For the Love of Chickens (a look at different breeds)

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“How did you decide on these chicken breeds?” someone asked me.

I can’t say I did a lot of research.  When we went to the feed store to get chickens the first year, we hadn’t reserved any so we got who hadn’t been picked up.  One of the breeds I hadn’t heard of.  Golden Buffs.

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Mahalia has never laid an egg.  But her sisters, Peep and Daffodil, are great layers.  They reliably lay a large brown egg a day.  They are slowing down in their third year of laying, but they are still good layers.  They have great temperaments.  Peep runs up to strangers and wants to be pet.  The other two are less lovey but are not aggressive  in the least.

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Our California girl, Ethel, was another breed that we got that year.  She is a great layer (again slowing down now) but she laid a white egg that was perfect for boiling and Easter eggs every day for a long time.  She is sweet.  She also likes to fly.  Not away, but into the goat yard.  The grass is always greener on the other side for California Whites.  She doesn’t leave our actual yard though.  A clip of a few feathers could keep a California girl in her own yard if needed.

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Our Jersey Giants are still great layers even though they are older.  Nearly every day we can count on a small, beige egg.  They are very sweet and docile.  They are not near as giant as I had imagined.

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The next year we researched breeds that were docile, affectionate, and good layers.  The Buff Orpington came up in many suggestions.  Though I have heard that many are affectionate, mine peck at my ankles and fight with each other.  They are good layers but they are not the fun loving birds I thought they would be.

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At a farm we were touring there were these black and white birds that laid dark chocolate eggs.  I was smitten.  They had a nice rooster that was with them who was also a Marans.  We got three girls, Liesel, Brigitta, and Louisa.  Louisa soon became Henry Higgins.  And indeed, he is a very nice, docile, yet bossy and protective, rooster.  I just love him.  I love to hear him singing in the morning.  I love how he herds the girls to safety if he thinks anything is amiss.  He is a gentle giant.  He is very passive with us.  The eggs the girls lay range from medium to dark brown, some variegated with lovely stripes.  Brigitta wants to be picked up and has had many a photo shoot with our granddaughter.  They are one of my favorite breeds.

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I have always loved the blue and green eggs that Araucanas produce so we got three Aracauna girls, two beautiful gold and black girls and one white who still lays blue eggs every day.  They like to fly as well and for awhile laid all their eggs in the front yard.  They are passive, sweet chickens as well.

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A friend of ours had Brahmas.  They were black and white lace patterned with petticoats and floofy slippers.  I loved them as well.  They are dual purpose, meat and egg layers, so they will not be prize winning egg layers, but they will add to the pretty factor on this farm.  We are fickle farmers.  I pick animals based on their cuteness.  Not scientific, but fun.  Two of them will be joining our farm next month.

Backyard chickens are a joy to have and easy to take care of.  An essential component of any mini or large farm.

Araucana Gift

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Our nine teenaged girls are becoming old enough to join the ranks of the other six as layers.  We got our first egg from the new set of chickens the other day.  It does look like a robin snuck into the coop and laid an egg.  So adorable and precious.  I would have never guessed that an egg could fit that description!  Thank you, Sophia!

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Chicken Cliques

IMG_0453 (Peep wants in, Ethel the white girl, Daffodil, Laverne the black girl, and Mahalia in back)

My mother said that her chickens hung out together based on which breed they were.  I found that really interesting.  I couldn’t tell if mine did that because there are three Golden Buffs that hang together and Ethel, the California White girl, is usually with them.  Laverne, the Jersey Giant, when not broody, hangs out nearby too.

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Then the babies came along.  The five girls went from being our the only beloved chickens in the yard to the five popular witches from high school.  They pick incessantly on the babies, even though some of the babies are getting bigger than they are!  They want the food first, they want the best perch to sleep, they want the babies to get out of the way or they get pushed against the wall, or worse, pecked.  Hen pecked, indeed.

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The babies started with the two Polish girls, Aretha and Ginger.  Ten days later the rest of the babies came to stay.  Aretha, being the largest, was rather bossy.  She is now rather small, and is now one of the outcasts.  Ginger, who was beat up dreadfully in a story I highlighted about Comfrey in, is the smallest of the chickens.  A wee six inches off the ground and adorable.  Looks like a roadrunner with a crazy hat running about.  She hangs out with the popular kids in the new chicken group.  Liesel (a Marans), Yetta, Nala, Sophia (Aracaunas), Ginger, Marta, Gretel (Buff Orpingtons), and Henry Higgins if he is allowed, run around the yard in a pack.  Acting very cool and grown up until the big girls send them screaming beneath the lilac bush.

IMG_0644 (Henry the rooster, Yetta the white Aracauna, Sophia the leopard Aracauna)

Meanwhile, in the chicken coop, Laverne sits on eggs that don’t belong to her (until I take them away) and glares at Brigitta and Aretha.  Henry up until recently was banned to the chicken coop as well by the other chickens.  Not just the coop, but the dog kennel within.  He runs around the yard poofed up like a good looking peacock, only more like a teenaged chicken, bossing the girls who just look at him like, ppleeassse!  They will not mind him a bit.

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Why the cliques?  Don’t you always imagine chickens running in a pack pecking the ground all together?  Not these seemingly high school adventure cliques where the big kids pick on the little kids, the cool kids pick on the uncool kids, and the depressed dark one sits in a corner all day hoping for a baby. (Okay, well that doesn’t happen in high school that much.)

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I never imagined so many different personalities in a bunch of chickens.

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Chickens 101

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I followed my friends around incessantly last spring.  Like a four year old I kept asking, “What is that?’  “Why are they doing that?”  “How do I do that?”  “What do chickens eat?”  “Where do chickens sleep?”  Though I thought I knew the answer to that one, in their nests, silly.  Geez.  Wrong.  My friends graciously answered my questions but after a while started just saying, “It’s easy.  There is nothing to it.”  And, really, it is very easy!

I am on a mission to inspire as many people as I can to get chickens.  I am amazed at the ease of this endeavor and the pets that they have become.  Like I have said before, in cities and counties all across the country (including Denver where you can have eight chickens!), people are being allowed the simple right to raise chickens.  Even though we don’t eat our chickens (or any other chickens for that matter), the eggs have made an exceptional addition to our diet.  The bright orange yolks and delicious whites of the egg brighten any recipe and since I don’t buy factory farm eggs, these eggs are like little gifts of gold each day!  I am that much closer to my homesteading goals of self sufficiency and I do save money by having my own eggs and selling the excess.

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Choose Chickens– In a few weeks it is time to go to the nearest feed store and pick out your girls and place them on order.  You could do mail order as well but since I have a feed store a few blocks away, I’ll let them order the babies for me.  This year I am getting Aracaunas, Marans, and Buff Orpingtons.  Like expecting parents, we are very excited!  Aracaunas lay Easter eggs, Marans lay dark chocolate eggs, and Buffs are lovey and cute and good layers.  When we went to visit my friend who has an alpaca farm (that post is this Friday), she showed me her Marans.  She let me hold and keep the most beautiful dark chocolate egg.  I cradled it and stared at it in awe until Doug wryly said, “It’s not real chocolate!”

Chicken Motel– Now you need a house for the chickies.  You could build one, there are many great plans out there, (thank goodness there was already one here!) or you can buy a ready made one.  The girls just need the house to lay eggs in and to sleep in.  It’s been so terribly cold here, I do feel sorry for the chickens down the block.  They have a house that is three foot by one foot and it seems a little small when the ladies are inside more because of the cold.  Ours is 10×10 and for only five chickens, it’s a mansion.  My friends use their shed as a coop.  There really isn’t a right or wrong way to house the girls.  Just make sure they are safe, nothing can dig under or get through the door at night, and you are all set.

Chicken Beds and Nests– Apparently chickens do not sleep in their nests as cartoons falsely led me to believe.  They sleep up higher in the coop.  There is a shelf my girls sleep on, all huddled up together.  I have seen some that use 2x4s to create little perches across the coop.  I put down old, vintage vegetable crates for their nests.  Carefully I designed their coop so they could lay eggs in style.  They all lay in one corner, in between all of the cute boxes!

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Chicken Food- We borrowed a feeder that you pour the feed in the top and it pours down into their tray.  We still use that, it works well.  I buy organic feed.  No use feeding the girls genetically modified corn and who know what else.  It will transfer through the eggs to me and organic feed will keep the ladies and my family healthier.  It is only a couple bucks more.  A $25 a bag will last me about a month and a half.  My piggy cats and dogs cost a lot more than that and they don’t lay eggs!

Chicken Water- We borrowed a waterer that you fill upside down, then clumsily fasten on the bottom that serves as the water bowl, quickly turn it upside down as the water comes streaming into the ravine, curse as it wasn’t really fastened and the water is all over your shoes, and carry the ton back to the chicken coop.  I now use a mixing bowl.  Yes, a mixing bowl.  I keep it under their light so that the water doesn’t freeze.

Chicken Bedding- I learned some very interesting things when I went to see Joel Salatin.  One, I could not fathom why my coop smelled like cat boxes that hadn’t been scooped in two weeks.  Ammonia is not my favorite smell.  Turns out that using straw creates this lovely aroma.  That is all I had ever heard of or read about using!  Pine shavings were recommended.  They are cheap and a bag covers the whole coop floor.  Now, instead of cleaning out the coop every few weeks as I was doing, one is supposed to leave it over the winter.  Just keep adding on layers.  The heat from the future compost helps keep the coop snug and the layers begin to break down so that by spring, when you dig out all the layers, you will have wonderful compost!  Since the pine shavings would make my pile too acidic, I have now started layering, one month straw, the next month pine, and so forth.  This will create a nice blend of nitrogen for my compost pile in the spring.  On particularly cold days, the chickens will burrow into the bedding to keep warm.

Chicken Playground- The chickens have a fenced in area to keep them safe from predators.  It is made from t-posts and chicken wire with bird netting on top when the snow isn’t knocking it down.  I think the best fencing if one can afford it is dog kennel fence.  If a large dog can’t get out of it, a large coyote can’t get in!  The girls need to wallow in the dirt.  When I first saw this spectacle I thought Ethel was having a seizure.  Apparently not, they just enjoy a good roll in the dirt.  It gets the bugs off of them and gets them to lower areas of soil to find their favorite snack, bugs!

Now that you have a basic concept of how easy it would be to add chickens to your household and I have now helped you avoid annoying all your friends with rapid fire questioning, you are free to start finding chicken breeds!  Next week we’ll talk about bringing babies home and how to care for them in infancy.  Cute little buggers, you’re going to love them!

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