Welcome back to Magnetic North, where dreams of green grass and balmy breezes come to life on the pages of catalogs. Most of us wear our favorite gardening catalogs ragged before putting in that big order late in February. So many tempting choices. To go with what is known to produce or to take a chance on the hot newbie everybody is raving about? Oh, the agony.
I know it well. But the objects of my obsession sprout feathers, not leaves. And my catalogs bear names like Cackle, not Burpee.
This is my year to reorder chickens. My flock has dwindled over time and those birds who remain spend most of their time eating and squabbling with each other, rather than laying eggs. But that’s OK. They’ve earned their rest.
My husband, Paul, keeps harping on the cost of feed. So it takes a 50-pound sack of lay mash to feed a flock of 17 birds - all for a measly 28 eggs, on average, a week. “Do the math,” he says.
To which, I reply....well, I don’t reply. I just give him The Look. And that trumps any silly argument based solely on economy.
No, my chicken coop is every bit as sacred a space as a pampered perennial garden or tenderly-tilled vegetable patch. And I fill it every few years with carefully chosen birds that will delight and drive me to distraction…the latter proving to be far better material for these columns, of course.
For example, while the Buff Orpingtons are my all-time favorite chickens, sailing across the lawn like golden galleons on a dandelion speckled sea of green, I’ve never written more than a paragraph about them over my two decades of chicken keeping.
The crazies, on the other hand, got gallons of ink. The Pearl Leghorns are a case in point. They lay ginormous white eggs while consuming a tablespoon of feed per day. Yet, psychotic is the only word that truly describes this breed. For even if you hand raise them, cuddle and coddle each chick with the care of Mother Teresa, they will greet you every day with the same wild flapping and shrieking as if you routinely chased them around the coop with a blowtorch in one hand and a bull whip in the other.
So here is my current list of probables when I send in my orders later this month:
My tried and trues are as follows:
The Partridge Rock - one rooster, like my all-time fave, Winston. A massive bird with a great waterfall of bottle-green tail plumage and burnished rusty red and gold body feathers. Gentle, courageous and generous. Any hen could count herself blessed to have a Partridge Rock rooster for a protector.
The Speckled Sussex hen, the true peck a little, talk a little chicken. Because I like a bird who chats me up when I feed her.
The Araucana, or Easter Egg Chicken. Who doesn’t like pretty blue-green eggs?
The Black Australorp -the bird who surely inspired the old nursery rhyme, “Higgledy Piggledy my black hen, she lays eggs for gentlemen.“ Plus, the Australorp tames in a nonce, and for those of us who feel the need to walk around carrying a chicken under one arm, that’s huge.
The Buff Orpington. Beautiful. Serene. And lays well in winter. So what if they don’t make for great stories!
As for new fun types, I’m looking seriously at the Light Brahmas and Buff Brahmas, big birds from Asia that are said to lay well in winter and are good moms, should I choose to let them hatch a few eggs.
I’m also considering the Cherry Eggers, Welsummers and Cuckoo Marans. All lay dark brown eggs, the Marans’ eggs being described as “chocolate brown.” Now, how could ANYONE resist that? And we all know that dark chocolate is good for us. Right?
For Hatcheries, I like Murray McMurray and Cackle. The latter mainly because they let you order smaller numbers - McMurray minimum orders are 25 chicks.
But if you want just a few birds, try going on Boreal and ask to share an order with someone. Be forewarned, though. Just a few chickens may turn into a lifelong obsession. One that I swear you will never regret.
Unless, of course, you are foolish enough to...do the math.