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by Margaret Hartley


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Ideas on greener living

The chicken beauty pageant

My husband was going out of town, to watch our daughter’s end-of-term ballet performance, so I was doing the early morning chicken feeding before work. With the days so short, it had been a few weeks since I’d spent a lot of time with the chickens in the daylight — generally I’m closing up their coop in the dark — so I had a little more time to admire our motley flock.

The hens are in different stages of recuperation from their winter molt, and therefore in different stages of avian beauty.

Really, there are few things uglier than a hen in midmolt, with half her feathers dropped off, pink flesh showing in the back, and what looks like little black pins emerging as the new feathers grow back in. On the other hand, a recently molted chicken, sporting all new, perfect feathers, is a lovely thing to behold.

And our flock has a bit of both. One set of chickens, those who live in the back room of the coop and spend limited time outdoors, are just growing back their feathers and are still pretty scruffy in the back. The rooster, for instance, a handsome Americauna, is stunning except for a total lack of tail feathers, and some bald spots around his neck. A few of the hens — some barred rocks, some Rhode Island reds and some unknown varieties — still have naked backs and spotty tails.

The hens in the front room, who spend most of the day wandering freely, are universally beautiful. There’s an all-black one whose feathers gleam green in the morning light. There’s a mostly white one, a sort of Araucana mix with some black neck feathers like a Sussex hen, who has been named Beauty. There are some barred rocks, dressed in tweed, and some assorted red varieties. Then there are the two new hens, donated by a friend who gave up keeping chickens but still gets unwanted birds dropped off at his house, whose golden feathers are outlined in orange, a marvel of hen comeliness.

We never had so many different kinds of chickens before.

Our first flock of hens were donated, 25 years ago or more, by my sister-in-law’s friends, who decided they’d had enough of back-to-the-land living. They were barred rocks, an old New England breed that’s been around a few hundred years. Barred rocks are handsome black-and-white birds with red heads. They are gentle souls, winter hardy and excellent layers, and my husband and I liked them so well we vowed never to own another breed again. Every few years we would buy some new barred rock chicks, fluffy black babies with a few dots of yellow on their necks.

Then someone blessed us with a mess of banties, wild South American hens who roosted in the trees, hid their eggs from us and produced roosters prolifically — beautiful roosters, with orange and green feathers, magnificent ruffs and long, looping tails. Very noisy roosters.

Every once in a while, the banties would hatch out a pretty, buff-colored hen with an orange head, and we’d catch her and put her in with the regular flock. One thing about those banties is that they are good mothers.

Our buff-colored banty hens would eventually hatch out a new brood, generally with far too many roosters. But eventually we had some mixed hens, half banty, half barred rock, that were a little tamer than the tree-roosting birds and a little more wily than the barred rocks. And a little better at setting and hatching out young.

Over the years we started getting donations of random hens of unknown breed — the baby chicks hatched in a kindergarten class, older hens from the friend of a friend who didn’t want them anymore. A buddy of my husband’s gave us a dozen after his wife said she was sick of chickens. Some breeders in the area came and relieved us of some of our excess roosters.

The result is a mixed flock of mostly hens, with only a few too many roosters. The most banty of the flock live in the loft of the barn. Every morning, after the two roosters announce that it is indeed morning, they fly through the missing pane of a window in the top of the barn, then wander around the yard, pecking under the bird feeder and visiting the ox until the rest of the hens come outside.

The front room hens come out in the morning after they’ve been fed and had some extra corn scattered outside of the coop, and join the banties in their wanderings. The back room flock stay inside most of the day, joining the rest for a late afternoon stroll.

It’s a bit of a random system for a kind of random-looking flock, but it suits us fine. The birds all seem to know where they live, and they all go back inside to safety as soon as dusk falls. There aren’t so many outdoors at any time to attract coyotes and foxes, at least not often. Occasionally one does go missing, probably supper for an owl or eagle, but mostly everyone stays safe.

Now that the seasonal molt is over, egg production should be on the rise again, up from the two to four eggs a day we’re getting now to a more fitting number for our seasonal baking.

Getting eggs, of course, is the reason we keep hens and will always keep hens. The beauty pageant is just one of those side benefits.

Margaret Hartley is the Gazette’s Sunday and features editor. Greenpoint appears in the Gazette’s print edition Sundays on the Environment page.

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