[We hatched our newest layer chickens this summer, but I thought I'd recap the process here just to keep with the "breeding" theme of these posts. Special thanks to Ferme Fiola, our neighbours with an incubator, for hatching this batch.]
Chickens are the gateway animal. They're small, easy to keep, and the pay off is pretty good (tons of fresh eggs). And if one perishes while you're figuring out their needs it probably won't sting as hard as if it was, say, the death of a calf or a horse.
That's not to say we haven't had any emotional attachments to our chickens (we definitely have). But if one drops on your watch dealing with it is kind of on the level of flushing a goldfish.
Also on the plus side, once you keep a bunch of chickens alive through the winter you really gain a lot of farm-confidence. That was no problem, you think. Maybe in the spring we can try something bigger?
Next it's pigs. Then llamas and sheep. Now you're thinking about a milking goat and possibly a few head of cattle. Maybe even an emu or something. Why not? Those chickens worked out fine.
It's a slippery slope, and it all begins with chickens.
I'm referring to layer chickens, which are much different than broilers (meat birds). Broilers have been developed to grow big fast...and that's pretty much all they do. Layer chickens, at least the heritage breeds like we have, seem to have retained more of their natural instincts. They mature slowly, last longer, and are better tooled for survival.
This summer we picked up a batch of broiler chicks at the exact same time our layers emerged from their eggs. It gave me a chance to shoot some side-by-sides for comparison. Check this out, and keep in mind that these chicks share the same hatch date:
Pretty freaky, right? Broilers have a phenomenal growth rate, but that's all they got. They eat, drink, eat some more, waddle a bit, then balloon up in size. Up top, there's not much going on.
Layers are completely different. They've got a broad range of colours and plumage. They peck and hunt, create a social order among themselves, explore their surroundings. They even have noticeable personalities. Really, it's true.
One of our layers, Adventure Chicken, was blown away in a summer storm. She returned to the coop six weeks later, probably only because she got tired of roughing it.
I still have trouble wrapping my head around this. There are all sorts of predators on our property - skunks, weasels, foxes, coyotes, hawks, etc. - yet somehow she managed to evade all of them while also managing to find food on her own for a month and a half.
If a broiler had been blown away it probably would have been dead from a heart attack before it hit the ground. But one day Adventure just wandered back out of the woods and rejoined her layer crew in the coop. Like it was no big deal.
But to me it was a big deal. To me, this makes her the Les Stroud of the chicken world.
So our goal this summer was to breed her with Blackie, our Black Copper Maran rooster. Blackie's got a great temperament, and he's gorgeous. Maybe together they could make a super chicken.
So we took a clutch of eggs over to our neighbour's incubator and let them develop. We have a bunch of unique breeds, and Adventure's eggs were among them, but Blackie had also been fertilizing the whole crew. So on top of her offspring we also couldn't wait to see what other strange combos would emerge.
While waiting for these eggs to hatch I realized we had cleared the first hurdle of raising livestock - which is “keeping things alive”- and had quickly transitioned to the next phase - which is “let's play god”. It's what farmers do.
I don't want to ruffle anyone's personal belief system here, but it does kind of blow my mind that there are still people out there who are a bit iffy on evolution.
In a few hundred years humanity has managed to produce a pug from a grey wolf. That alone should be proof everything is made from some kind of malleable, hereditary, silly putty.
Personally I have no problem buying we all developed from some little, Bonobo type of ape. Why not? Give me a year and a dozen weirdo chickens and I'll give them all long or short necks, rainbow feathers or furry feet, or any combination there of just by putting them together and warming their eggs a bit. And I'm just one guy with a heat lamp.
If anything, life on earth should be way freakier than it is. We should all just be disembodied heads floating through space, communicating telepathically. At least that's how it would be if I was throwing the switches.
Which is what I get to do here. Just look at these chickens I made:
Most of them are doing fine, but that last one is a little tweaked. Her vent is always clogged, and laying an egg seems to take a lot out of her. Plus that goofy bubble-gum head combined with her jet-black plumage is a bit much. She looks like a nerd dressing up as ninja for Halloween.
Now, I'd like to show you the other six other hybrid chickens we made...but a funny thing happened. A fox took them out before I had a chance to photograph them. Along with Blackie, and one of our mature hens.
So, lesson learned here? I'm going to chalk this up divine intervention. I think somebody up there is trying to tell me slooooww down.
Natural selection is one thing and homesteading is fun. But too many funky chickens will lead you straight to the Island of Doctor Moreau. And I'm too young to go full Brando.