Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Sue Weaver: For the Birds

Our fuzzy Buckeye chick — is there anything cuter?

When I was a child in the early 1950s, unenlightened merchants sold brightly dyed baby chicks at Easter time. I wanted some. My mother, whose idea of exotic pets was dogs and ponies (two other species that I wanted with all my heart), said no — “When you’re grown up you can live on a farm and raise chickens.”

That, however, didn’t come to pass until the early ’70s, when John and I, drunk on a diet of The Whole Earth Catalog and the early Mother Earth News, moved to Minnesota to become homesteaders.

We ordered a 25-chick cockerel specialty from a major hatchery, set up a brooder, and waited for the chicks to arrive. When we opened the box of happy peepers, we found a wide assortment: one of this, two of that. All the better to tell them apart, so we gave them names. We tamed our roosters, picked them up, and carried them around. Pets. When butchering day arrived, we managed to kill a dozen birds, then gave the rest to a nearby neighbor. A few days later we took her the frozen birds we'd killed. We tried but couldn’t eat even one. We’ve been vegetarians (with a few short lapses) ever since.

After that, knowing we couldn’t eat the excess, our flocks stayed small. We kept a few layers and a colorful rooster or two. More pets. That was enough.

Fast-forward to 2003. We and our gaggle of poultry, pets, and livestock have moved to the southern Ozarks. I am writing feature articles for Hobby Farms magazine when the company’s book subsidiary asks me to write a book about small-scale chicken keeping. I agree, and the word gets around. A neighbor tools up the driveway with a horde of barnyard bantams in bags. Do I want them? I’m writing about chickens, so I say, well — sure.

Broody Gracie the barnyard bantam tells John to bug off!

Enter Gracie, barnyard banty hen extraordinaire. I fall in love with these active, exuberant, free-range birds and decide I’d like to raise purebred chickens. My favorite Minnesota hens were Cochins, so when I spy a trio of Barred Cochin bantams at a chicken meet, I fall in love. I buy the trio along with six more hens. We build a henhouse for our expanding family and start penning the banties with the Cochins at night. All goes well for months until a predator discovers our flock. We plug the holes, but somehow it keeps getting in. Surviving in the Ozark wilds is tough, and this critter is persistent. I lose some banties and my favorite Cochin, Margie, to the beast, and I’m heartbroken, but the morning I discover part of Gracie’s leg and a few random feathers on the henhouse floor, I say, enough. I give the Cochins and barnyard banty hens to a pet home, and we turn the remaining banty roosters loose to fend for themselves. We feed them, but they fly like eagles and sleep in trees. They’re safe, and all is well.

Marge, a Barred Cochin bantam, was a special friend, too.

Then one of the roosters falls passionately in love with our sheep. They are Cheviots and have cute, upright ears. He alights on their heads, grasps an ear in each foot and vigorously does what roosters do best. Weeks pass, and he persists. The sheep are not amused, and neither am I. Eventually, he and his cronies join the Cochins in their new home.

Time passes, and darn it, I miss my chickens! I’ve been writing about critically endangered heritage breeds and decide I need one. I’ve narrowed it down to either Russian Orloffs or Buckeye chickens. Then, while researching an article for the March–April 2011 issue of Hobby Farms, I interview David Puthoff of Dayton, Ohio, and learn about the American Buckeye Poultry Club. I join the club’s e-mail list at YahooGroups. Buckeye breeders’ boundless enthusiasm is contagious. It’s no contest — I want Buckeyes!

Our Buckeyes are already feathering at two days old.

As I sit here writing this entry, thanks to Dave Puthoff, there are ten pert Buckeye chicks peeping and popping around their brooder across the room. And we’re building Fort Chicken, the Ozarks’ most predator-proof henhouse, to keep them safe.

We brood our chicks in the living room.

As my chickens grow up, I’ll keep you posted!

Sue Weaver sold her first freelance article in 1969. Since then her work has appeared in major horse periodicals, including The Western Horseman, Horse Illustrated, Chronicle of the Horse, Flying Changes, Horseman’s Market, Arabian Horse Times, The Appaloosa News, The Quarter Horse Journal, Horse’N Around, and The Brayer. She has written, among other books, Storey’s Guide to Raising Miniature Livestock, The Donkey Companion, and The Backyard Goat. Sue is based in the southern Ozark Mountains in Arkansas.

Visit my Dreamgoat Annie Web and The Mopple Chronicles

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