Tuesday, September 22, 2009
(One of the grand dames of the flock. Note her pale legs.)
When I first decided to get chickens I wanted what I refer to as a "boutique" flock; several different breeds, chosen for how much I liked their look. It's a fun way to indulge an interest in chickens and it makes it a lot easier to tell the birds apart! I also wanted a free-range flock. I soon discovered that some breeds are better at free-ranging than others. In Texas I realized, with the birds I had chosen and the area where I lived, that wasn't ever going to be possible.
When I moved to Virginia I took a little more scientific approach to choosing a breed. I decided what traits were important to me and began to do my research into which breed would best fill my need. Along the way I discovered heritage breeds. Commercial food production requires animals that can be brought to market quickly in a strictly controlled environment. Not all animals thrive under those conditions and the traits that make them unique are being bred out in favor of those that better suit commercial requirements. As an example, the ability and inclination to successfully forage for their feed, mate naturally, sit on a nest of eggs until hatch and raise babies are not important characteristics in a commercial setting. Meeting the requirements for commercial egg and meat production has resulted in the extinction and near-extinction of many of the individual breeds of chickens and other livestock that used to be commonplace. Genetic diversity is critical for the continuation of our food supply and as we lose genetic diversity, we lose our ability to adapt to environmental changes.
Heritage breeds, as defined by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, are Standard breeds of chickens as defined by the American Poultry Association that are naturally mating, long-lived, and slow growing. The ALBC maintains a list of endangered livestock breeds and I decided that I wanted to be part of saving a critically endangered breed of chicken. I wanted birds that could successfully free-range and were good predators but still fairly friendly and easy to handle. I wanted dual-purpose birds, meaning good for meat as well as eggs. I also wanted larger birds that were fairly self-sufficient. Through my research I discovered the Buckeye.
Buckeyes were developed by Mrs. Nettie Metcalf of Warren, Ohio, and appropriately named after the "Buckeye State." Buckeyes are unique in the American Class of chickens in that it is the only breed created entirely by a woman. Mrs. Metcalf started by breeding a Buff Cochin male to Barred Plymouth Rock females. This produced what she considered a large, lazy fowl. The next year she purchased a Black-Breasted Red Game male and crossed this male over the half cochin pullets. This cross produced several red offspring and from there she developed the breed. It is interesting to note that her creation predated the introduction of Rhode Island Reds into the mid-west. In 1902 Mrs. Metcalfe exhibited a pair in the Cleveland, Ohio poultry show as Buckeyes. In color the Buckeye is unique. The color of the Buckeye is darker than that of the original Rhode Island Red (later, the Rhode Island Red was bred for a shade of color even darker than the Buckeye). The Buckeye has a slate colored bar in the undercolor (fluff) of its back; the Rhode Island Red’s feathers should be red to the skin. Both breeds share the trait of tight feathering – unique in the American Class of poultry.
(One of the cockerells looking, well, cocky! These guys were born in May. He's got rooster written all over him!)
Buckeyes also have a personality all their own. They are a very active fowl and are noted for being especially vigilant in the pursuit of mice, some breeders comparing them to cats in regard to this ability. They tend to have very little fear of humans and are possibly too friendly, although some males may show a little aggression during breeding season. They also seem to lack the tendency to feather-pick each other. The males emit a full range of sounds beyond those typical of many other chicken breeds, including a dinosaur-like roar! These birds sounded like just the breed I'd been seeking.
Now that I'd found my breed I had to find some birds. People with mixed flocks tend to produce mixed offspring, either accidentally or intentionally in an effort to come up with new colors and configurations. I wanted to buy from someone who was interested in breed conservation and had been breeding to further the traits that are unique to the Buckeye. During my search I came across the ALBC's breeder directory and contacted a couple of breeders within easy travel distance. One of the breeders I contacted just happened to be the Research and Technical Programs Manager for ALBC. I knew she was taking the breed seriously! After corresponding for several weeks she hooked me up with another Buckeye breeder whose flock she had recently evaluated. They set some birds aside for me so now I just had to collect them.
(Checking out the new digs.)
I scrambled to get the chicken side of my poultry building ready and made arrangements to pick up my new flock, which was located about an hour south of Greensboro, NC. The Central Carolina Fair was taking place in Greensboro last week so I stopped by on my way down. I arrived at 4:00 pm to find nine beautiful, healthy birds waiting for me. Two immature roosters, which are called cockerels, three immature hens, which are called pullets and four laying hens expressed their displeasure at being pulled out of their pens and loaded into the back of my car. We arrived back at the farm at 9:00 pm. I pulled the chickens out of my "car coop" and into their new home, locked the door and left them to settle in.
Even though I've only had them a couple of days, I'm convinced I made the right decision. I spent a good deal of time with them yesterday, fine-tuning the coop setup and found them curious and alert as opposed to nervous and flighty. None of the birds displayed any signs of aggression towards me and soon settled down, keeping an eye on me, and went about their chicken business.
I'll keep them in their coop for about a week to ensure they identify it as "home" before turning them out to free-range during the day. The guineas will follow suit in a few weeks. It'll be interesting to see how they interact!
(Eyeing a watermelon treat. They gobbled the melon right down!)
I'm thrilled to have my Virigina flock in place at last. I feel good that I am playing a part in conserving a critically endangered piece of American livestock history. The fact that this is the only breed of poultry that was developed by a woman is the icing on the cake! I had my first homegrown egg for dinner last night. Life is good!
Are you interested in finding out what you can do to help preserve threatened livestock breeds? Check with the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy.