Thursday, May 31, 2012

New baby!

Lady Fanny, a Speckled Sussex, hatched out a Coronation Sussex chick! She's peeking out from behind her mom.

She's the only one, out of six eggs, so she's especially precious. Notice that I'm assuming she is female. If not, perhaps we can trade her back to the person who sold us the eggs. Coronation Sussex are quite rare so an additional rooster could play a role in a breeding program.

For now, I'm looking forward to adding a beautiful pullet to my flock!

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Pearl in the Egg

On Saturday morning we heard some ticking outside the window. It was a male California quail and his mate that looked like this pair. They were so sweet and reminded me of an experience I had with one some years ago.

Back when my daughter was about ten years old, she found a quail egg on one of the paths between corrals at the boarding stable where we kept our horse.  She was very excited about it and wanted to hatch it.

I figured the chance of it hatching was nil.  Nicole found the egg right out in a public place, suggesting to me that a very young hen had been surprised by it.  It must not have been there long, and its prospects seemed wildly unlikely.

Nevertheless, I borrowed an incubator and we sat and watched it. Quail eggs are supposed to hatch in 23 days. By the time we got to 27 days, we figured we would have to give up on it.

A friend had come over to spend the night with Nicole, and the girls asked if they could take the egg out and open it, see what was inside.  I agreed, since I’d never had much hope and was pretty sure nothing was in there.

A moment later, they raced back in the house, breathless.  “It cheeped!” Nicole gasped. Sure enough, just as the girlfriend raised it up to smash on the walk, they heard the peeping.  Nicole grabbed it and rushed it in the house.

We replaced it in the incubator and the next morning, we had a baby quail. We named her Pearl, since she looked like a glowing pearl rolling across the bed. She snuggled up to us for warmth. As she grew, she often perched on the back of my neck, under my hair. Quail are social birds, and we were her covey.

She spent most days at liberty in the house. Quail droppings are small and dry, easy to vacuum up. She spent nights in the bird room in a cage. She liked to rest behind the tv. One night a possum threatened her, sneaking around, determined to get at her. She shrieked with fear, and we brought the cage inside.

She turned into a wonderful, dear pet whose company we enjoyed for about a year.

We were devastated the day she got out of the house while we were gone.  We had actually gone out to see if we could find some other quail to live with her. She needed more social life than we could give her. Sometimes I wished she didn’t sit on me all the time. I felt she needed companionship of her own kind.

I feared a cat had gotten her.  I felt guilty that I had rejected her, and now she was gone. We put notices all around the neighborhood and in local vets’ offices, but no sign.

Setting down after lunch to read and nap, as was our custom, was not the same without her comforting presence. We cried, missing her.

A couple of weeks later, a woman called to say she’d seen our sign at the vet’s office, and thought she knew where our dear Pearl was.  The week before, she and her son had been astonished when a quail had emerged from the bushes in the preserve next door to their house and jumped right up on his arm, then jumped up and sat on his head! They were accustomed to feeding the wild quail there, but had never had one do this. Quail generally keep to themselves, so this surprising behavior amazed them.  When she saw my notice, she put it together.

So we were gratified to know that Pearl had found herself the ideal home: A regular food supply from humans, but the large family she had always craved. I will always be grateful that she stayed with us so long and was such a blessing to us.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

Best Exotic Marigold Hotel -- the rest of its name is for the Beautiful and Old. It's run by an ambitious young man in Jaipur, India whose business sense leaves something to be desired, but whose passion is for the old family building and the elderly people he intends to bring there as resident.

Along the way, poultry and other bird images color the film: chickens scurry around the streets, showing their close relationship to Red Junglefowl, which still nest in India's forests. Peacocks don't appear on screen, but their haunting calls  convey the flavor of life in this hot, crowded Indian city. In one long sequence, an egret flies off, changing directions as it draws in its long neck and soars gracefully over the hotel's courtyard walls.

Each character's story has complications: Ownership of the hotel is shared among Sonny and his two brothers, both more practical and successful, especially in his mother's eyes, than he is. The English retirees make their way to the hotel for various reasons, some deliberately wanting to go there, others finding it as the last resort.

I recognized all the characters from people in my life. They all share our temptations and weaknesses, our finer points and strengths.

It's colorful, showing an India I'd want to visit. Hellish traffic and busy street markets, but friendly people reaching out to obvious foreigners. Maggie Smith plays an elderly woman who comes to India for hip surgery, even though her racism made her recoil from being treated by an Indian doctor in England. Her transformation is a pleasure to watch.

It's a story about hearts opening, and it's never too late. An inspiring message, carried on the crows and calls of our faithful companion birds.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Smithsonian puts chickens on the cover

Smithsonian honors Chickens:

The chickens that saved Western civilization were discovered, according to legend, by the side of a road in Greece in the first decade of the fifth century B.C. The Athenian general Themistocles, on his way to confront the invading Persian forces, stopped to watch two cocks fighting and summoned his troops, saying: “Behold, these do not fight for their household gods, for the monuments of their ancestors, for glory, for liberty or the safety of their children, but only because one will not give way to the other.” The tale does not describe what happened to the loser, nor explain why the soldiers found this display of instinctive aggression inspirational rather than pointless and depressing. But history records that the Greeks, thus heartened, went on to repel the invaders, preserving the civilization that today honors those same creatures by breading, frying and dipping them into one’s choice of sauce. The descendants of those roosters might well think—if they were capable of such profound thought—that their ancient forebears have a lot to answer for.

Read the rest of the article on Smithsonian's site, or get a copy of the magazine. This one's a keeper!.

Peacocks in the trees

What more elegant bird could grace your estate than a peacock? This bird, the national bird of India, has been a favorite of English country gentry, its haunting call the harbinger of mystery. Peafowl, encompassing males (peacocks), females (peahens) and chicks (peachicks), are now bred in a wide variety of colors, from the traditional blue peacock to peach and white. A bird for any color scheme, although unusual colors are much more expensive. If you’re starting out, a pair or trio of the traditional blue color is easier to get hold of and you aren’t as deeply committed financially.
Peafowl take to a wild lifestyle easily, becoming feral and deciding where to live on their own. If you want to avoid having to collect them form the neighbors, keep them caged for several months and then train them to stay close to your property by keeping one or more in the enclosure while the others are out. 

Their haunting screech echoes across the lawn in English suspense dramas. They heighten the sense of the strange and unexpected. 

Peafowl are actually the largest of the pheasant family, at 7 ½ lbs. for females and 11 lbs. for males, which can get as big as 15 lbs. The tails for which they are admired extend longer than six feet. Adult birds have a wingspan of four feet. Flight pens need to accommodate the reach of wings and tail, at least six feet tall and ten feet wide, long enough to provide sufficient area for the number of birds confined. Plan on at least 80 square feet per bird. Two hundred per male and 100 per hen is preferable. In cold climates, they will need a protective shelter and may need heat during the winter.

This map, from National Geographic,  shows the natural range of peafowl in the wild. The blue peacock is the most familiar, inhabiting India and Sri Lanka. It's the national bird of India. Green peafowl live in Java and Myanmar and rare Congo peafowl in Africa, but they are not suitable for private ownership.

Birds generally get along well with each other. Overall, the various species of poultry and fowl live compatibly on many farms. General principles of cleanliness and good maintenance are the best defense against disease.

Hatcheries such as  Purely Poultry in Fremont, Wisconsin and Cackle Hatchery in Lebanon, Missouri sell peachicks in a variety of colors. Chcek with independent breeders as well, such as Bow's Peafowl Farm in Texas.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Poultry in 1910 Michigan

Chris Grosser sent me this inquiry:

 I am writing a novel based in 1910's Hamtramck, Michigan where Polish immigrants are raising chickens in their front and backyards. What kind of chickens might they have raised? I'm looking for some description or images to lend historical accuracy to my writing. Could you refer me to a particular website?

My suggestions:

I’m not familiar with Michigan’s geography, but I found several references to chickens in Commercial Poultry magazines of April and August, 1910. The Michigan Poultry Breeders Association was active, electing new officers in Port Huron in March. There may be some state records in the Michigan State Archives,

In magazines of that year, Barred and Buff Plymouth Rocks, White and Buff Wyandottes, White Buff and Partridge Orpingtons and Light Brahmas are frequently mentioned in advertising. The ad below, from the Poultry Item of June 1910, is typical.

E.L. Keyser wrote a detailed account of Poultry Breeds and Varieties in the April issue, covering all 23 breeds and 71 varieties that were recognized by the APA at that time: six American breeds, three Asiatic, three English and five Mediterranean. Polish, Dutch and Games had their own classes, each with a single breed and several varieties. A separate French class had three breeds. He also acknowledges a dozen unrecognized breeds, but does not describe them in detail. 

Advertisements for single comb white and buff Orpingtons appear, along with single comb white Leghorns. Farms are located in Grand Ledge and Muskegon.

The August issue lists poultry shows planned for Dowagiac, Grand Ledge, Holland, Ithaca, Jackson and Marcellus. Names of judges and show secretaries are included. Let me know if these would be of help.

Although I haven’t yet found any items specifically mentioning Poland, poultry was extending into international circles from Michigan. A news story tells of Fred Harrison of Menominee shipping a trio of Rhode Island Reds to Old Mexico and two settings of eggs to Sweden. “So within a short time the descendants of Menominee’s fancy poultry will be strutting magnificently about the door of a hacienda or adobe house or picking kernels from a tiled yard in far-off Sweden,” the unsigned item reports.

The National Agriculture Library lists 65 collections in its Manuscript Collections. This may well include information about Michigan poultry of that era. Peruse the listings here,, and request assistance from the librarians at

I'll continue to explore the collection of antique books and magazine for references specifically to the breeds that  Polish immigrants would have favored. Certainly, all these would be historically accurate for the time and place.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Sussex, an English favorite

From British Poultry Standards, Poultry World, ca. 1955:

"Sussex: This is a very old breed, for although we do not find it included in the first Book of Standards in 1865, yet at the first poultry show of 1845 the classification included Old Sussex or Kent fowls, Surrey Fowls and Dorkings. The oldest variety of Sussex is the Speckled. Brahma, Cochin and Silver-grey Dorking were used in the make-up of the Light. The earlier Reds had black breasts, until the Red and Brown became separate varieties. Old English Game has figured in the make-up of some strains of Browns. Buffs appeared about 1920, clearly obtained by sex linkage within the breed. Whites came a few years later, as sports from Lights. Silvers are the latest variety. The Light is the most widely kept in this country today, among Standard as well as commercial breeders. The Sussex Breed Club was formed as far back as 1904 and is now one of the oldest breed clubs in Britain."

In my research, the names Sussex and Suffolk both seem to refer to a traditional barnyard fowl that acquired breed status late in the 19th century. Lewis Wright says in his 1890 Illustrated Book of Poultry that “.. it is impossible to do so (describe Surrey or Sussex fowl).” They have no standard color or type, “… except that a strong dash of Dorking blood can be traced in them all.” They may or may not have a fifth toe. “They appear to be simply a fine race of barn-door poultry, improved by long and careful breeding for the London markets.”

He may make reference to the Speckled color pattern we know today, in his remarks that “… perhaps a colour as general as any may be described to be a whitish ground, freely  but irregularly covered with black and brown, or other dark-coloured feathers; some white or nearly white colour being observable in a very large proportion of the birds.”

They require hardly any care, usually given only a small triangular coop that can be boarded up to protect them from rain. They hatch year-round, especially from January through September, providing a regular source of meat for the market. Mature roosters are sturdy at 9 lbs., hens at 7 lbs. They lay brown eggs.

Brahma and Cochin figured  into the late 19th century breed development. Light Sussex share the color pattern with Light Brahmas, known in other breeds as Columbian. The Sussex Club was formed in Great Britain in 1903, rapidly growing from 90 members in 1905 to over 170 members in 1906, eventually reaching over 500 members in 1928. Sussex remained one of the most popular English breeds until World War II

Sussex were recognized as a breed in 1914 by the APA, Speckled and Red. Light Sussex were admitted in 1929. Coronation Sussex, an unrecognized variety, replaces the black in the neck and tail feathers of Light Sussex with lavender, giving them a silvery sheen. These are from Blue Poultry. They were created for the coronation of King Edward VIII, which never took place because of his abdication to marry Wallis Simpson. Other colors have been raised in England, including Brown, White, Buff, Black, Partridge and Silver, a variation of Birchen.

I'm very fond of my Speckled Sussex, who is still setting on the Coronation and Welsummer eggs I got for her two weeks ago. Alas, some of the other hens troubled her and I found her on the wrong next one day last week, so her chances of a successful hatch are much reduced.

Sussex never acquired the same popularity in America that they enjoyed in England. David Scrivener, in his Popular Poultry Breeds, ascribes this to Light Sussex being similar to Columbian Rocks and Red Sussex to Rhode Island Reds. Both breeds were already firmly established in America by the time Sussex found recognition and advocates who brought them across the Atlantic. A new American Sussex Association breed club was formed in 2011.

Bantam Sussex are recognized in Light, Red and Speckled color varieties by the APA. The ABA also recognizes Birchen, Buff, and White. A Golden variety is also raised but not recognized. They are not common.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Turkeys wild and domestic

Wild turkeys have become common in many areas. Wild turkey populations have increased from a low of 1.3 million birds in 1973 to nearly 7 million birds across North America today, according to the National Wild turkey Federation. You may already have turkeys gracing your property. I took this picture from my deck. They often display their tails within sight of our windows. I hear them gobbling, both near and echoing across the valley.

All turkeys are the same breed, but their different colors separate them as varieties. Bronze is the traditional one, but white, black, buff, slate, lilac and multi-colored versions such as Narragansett, Bourbon Red and  Nebraskan are among the possibilities.
Royal Palm turkeys are small, topping out at 22 pounds for mature toms, compared with 33 to 36 pounds for other breeds. Their white and black markings that suit them as garden ornaments.  Although Royal Palms have been selected for their beauty, they did not lose their ability to forage for themselves. Royal Palm turkeys will also raise their own poults for you.

If you keep domestic turkeys, you may find a wild male eager to join your flock for a season. Farmers of the past generally welcomed such interlopers, for their contribution to the vitality of the flock. The offspring won’t retain the distinctive coloring of Royal Palms, but that may not be important to you. All turkeys are sociable and companionable with people.

They are good table birds, if you find yourself with more than you want as ornaments.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Geese float across your pond

Ready for a bigger commitment to water fowl? Geese are loyal and hardy. Their larger size makes them more impressive. 

Knobbed geese include both African, one of the three heavy goose varieties, and China or Chinese geese, a light variety. Harvey Ussery's geese get along fine with their duck cousins. The size difference is significant, Africans weighing 18 lbs. for the goose and 22 lbs. or more for the gander, and China 10 and 12 lbs. equivalents, in the 2010 Standard. Really, as Samuel Cushman says in the article included in the 1912 edition of Harrison Weir’s The Poultry Book’s chapter on The Domestic Goose, the Chinese are “more on the bantam order.” Both have a more upright stance than other geese, and long, swan-like necks, illustrated by these from Metzer Farms. Writers newly acquainted with them in the 19th century occasionally classified them as swans.

Sebastopol geese look as if someone curled their feathers. Their soft, flowing ruffles give them the appearance of fantastic dream birds. Their feathers are as much as four times as long as normal feathers, with flexible shafts that spiral, draping down to the ground.

They are an ancient utility breed, hardy and respectable egg layers of 25-35 eggs a year. Goose eggs can substitute for chicken eggs in cooking and are especially valued in baking. Their albumen is heavier than that of chicken eggs, so don’t bother trying to get them to whip up light.

Sebastopols are considered medium geese, weighing 12 to 14 lbs. at maturity, making them good table birds, if you are so inclined. They are gentle and enjoy human companionship. Keep them away from aggressive birds. They enjoy bathing those lovely feathers in clean water.

All waterfowl feathers and down make the warmest insulation, both for the bird and for clothing and bedding. No man-made product is as good as goose down and feathers. Geese stay warm in the harshest winter weather, but the loose feathering of Sebastopols makes them appreciate protection when it’s especially cold, wet and windy.

Don’t worry about them flying away. Those long, curly feathers are useless for flying. Like all geese, they mate for the duration, which may well be for life. They love raising a family and will happily adopt youngsters of other species. Give them a place to nest and you will have years of happy families.

Geese are generally hardy and easy to manage. They are usually gregarious and prefer to live in flocks. They can be territorial and aggressive in the breeding season, so you may need to separate them in pens. They like water for swimming, but will do equally well without it, so long as they have adequate drinking water. A total pen area of 2,500 square feet should be adequate for a small flock of less than ten geese. If it can include a pond of 500 square feet of water, so much the better. It should include grass, as they are primarily grazers. They enjoy other greens from the garden or the local produce department. A friendly produce manager may be willing to save green trim for you.