Thursday, February 4, 2010

Bird Dreams

Tuesday was beautiful and sunny, and it hit me suddenly that our days are becoming much longer. It's an intoxicating feeling to look out a window at 5:00 in the evening and see the sun, or to leave the house in the morning under a sky that's the same lilac color as the snow. In January I feel like winter will never end. I try to remember summer nights when it felt too hot to sleep, and they seem so far away and foreign. On Tuesday I began to really feel that spring was returning in a small way.

I celebrated this week by ordering my chicks for the year. My family used to have chickens when I was in high school, and I enjoyed them. My sister showed Black Australorps in 4-H and did extremely well. At one time we had a wild assortment of breeds, including several bantams, and many of our hens raised babies. My favorite was a White Cochin bantam. She looked like a feathery snowball and was very gentle, but was also fiercely protective of her chicks - I remember her attempts to attack a hawk that was perched on the roof of our coop.

Eventually, all of our chickens were killed by predators. When we ordered a batch of chicks a couple of years ago to replace them, my dog broke into their pen and ultimately only one survived. We still have her, and she's a real character - she used to tap on our living room window until we opened it for her, and she would sleep on our grandfather clock at night. Now, in the summer, she sleeps in a makeshift shelter below our window. After a snowfall she usually stays in the barn until spring.

Ordering my first flock this year is exciting on many levels. Like the lengthening days, it makes me feel like warmer weather is around the corner. I also know what to expect in terms of responsibilities, and of course pleasure (chickens are fun).

Instead of ordering from a large hatchery this year, I mailed my order to Sand Hill Preservation Center in Iowa. They specialized in heritage and heirloom varieties of poultry and vegetables. I'm hoping my babies will arrive in late March or early April, but I wrote that I would accept their shipment through mid June if certain breeds I chose end up not being available on those hatch dates.

I love to research things I am interested in, so I had a great deal of fun choosing which breeds to order. It was also incredibly challenging because there are so many beautiful chickens with wonderful qualities. I ended up choosing five breeds, for a total of 25 chicks. I listed a few substitutes in case one becomes unavailable, but here are my top picks (and, of course, why):
Black Australorp
Quiet and gentle, and one of the best egg layers of the heavy breeds. They also have plump bodies that dress out nicely (important since I am getting straight run chicks this year). Their black feathers have a blue-green sheen that is quite beautiful.Buckeye
This is the only American breed that was developed solely by a woman (from Ohio, did you hear that Erin?). Friendly, cold hardy, and active, they do well under free-range conditions and are even said to pursue mice. The breed is listed as Critical by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, meaning that there are fewer than 500 breeding birds in North America.
Buff Orpington
Quiet and docile. Their heavy feathering makes them wonderful winter layers. They are also said to be an excellent table bird. I think their soft golden color is just beautiful.
Speckled Sussex
Curious and easily handled. They used to be a famous table bird in England before the Cornish gained popularity. They are also wonderful layers, laying right through cold weather. They forage well and are economical eaters. Their speckled plumage offers them some camouflage, plus it's very pretty.
Blue Cochin Bantam
Just for fun! Cochins are extremely gentle and highly recommended for first-time chicken handlers. They are also excellent setters and mothers. I thought our little White Cochin bantam was so lovely, I had to order some more.

I tried to pick breeds that combine beauty with utility, that would be easy to handle, and that would serve well as both layers and meat birds, as I will be sent a mix of boys and girls. Of the five, I only have direct experience with Australorps and Cochin bantams (both of which I would highly recommend for homestead flocks). I'd love to hear from someone who has experience with the others.

And yes, I will make sure the coop is shut tight at night!

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