Friday, January 18, 2013

Beautiful Barred Rocks

by Meredith Chilson

This is the time of year that hatchery catalogs arrive, and just like the seed and garden catalogs that also clog our mailboxes, these “wish books” become well thumbed, with corners turned down and photos circled.  At least, that’s the way it is at my house.  I pore over the glossy pages, dreaming of fuzzy chicks and spring.

A few winters ago, I ordered my first chicks from a local hardware.  I had three choices: Rhode Island Red, White Leghorn, or Buff Orpington.  I knew I wanted brown egg layers, so a dozen Rhodies and a dozen Buff Orpingtons came to live at my house.  They were good choices for a novice.  They were friendly, heavy hens that laid an astounding amount of eggs and could withstand our cold winters well, and so began what is now our “family flock”.  These breeds forage well when free ranging and head back to the coop when night begins to fall. If I want them to go in earlier, they are easily herded into the run. At least two of the Buff Orpingtons have become broody, and I’m glad to know that instinct has not been bred out of them, although I haven’t always let them raise chicks. I still have several of these “original” hens, and they continue to lay eggs, although not nearly as many or as often.

Assorted colors and breeds that make up my flock.
I’ve added other breeds to the flock—a black Silkie and a Poppyseed chick one year.  The Poppyseed is a breed a neighbor was trying to develop, and the Silkie—I couldn’t resist!  These two have distinct personalities and so have added color to the flock in more than one way!  We added three more hens to our flock as a result of our amorous Buff Orpington rooster.  One of the Buff hens sat on the nest, but I’m quite sure at least one of those chicks had a Rhode Island Red for a mother.

Last year, I fell under the spell of the hatchery catalog, and ordered a dozen pullet chicks.  Again, I wanted brown egg layers, but in the spirit of adding even more color, I chose Speckled Sussex and Barred Plymouth Rock for breeds.  I’ve written about the Sussex, but I’ve not quite been sure how to talk about the Barred Rocks.

I’ll start by saying they are beautiful.  Every one of our Barred Rock ladies is just lovely. 

I chose them for several reasons:  they were described in the Meyer Hatchery catalog as being very friendly, doing well in cold weather, and having “good hardiness [in] all characteristics that would be a great addition to your flock!” There’s some nostalgia involved, too, I must confess.  I remember these black and white birds from an elderly neighbor’s flock years ago.  In my mind, I still can see them pecking around the yard and curiously peering in the garage when I stopped to buy eggs.  Finally, I was hooked with the pictures of the chicks—little black balls of fluff with a tiny yellow spot on their heads.

I did some further investigating before the final decision, and I found that Barred Plymouth Rock chickens have a rich history and are considered a Heritage Poultry Breed.  According to MotherEarth News, “barred birds from New England were called Dominiques, Plymouth Country Fowls, and Plymouth Rocks.” Crosses were made between fowl breeds, but by 1869 a ”Plymouth Rock”, looking much like those we know today, was exhibited in Massachusetts. By the mid-twentieth century, the “Barred Plymouth Rock was the most common farm chicken in the United States.”

I do love history.  And farms.  Combine those two loves with friendly, brown-egg laying chickens and with no further ado, my order was sent.

The "Yayas"
Those balls of fluff were just as advertised.  I noticed from the beginning—and remember, I pull my chair right up to the chickie pen and observe those babies a LOT—the barred Rocks (five of them) stayed together as a group. They poked around the pen (the Sussex raced), snooping into interesting looking areas, calling to their sisters when they found an odd colored flake of shaving or a particularly fascinating crumb.  One of the black chicks seemed to take the lead, to be a bit braver than the others.  She was the first to try new things, the earliest to hop onto the waterer to peer out into the Wide World Beyond the Pen.  We named her Henrietta, and her group of “YaYa Sisters” followed along close behind.

Henrietta The Explorer
These days, Henrietta and the YaYa’s are full-fledged laying hens.  (Did I mention that they are really beautiful?)  At almost exactly five months of age, I noticed them checking out the nest boxes. A day or so later, Henrietta performed an excellent “squat” as I entered the morning coop, and it was not more than a week later we were finding nice, light brown eggs in the nests.

It’s wintry weather here, but the cold doesn’t seem to hinder these excellent layers. I find at least three, usually four, and sometimes five eggs a day, and often in the same nest box!  I’ve noticed that Henrietta likes to sit in one box and gossip with the chicken in the nest next to her.  (Maybe it’s not gossip, but direction?)

I’ve found these hardy birds pecking through light snow fall, searching for treats.  Their single combs are bright red now, signifying a healthy layer, and the combination of black and white feathers and red comb against the back drop of a snowy day is…well, just beautiful.

I don’t have favorites in my flock, I truly don’t.  The Buff Orpingtons with their pleasant attitudes and sturdy bodies remind me of firmly corseted matrons. They fulfill their laying duties in a matter of fact manner, just as the ladies they appear to be.  I think of my Rhode Island Reds as the “backbone” of the flock.  They are companionable and good layers.  I don’t notice them as much as some of the others, because they quietly and politely wait their turns at the feeders and roosts—no pushing, shoving or squawking.  They are distinct personalities—from Mavis, the hen who insists on sleeping by herself tucked in a corner or a nest box, to Gracie, the hen that can’t quite figure out the rhythm to pecking at the seed cake.

If I was asked which breed of chicken I would recommend to a beginning hen-keeper, though, I believe it would be the Barred Plymouth Rock.  As advertised, they are docile, very cold hardy, and produce large brown eggs well whether in confinement or free ranging. And—they are beautiful!

Do you raise Barred Plymouth Rocks? (Aren’t they beautiful?)

Read more about what happens in our valley over at Green Circle Grove --on Facebook, too.

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