorite way to acquire new birds. When acquiring started and sexed pullets, there are no rooster surprises, the birds can be out in the coop and you get to enjoy them while you wait for their first egg! A more immediately expensive endeavor than others, but if you do the math on what it costs to raise birds from fertile egg or chick, the price makes perfect sense, and may even seem like a steal!

 

Pros: you know you have a female, you are close to them laying and they can go right into the coop.

Cons: if you like a process, you miss out on the baby stage. Some say you bond less with your birds (I am not sure I agree on this).

 

Timing: egg laying can vary with time of year (for example, pullets started closer to winter may not lay until spring), but generally, hens lay at six to eight months.

 

Expense: started pullets can go for as little as five dollars to as much as thirty-five or forty (or more, if you are getting a rare breed). Once you know what goes in to raising young birds and factor in the rooster problem, this becomes very reasonable for the backyard chicken enthusiast.

 

Laying Hens: This one is pretty obvious-your eggs arrive with your new chicken and all the things discussed above are behind you (for better or worse).

 

Pros: You choose the bird fully-grown, you know what you are getting.

Cons: Laying hens can be hard to find and you have to be careful about taking a hen that someone is getting rid of. Why are they getting rid of the hen? Chances are good that the birds are slowing down in their laying.

 

A little more detail about where to get them:

 

Most fertile eggs come from hatcheries or private breeders (online or in person). Chicks (even most of those you buy at a store) come from hatcheries. Some hatcheries also sell pullets (Please note that there are lots of politics around hatcheries and this is not the forum for such discussion). I attach a list of hatcheries you may consider below. You will need to pay close attention to minimums and shipping costs. The least demanding on minimums is my pet chicken. The most exciting (and the most expensive) is Greenfire.

 

http://www.mcmurrayhatchery.com/index.html

 

http://www.cacklehatchery.com/

 

http://www.mypetchicken.com/

 

http://catalog.meyerhatchery.com/app.php?RelId=6.0.5.3

 

http://greenfirefarms.com/

 

Feed stores carry chicks every spring. You often get a barnyard mix (or an unknown breed) but some stores are more informed and can tell you what breeds they sell. They often supply themselves from hatcheries and, less often, from local farmers and breeders.

 

For chicks, started pullets or hens, you can try and work directly with a farmer or breeder (this is how cluck! will be offering chicks in 2014). Craigslist and bulletin boards (at feed stores, cluck!, etc.) are a good place to start making these connections, but you have to use good judgment. You want to get chicks from a source that knows its breeds, can answer questions about vaccination (if this is what you choose) and is clearly in the business of raising chickens. If you make an appointment to pick up birds but you arrive at the location and get a bad feeling (cleanliness, knowledge, treatment-just follow you gut!). Cluck! does not recommend livestock auctions for new chicken keepers.


An anecdote about getting chickens: Our small farm’s first birds came as an adult flock from a woman who had raised them from chicks but could no longer care for them because she had to regularly travel outside RI to care for family. She turned away many people before she chose us. While time consuming, it was a perfect storm. We found her though craigslist after passing on some other “deals” that sounded bad. 

let us grow mint

Since we opened in June of 2013, I have spoken with countless neighbors and once-neighbors about the way  our neighborhood used to be. They have confirmed what I thought was true-and what made the opposition we faced so disappointing- that EVERYONE had a garden... as recently as the 1950's.  And people had chickens. Right here, in our neighborhood.

Yesterday, a new customer shared such a memory-but she added something special that moved me greatly.

She told me about growing up in the neighborhood with her English mother's "handkerchief garden" on a street with an older Italian gentleman who had a huge garden. He would sit in front of his garden-at the edge of his tomatoes and herbs and greens-and when the neighborhood children walked by he would pluck a sprig of mint and give it to them-and the girls would tuck the mint behind their ears. My customer's face brightened at the telling of this story, and i think we both shared in that intimate story-the pride of the garden, the colors of its plants, the kindness of the gardener's gesture and, of course, the scent of the mint.

As an archaeologist, I often imagine these intimate stories when I see an untended peach tree in a back yard, or puzzle over an interior fenced space with no apparent purpose or catch a glimpse of a grape arbor that now serves as a car port. I often wonder how many of our now requisite driveways seal in evidence of how we used to live? 

You see, as one so precisely trained to notice the smallest traces over the largest declarations, I remain drawn to that which is the least obvious, to faint traces over bold evidence. I like our neighborhood's buildings-albeit admiring most of all the workmanship and skill they demanded of those who built them-but I love-love deeply-the spaces between-the places where gardens once bloomed and produced, where laundry was hung, where children played. 

And I treasure even more the new stories we are growing anew in those re-discovered spaces of the in between. 

Spring is coming, let us grow mint again!

last hurrahs and glory days

Out at Hurricane Hill, we've recently done a major overhaul to our backyard beasts. The ducks have moved in with the goats and the chickens have a new yard. It was a lot of work to make these changes and many an escaped critter made it into parts unknown as we ferried them around to their improved quarters. We grumbled a lot throughout the process and Wright, who dislikes all change, was unsure about this project and was most unhappy to lose part of one of his gardens. I was resolute-the chickens had taken over too much of the larger yard, the ducks were too aggressive with them and the goats (I anthropomorphized) were lonely. 

Last night, my typically change-adverse partner admitted that he felt a certain amount of relief around the new order at the Hill and motivated to tackle some more of the endless list of things we mean to do.

It is easy to give in to the inertia of Systems That Already Exist. In our case, we had completely adjusted to things we didn't need to live with because we were busy and the menagerie grew willy-nilly. As a result, there was an extra piece of hardware cloth to keep the chickens out of the sage bush and a makeshift barrier to prevent the ducks from walking into the studio. There was that brick stack in place of really fixing that one shed corner and a pile of brush that we never actually moved to the fire pit. Along the way, as we added these band-aids, we neglected rebuilding the garden fence, re-stacking the stone wall or really, finally fixing the dragging gate. Those most necessary things got lost behind the smokescreen of "let's jsut do this for now."

We all do this from time to time (in all parts of our life) but what a gift it is to just tackle those tasks and see what other opportunities arise out of their resolution.

These are the glory days of you and your unfinished projects. What will yours be?

 

 

cochin coaching

Amelia Earhart, Hildegard Von Bingen and Eileen Gray are finally here and getting settled into their coop. Now that there are real birds in residence, there are things I need to do to make the coop better for them. A wider roost, a window inside the run (I'm still worried about human intervention), and a stronger pull up for the coop door: the skinny string that was used by the coop builder makes the door more akin to a guillotine than anything else. But more interesting is what i need to do with the birds.. 

Being creatures of habit, and coming from a coop at ground level, these ladies have been learning how to use a ramp. At first, I had to carry them into the coop but we have made enough progress that now I merely need to guide their fluffy chicken butts up the ramp each night. They fuss and complain until they are inside, but less so each evening. The same proved true when I tried to get them to try out their roosting pole. No doing. But once they were placed on it, pure calm followed. Getting them to leave the run and try out the outside enclosure involved some tomato and greens and a tiny bit of cracked corn. These girls were raised deep in the country with three sisters and a roo and now they live as a flock of three in a city duplex. It's noisy here and it is never completely dark. But they are adjusting a bit each day. They are beginning to find their gentle flock sounds, the "everything is alright here" song they will imprint on me and mark our days together so well that I will immediately know when something isn't right. There is an element of management on their part and an element of trust too.

As Amelia, Hildy and Eileen find their way in their new home, I am reminded once more that our animals offer us lots of lessons. They push us to think about how well we respond to change, how we learn new things, who helps us and how. And they remind us that all of us sound a certain way when we are safe and when we're not and we must  imprint the difference on those we trust most.