Green Wizardries, Chickens in the Country by Maxine Rogers
We keep a flock of Buff Orpington laying hens. This is a heritage breed from England, from the town of Orpington in Kent. The birds are large and heavily feathered with golden feathers. I saw a Buff Orpington rooster at a Fall Fair when I was a small child. The rooster was a little taller than I was, or so I remember it. He was a beautiful deep-gold colour and from that day on, the Buff Orpington was the only breed for me.
The Buff Orpington is a new breed of chicken, dating back only to the 1880’s. The first Orpington chickens were the Black Orpingtons. The breeder, a Mr. William Cook, wanted a good laying hen and a heavy meat bird. He succeeded in his goal and his new breed of chickens rapidly became a favourite in the UK and the US.
Not content with the Black Orpington, Mr. Cook went on to create the Buff. To get the golden colour he wanted, Mr. Cook drew on some golden Cochin chickens and some other breeds to get the excellent colour and the very thick feathering. There are other colours of Orpingtons, including the lavender and the splash, but the Buff has remained far and away the most popular variety.
The Buff Orpington is an excellent bird for cold weather but they require shade in the summer to thrive. As soon as the sun hits our hen yard, all the Buffs depart for the shady interior of their house.
The Buff Orpingtons have a reputation as being good mothers but this is, sadly, not the case anymore. This breed, and so many other breeds of chicken, have been reared in incubators for so long that breeders have not selected for good mothering ability and some of these birds have almost none left.
Last year, we were very pleased to have one of our Buff hens sit on a clutch of eggs and rear them all with mothering skills more often seen in Bantam breeds. This summer, we set her to breeding again and again, she chose to sit on the eggs. She was very focused and every time we checked n her, she was screwed down tight on that nest. We kept listening at the door for the first peeps which would tell us the chicks had hatched.
A couple of days ago, I heard some peeping and went in to find the area around the nest to be littered with six unconscious chicks. I ran and quickly set up the incubator and got a basket to gather the chicks in. We went in and picked them all up. Some seemed dead but the rule with hypothermia is you are not cold and dead until you are warm and dead. Once in the incubator, they all revived.
We went back and lifted the hen up and collected the remaining chicks and the eggs, some of which were pipping, that is, the chicks inside were breaking their shells to hatch. Our hen may have lost her mind at the end but she did such a good job of incubating the eggs that we got eighteen chicks from twenty-two eggs which is a very good rate of hatch and would have been even better if she had not managed to smother one chick as it was hatching. Only one of the eggs was infertile which tells us our rooster, Admiral, is a good breeder. The chicks spent something like 28 hours in the incubator and then went into a brooding box with a heat lamp and are all doing very well.
I mention this because the other way to get chicks is to order them from Rochester Hatchery in Alberta and have them flown over. This is stressful on the chicks and some always die in transit. Rochester is good about this and puts in a few extra chicks to make up for the expected travel losses.
I would rather breed my own birds here as there is no danger of importing disease and the savings in fuel are astronomical. Flying our chickens in from Alberta is kind of pants on the head madness. I get to choose what my hens are eating to get them ready for breeding and this makes a difference in the strength and resilience shown by the chicks.
Having roosters on our islands is essential for food security. There was some lunatic idea from the Trust, some time ago, that roosters would be banned from Denman and Hornby. They seem to have mistaken our rural islands for the suburbs of some large city. Luckily, the backlash from that proposal was fierce and they gave it up.
I feed my birds a mash every day of soaked alfalfa pellets, kitchen scraps, a bit of milk, any animal fat I have extra, and their usual ration of layer pellets all soaked in hot water to make it more palatable. We also soak their hen scratch in water to ferment for three days before serving it. This makes the scratch much easier to digest and it has more nutritional value from the process of fermentation. They also get heaps of lettuces and other greens from my garden, dandelion greens being a perennial favourite.
The chicks are thriving on a diet of unmedicated chick starter, home-made cottage cheese and finely-chopped greens. The future is uncertain. Having some hens in your back yard may be the best investment you will ever make.