Note to the public: If you want to be responsible carnivores and raise chickens for meat, do yourselves a favor and choose a wild breed. At least, more wild than Buff Orpingtons. Inspired by the responsible animal husbandry touted by Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall, Mike Robinson and other small farmers and cooks dotting the English Countryside, I decided that I too would start raising animals for meat.
Having previously owned car-climbing, overly curious goats (who eat everything, including dollar bills sneakily swiped from ones’ back pocket), and having heard about the friendly personalities of pigs, I decided to avoid furry or snorting creatures altogether. I would ease into the circle of life with chickens, who I imagined to be devoid of personality; mere eating and pooping machines.
Well, I was right about the eating and pooping bit, but completely wrong about the personality bit. Little did I know that my farm store-owning neighbors had ordered me some of the friendliest chickens on the market. When they kindly dropped them off at my house, I opened the cardboard box and gazed down at a dozen day-old fluffballs, peeping curiously at their new home.
In retrospect, I can see it was inevitable that I would transform into an over-protective mother hen, but back then I was still delusional and focused on giving my chickens the best life possible before they met their timely end. They grew quickly and graduated from their small heat-controlled enclosure to their permanent home: a large fenced-in chicken run with a grandiose chicken coop (palace) from which they escape every afternoon to forage around our property. I would allow them to forage freely all day except chickens are destructive diggers. Protective of my landscaping, we’ve compromised and now they get unsupervised roaming privileges before bedtime.
As adolescent chickens they took every opportunity to sit on me, until all 12 would be resting comfortably on my lap, arms and shoulders. It was like a scene from The Birds, but with less screaming.
Buff Orpington hens are conversational little creatures. They love being spoken to and will quiet down immediately in response to a soothing voice. They’ll converse with you, answering whatever you say to them with little chirps and coos. They are curious and have to thoroughly inspect anything new. They play keep-away with grapes and tomatoes and they love being around people.
I courageously resisted naming them for quite a long time, knowing that would be the death-knell for my responsibly-sourced meat plans.
But I eventually fell from grace after my brother helpfully named the accidental rooster in my flock of hens Rusty. Soon, Henrietta gained her name when she insisted on flying onto my shoulders ever time I entered their pen, then Lois, when she demanded I put Henrietta down and pick her up instead, then Mrs. Potts who insisted on laying eggs in various flower pots, then Ethel, Eleanor, Dorothy, Cleopatra, Maevis, Lily, Silvie and Gloria.
Soon, Ethel hatched a nest of 8 chicks then Lois hatched 3 more. This time, I was determined not to get attached. Afterall, these chicks had a mother hen — an actual hen. I was barely involved beyond securing a safe nesting space away from the other jealous mothers-in-waiting. I was encouraged that these chicks seemed much more wild than my original dozen, and so I planned to stock my freezer when they reached 23 weeks.
However, once the hen chicks reached 6 weeks old, something clicked inside them (a survival mechanism, perhaps?) and suddenly they became even friendlier than their elders! I inwardly sighed the first time they hopped onto my lap and happily settled down to snuggle and coo at me. After passing some chicks around to our farm-friendly neighbors, we were left with MaryAnn, Lucy and Madeline, all three of whom come when I call them by name.
The exceptions to my friendly hens have been the roosters. I raised him by hand and yet, Rusty is deeply suspicious of me and flys at me in attack mode every chance he has. He is overtly sexist: he only attacks women, never men. He a coward because he will only attack me when my back is turned. If I intercept his harried advance, he immediately changes direction. He would casually whistle if he could, strolling away, pretending he had no violent intention whatsoever. In addition to my winged nemisis, Ethel had 4 rooster chicks which, unlike their sisters, did not have a friendly survival mechanism and are wild and increasingly aggressive.
Although I have chickened out of slaughtering my lovely hens, I do plan to process my roosters in the very near future and will make a lovely coq au vin out of Rusty (Rusty au vin).
If you want pets who are expert egg layers (sometimes a few hens will actually lay two eggs a day!), get yourself some friendly Buff, White, Lavender or Black Orpingtons. They might be touted as good meat birds but aside from my scrawny roosters, I’m afraid I will never know…