Saturday, June 27, 2015


While visiting on the East Coast last week, we spent a day at Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson. The site details many references to chickens and other poultry in its archives.

I found the mentions of a broody bantam hen who hatched eight of 13 eggs in 1808 especially interesting. I wonder what kind they were. Could have been Old English Game bantams, or Rosecombs, which were popular in England then.
Old English Fame bantams by Schilling
Rosecomb bantams by Schilling
 Even Sebrights, which were developed about that time, although I'm not sure they had arrived in America then.
Silver and Golden Sebrights, from Lewis Wright
Jefferson had a variety of poultry at Monticello, including chickens, ducks, Guinea fowl, peacocks, pigeons, geese, and turkeys.

Primary Source References

1771. "Thin the trees...Keep in it deer, rabbits, Peacocks, Guinea poultry, pidgeons &c. Let it be an asylum for hares, squirrels, pheasants, partridges...court them to it by laying food for them in proper places..." [1]
1806 November 21. Jefferson to Martha Jefferson Randolph). "Davy arrived last night...He carries also a cage with a pair of Bantams for Ellen." [2]
1806 November 30. (Jefferson to Ellen Wayles Randolph Coolidge). "By Davy I send you a pair of Bantam fowls; quite young: so that I am in hopes you will now be enabled to raise some. I propose on their subject a question of natural history for your enquiry: that is whether this sis the Gallina Adrianica, or Adria, the Adsatck cock of Aristotle? For this you must examine Buffon etc." [3]
1806 December 12. (Ellen Wayles Randolph Coolidge to Jefferson). "I recieved [sic] the Bantams for which I am very much obliged to you. They seem to be larger, and younger, than the first and I think them handsomer." [4]
1807 February 17. (Ellen Wayles Randolph Coolidge to Jefferson). "As for the Bantam she laid one egg in the cold weathe rand eat it up. I am very much afraid she will do all the others so. If she does she will be as worthless as the others but in spite of that I am very fond of them and think them very handsome. The old ones are quite tame but the new much to the contrary." [5]
1807 June 29. (Jefferson to Ellen Wayles Randolph Coolidge). "How go on the Bantams? I rely on you for their care, as I do on Anne for the Algerine fowls, and on our arrangements at Monticello for the East Indians. These varieties are pleasant for the table and furnish an agreeable diversification in our domestic occupations." [6]
1807 November 1. (Jefferson to Ann Cary Randolph Bankhead). "I expect a pair of wildgeese of a family which have been natives for several generations, but they will hardley be here in time for Davy. They are entirely domesticated, beautiful have a very musical note, and are much superior to the tame for the table." [7]
1807 November 11. (Ellen Wayles Randolph Coolidge to Jefferson). "ONe of my poor little Bantams is dead and the one which I liked the best although it was the old one. He had got so tame that he could fly up in my lap and eat out of my hand. All the children were sorry at his death." [8]
1808 January 15. (Ellen Wayles Randolph Coolidge to Jefferson). "My Bantams are well but I am afraid I shall never raise any." [9]
1808 March 11. (Ellen Wayles Randolph Coolidge to Jefferson). "I am in a fair way to raise some Bantams as the hen is now setting. She has take up her residence in the cellar. Has laid 13 eggs and I hope will hatch some chickens." [10]
1808 March 14. (Jefferson to Ellen Wayles Randolph Coolidge). "I am glad to learn you are at length likely to succeed with your Bantams. They are worthy of your attention." [11]
1808 March 18. (Ellen Wayles Randolph Coolidge to Jefferson). "My bantam will hatch in 10 days and I hope I shall raise some of her chickens but they are so delicate. She hatched some last year. We took great care of them but they died." [12]
1808 March 25. (Ellen Wayles Randolph Coolidge to Jefferson). "My bantam will hatch next week." [13]
1808 March 29. (Jefferson to Ellen Wayles Randolph Coolidge). "I am glad to hear you expect a family of Bantams. Take good care of them. Is it not best to put the hen into a tobacco stick coop in and round which the chickens will always stay." [14]
1808 April 1. (Ellen Wayles Randolph Coolidge to Jefferson). "My bantam has hatched 8. pretty little chickens and I shall follow your advice about her treatment." [15]
1808 July 1. (Ellen Wayles Randolph Coolidge to Jefferson). "My bantams have grown prodigiously and are beautiful." [16]
1808 July 15. (Martha Jefferson Randolph to Jefferson). "I must beg the favor of bring me a little ivory memorandum book...I find my chicken accounts troublesome without some assistance of the kind." [17]
1808 June 4. "Gave for bringing home a pea-hen." [18]


1. Bear, James A. Jr., and Lucia C. Stanton, eds. Jefferson's Memorandum Books: Accounts, with Legal Records and Miscellany, 1767-1826. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997, 1:249.
2. Betts, Edwin M., and James Bear, Jr., eds. Family Letters of Thomas Jefferson. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1966. Reprinted Charlottesville: Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation, 1986, 290.
3. Ibid, 291.
4. Ibid, 292.
5. Ibid, 296.
6. Ibid, 309.
7. Ibid, 313.
8. Ibid, 314.
9. Ibid, 322.
10. Ibid, 332.
11. Ibid, 334.
12. Ibid, 336.
13. Ibid, 338.
14. Ibid.
15. Ibid, 339.
16. Ibid, 346.
17. Ibid, 349.
18. Bear, James A. Jr., and Lucia C. Stanton, eds. Jefferson's Memorandum Books: Accounts, with Legal Records and Miscellany, 1767-1826. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997, 2:1246.

Monday, June 15, 2015


I'm looking forward to the Association of Living History Farms and Agricultural Museums annual conference this week. This year it will be held at Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia. Among other things, I'll join with Elaine Shirley, Colonial Williamsburg's manager of rare breeds, and Jeannette Beranger, program manager for the Livestock Conservancy, to give a workshop in Using Heritage Chickens to Interpret Your Site. We'll cover:

What is heritage livestock, especially poultry? Adapt the meaning to your specific site. Locate resources to determine which one or more breeds to choose. The Livestock Conservancy, my books and poultry history library, breed clubs, site documents.

Dominiques are considered America's first chicken breed. Thanks to Alice Armen for this photo.
Getting started: Reach out to local poultry keepers for stock, advice and support. Every location has different climate, strengths and weaknesses. Set up the buildings and land that will be required. Get a realistic budget.

Staff: Make sure that there is at least one person who is passionate about poultry. Involve knowledgeable volunteers. Eggs can be a desirable perk. Feathers can be used in crafts.

Decide whether your site will keep birds year-round or only during spring, summer and fall. Some sites raise acquire mother hens and chicks in the spring and return them to permanent homes in the fall. This can make keeping a flock more realistic in cold climates or for sites that are not open all year.

Chicken tractors can be part of the program.
Decide whether your site will slaughter birds. Determine what other kinds of activities for visitors: broody hens, newly hatched chicks, keeping roosters.

Create interpretive materials. Signs at the flock pen, brochures, web materials. Special events, such as educational events for students. Incorporate the flock into existing events.  
Frank Reese's certified Heritage Chicken label

Monday, May 25, 2015

No bird flu on this Wisconsin farm

TOWN OF WYOCENA -- As Airling “Butch” Gunderson strolls through his farm, he sees a nesting goose, about a half-dozen roosters strutting around a feed bowl and some duck hens engaging in a wing-flapping fight over whose turn it is to use the birdbath.
What he doesn’t see: The scary signs of a virulent avian flu that has spread into Wisconsin.
If the flu had infected his flock, then he’d likely see symptoms -- hens that won’t lay eggs, birds coughing or sneezing, watery green diarrhea, loss of appetite.
Butch is an old friend and a very knowledgeable poultry keeper, breeder and judge. Here's to the best for him and his birds!  

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Ballerina chicken

This fanciful chicken captures the energy and spirit of joy! Whimsical yet elegant.
Chickens bring out the fun in us. Thanks to Sharon, who sent this card.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Chicken art

Manuel Macarrulla captured some interesting ideas about chickens and their ancestry in this digital artwork, Foundlings I:
Thanks, Manuel, for permission to post it.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Reflections on chicken keeping

The clever soul who hatched the phrase “keeping chickens” likely never had to care for them longer than a weekend. Marking my fifth spring with flock, I confess I am less a woman who keeps chickens than one who loses them. Of 19 chicks acquired over the years, just nine hunt and peck in our coop. Not one has landed on our table; we keep birds for eggs only. Most hens were violently carted off to the great wood by foxes or raccoons, a few took ill; half a dozen have been laid to rest beyond the boxwood hedges, the main reason my husband’s co-worker dubbed our home “Pet Cemetery.”

Charmed in the beginning by pleasures of egg and feather, I soon learned that to love and attempt to care for chickens is a spiritual endeavor, a powerful daily devotional that has brought me to my knees over life’s fragility and nature’s wonder, and in the best moments, its fleeting, feathery brushes with grace. The chickens have given me much more than eggs, they have bestowed an awareness I might never have otherwise found.

Most religions ask us to care for “the least of these,” and among the animal world, it is harder to get more least than poultry. Turkeys earn pardons. Chickens suffer the stigmata of stupidity and skittishness. Unable to soar as other birds do, they remain the butt of jokes. This is their cross to bear, and proverbial road to cross. A chicken’s life is arduous, usually short. They must trust in the more powerful to meet nearly every need.

Their vulnerability has not magnified my strengths, but revealed my own weaknesses. Many has been the day I failed my flock, not watching closely enough while hawks circle and snakes spy; forgetting to fill the water can or feeder until nearly noon. Many are the days I’ve been paused, in my selfish, silly busyness, to consider how I treat the people I love and how rarely I extend myself to those I do not know.

The birds bring me face to feather with death, and each loss we suffer together. They are not household pets, exactly, but I did not reckon the pain to be so severe. Our first hen, Bernice, died after only a year of natural causes. A hell of a character, she once allowed me to take her to school in a laundry hamper for Pet Day, behaving as a saint while 27 third-graders poked and prodded. If the kitchen door were left ajar, Bernice would sashay in to roost on the counter. Whenever I weeded the side yard, she worked alongside, clucking contentedly.

Want to experience amazing grace? Still yourself in a garden until a chicken settles itself on your lap, submits to your fingers traveling the length of its silky wing.

Bernice was fine one soft summer evening, perching atop the coop until the others went in for the night. The next morning her beautiful inanimate body lay in a heap with no mark upon it. How precious life can be, how quickly and mysteriously can it end.

Beulah, Madge and Genevra were lost to intermittent raccoon attacks. Pickles, Philomena and Faberge fell to foxes. Berthilde was simply dead in the coop one morning, and Roberta took ill, succumbing, despite antibiotics and vet consultations, overnight in the dog crate.

Each winter, hens go dormant, and for that stretch of months I fret cold dark fears of frost and fox. An unseasonably warm February day I lost not one, but two hens, in broad daylight to a predator unseen. Turning them out into the sunny side yard would be a treat, I thought. Until I found most of the birds huddled silently together under a holly shrub, two paces from a scattered pile of pale gray feathers that, an hour before, was the gorgeous Blue Bantam Polish Lavinia. Across the yard, beneath the rose arbor, lay the remains of Astrid, an Ameraucana, who as a chick looked like an owlet and grew up to lay pale blue green eggs.

A terrible lesson, how my mistakes cost others, too.

Psalm 91:4 reads “He will cover you with His feathers, and under his wing you will find refuge. His faithfulness will be your shield and rampart.” Perhaps the Lord, here, is meant as another kind of bird, something more worthy and majestic than a chicken, but I don’t think so. Emily Dickinson, as poets do, put it more succinctly: “Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul.”

We suffer, we fall. We endure. With each day the chickens and I begin anew. They greet me joyfully and without rebuke. Is that not the essence of faith? For surely comes the spring morning when I lift the door to the nesting boxes and, in a pile of creams and browns, are new eggs, the perfect promise of what may come.

Mary E. Miller is a freelance writer who lives in North Raleigh.

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Thursday, April 23, 2015


Delawares, a 20th century breed developed for the broiler market, turned out so pretty that it was recognized by the APA as an exhibition breed. The breed lost traction with the overwhelming turn of the poultry industry away from small and medium-size flocks to truly industrial production. By the 21st century, it had all but disappeared.
These Delawares belong to Melissa Kirby
Because it was developed from crossing Bared Rocks with New Hampshires and its development was well documented, dedicated breeders have re-created it. They are raising birds and judges are taking note. The most highly regarded are coming from Kathy Bonham at Timberline Acres in Nevada, Missouri.

Leslie Joyce of Oregon is working with birds from Kathy Hardisty Bonham in Missouri. The color is good, but the tail needs to be broader. “I LOVE my ‘Kathy's Line’ birds,” she said, “though they are still a work in progress.” 

Kim Consol's champion Delaware hen
Ms. Joyce finds the males protective and good flock leaders. She watched her breeding cock go after and chase away a hawk that threatened the flock. Although they are brave and free range happily on her pasture, they don’t fly over the fence and leave home. And the chicks are the cutest ever.

“I like that big-headed bird,” she said. “Delaware chicks are tiny fat balls of fluff. They have a funny, serious look.  They are classic chicks.”
Raising a breed that can reproduce itself appeals to Ms. Joyce. She considers the chicks the local feed store sells mutts because they don't conform to the written standard for their declared breed. So far they have performed well for her laying operation, 120 birds seasonally producing 30 dozen pretty eggs a week for a local buying club and the rest for a short list of customers who like her eggs.

The hatchery hens are good broody hens and mothers, raising their own interesting-looking chicks. They’ve happily hatched and raised the Delaware chicks for her breeding program. But they aren't the chickens she wants to breed seriously. Her goal is to get the Delawares to breed true, meaning all their offspring resemble their parents in predictable ways that increasingly match the breed Standard. She is looking forward to getting her first broody Delaware hen so she can compare their mothering ability to that of the hatchery hens.

The pale brown egg isn’t as eye-catching as the exotic blue and green that show up in her laying flock, but she detects a slightly better flavor in the Delaware eggs.

“I think their eggs are a little yummier,” she said. “It could be the way they process the fat that makes the yolk creamier.”

All those qualities make the Delaware the breed that best suits Ms. Joyce. “That’s the proof that your chicken can be a chicken,” she said. “That’s more important than cranking out a million chicks.” 

Good winter laying, good meat birds, sturdy and savvy out on pasture, pretty on pasture and in a show cage, calm, and a little bit goofy,” said Ms. Joyce.