A street smart chicken

Why one breed rises above the rest for backyard coops

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Ari LeVaux

There are many ways that a hen can die. If you raise them long enough, you’ll see your share. I’ve been keeping hens since before it was even legal in my hometown, since before anyone in Brooklyn or Portland had even heard of a chicken. Along the way, in both the city and the country, I’ve seen hens meet all manner of early demise. But one breed of hen, I’ve noticed, keeps dodging life’s bullets. Buff Orpington chickens are survivors.

 

My first clue to their talent for living came when a wandering Siberian husky snuck into my backyard while the girls were grazing. A more efficient chicken-killing machine than a Siberian husky does not exist. The wolfish canine made quick work of the girls, as they ran around like chickens about to have their heads cut off. The dog would pin one down with a paw, bite hard, crush bones and shake vigorously, before pouncing on the next panicked hen.

By the time we chased the dog out of the yard, six hens were dead. The only survivors were the two Buff Orpingtons, both of whom were named Annabelle, because we could never tell them apart. Like all Buff Orpingtons they were puffy and round, with reddish gold plumage the color of egg yolk from a pastured hen.

The Annabelles had survived the incident by strolling into the coop, through a door that was too small for the dog to fit through. I’ve since observed Buff Orpingtons similarly repair to the hen house when a non-bloodthirsty dog enters the scene.

The loss of their coop-mates took a toll on those Annabelles. They took to escaping the yard and wandering, I presume in search of their friends. One Annabelle was picked up by a well-meaning Samaritan, only to be eaten by a raccoon on the Samaritan’s back porch, I found out later.

Down to our last hen, we ordered another round of freshly hatched chicks. As soon as they met Annabelle, the chicks treated her as mom, and she obliged. They jumped and pecked at her mouth to get food, stood or burrowed under her and followed her away from the shadows of opportunistic ravens. Annabelle went on to become my first chicken, ever, to die of old age.

Since then, every Buff Orpington has been named Annabelle, including a pair in the current generation of spring chickens.

When they were about two weeks old, I had let the chicks peck around the lawn on a hot afternoon and was putting them back into their chick box. But I was having trouble catching a certain chick. 

A big chicken can be hard to catch. Pro boxers used to chase chickens as a training exercise. But baby chicks are easy to catch. Usually. But I could not catch this one darn chick. She stayed free not by quickness or agility, but by running to places that were too small for me to follow. It was Annabelle, of course.

There are many qualities that keepers look for in our chickens. Sometimes we want fancy feathers, or 300 eggs per year or big breasts and thighs. The Buff Orpington is a pretty-enough bird, but it’s no Crested Polish or Silver Spangled Hamburg. In her prime, a Buff Orpington is a solid layer but not an egg machine like a California White. I would never eat a Buff, so I can’t comment on their breast and thighs.

Good natured and non-bullying, a Buff Orpington is a solid, all-around chicken with no weaknesses, especially in the realm of common sense, which is a challenging area for many chickens.

Washington Post food columnist Tamar Haspel recently wrote an impassioned case for why the Rhode Island Red is, in fact, the best chicken. I certainly would welcome one or two Rhode Island Reds in my flock, but Haspel didn’t convince me of their superiority over Buff Orpingtons. Still, we share the same sentiment on diversity in one’s flock.

“I don’t think we’ll ever have a flock that’s all Rhode Island Reds. But we’ll never have a flock without them,” she wrote earlier this year.

Since we’re on the subject, no flock should be devoid of an Ameraucana, either. These large birds with feathered ears and multicolored plumage are friendlier than Buff Orpingtons, and in the coop they can out-lay most hens, in both size and number. Ameraucanas have a decent measure of street smarts, too. And their eggs are blue, and sometimes speckled.

I got my new Buff Orpingtons, as well as a couple of Ameraucanas, at a feed store, where this time of year it is common to find chicks peep-peeping under heat lamps. Day-old chicks can also be ordered online from many outfits, with Murray McMurray and Cackle Hatchery being the industry elders, and younger upstarts like Ideal Poultry and Meyer Hatchery gaining ground. But be warned, most chicken keepers would need a hen house as big as the Pentagon if they allowed themselves to order every crazy-looking breed they wanted to.

I recently attended my first poultry swap, which is like a farmers’ market built around chickens. If you’re curious about the chicken-keeping lifestyle, or want to meet some other practitioners, and perhaps bring home some poultry, it’s worth a web search to find the next poultry swap closest to you.

In the parking lot of a feed store in Edgewood, New Mexico, I purchased a Sicilian Buttercup, a Speckled Sussex and an Old English Game Bantam Chicken, all alleged to be female, along with some really good cinnamon rolls made by a veteran with PTSD.

Having a couple of Buff Orpingtons already in my growing flock gave me the confidence to purchase these random hens. In all likelihood, they will be wonderful girls, adding their quirky personalities and yummy eggs to the scene. But even if they turn out to be duds, or bullies, or dead, I know that my flock will nonetheless rock on, thanks to the chicken that has never let me down.

 

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