A street-smart chicken for your backyard

 

There are many ways backyard hens can die. If you raise them long enough, you'll see your share. But buff Orpington chickens tend to be survivors.  

My first clue to their talent for living came when a Siberian husky sneaked into my backyard. A more efficient chicken-killing machine does not exist. The wolfish canine made quick work of the girls, as they ran around exactly like chickens about to have their heads cut off. The dog pinned each one down with a paw, bit hard, crushed its bones and shook 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. The Annabelles had survived the carnage simply by strolling into the coop through a door that was too small for the dog to fit through. I've since observed other buff Orpingtons repair to the henhouse when a dog enters the scene.

The loss of their coop-mates took a toll. The Annabelles took to wandering, I presume in search of their lost friends. One Annabelle was picked up by a well-meaning neighbor, only to be eaten by a raccoon on the good Samaritan's back porch. Down to our last hen, we ordered another round of freshly hatched chicks. As soon as they met the surviving Annabelle, the chicks treated her as mom, and she obliged. They jumped at her mouth to get food and followed her away from the shadows of opportunistic ravens. Annabelle became my first chicken, ever, to die of old age.

Since then, every buff Orpington has been named Annabelle, including one in the current generation of spring chickens. When they were about two weeks old, I let the chicks peck around the lawn on a hot afternoon. I was putting them back into their chick box, but had trouble catching a certain chick. A big chicken can be hard to catch; pro boxers, for example, used to chase chickens as a training exercise. Baby chicks, however, are easy to catch. Usually. But this chick eluded me by running to places that were too small for me to follow. It was an Annabelle, of course, one of two in the flock.

People buy chickens for different reasons: Fancy feathers, maybe, or 300 eggs per year. The buff Orpington is pretty enough, 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. Good-natured and non-bullying, a buff Orpington has a lot of strengths, 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 piece, arguing that the Rhode Island red is the best chicken. I love Rhode Island reds too. I also believe no flock should lack an Ameraucana. These large birds with feathered ears and multicolored plumage are friendlier than buff Orpingtons, and they can out-lay most hens, dropping lovely blue and speckled eggs. But no chicken has the street-smarts of a buff Orpington.

I scored my buff Orpingtons at a feed store, where this time of year it’s common to find chicks peep-peeping under heat lamps. Day-old chicks can also be ordered online, with Murray McMurray and Cackle Hatchery being the industry elders, and younger upstarts like Ideal Poultry and Meyer Hatchery gaining ground. 

Or you can attend a poultry swap, which resembles 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 nearest poultry swap.

At one such event in Edgewood, New Mexico, recently, 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 to the scene. But even if they disappoint me, I know that my flock will nonetheless rock on, thanks to the golden chicken that has never let me down.

Ari LeVaux is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a column service of High Country News. He writes about food in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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