my green vermont

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Welcome to My Green Vermont - A Blog by Eulalia Benejam Cobb.
By Eulalia Benejam Cobb

Came back from Rutland with what looked like a Happy Meals box containing eight hen chicks, all of them small enough to fit inside an egg carton.

Like everything else these days, the choice of chicks was fraught with environmental repercussions.  The super-green, ultra-local way would have been to have them fathered by my very own rooster and hatched by one of my very own hens, but my vow of chicken celibacy made that impossible.  The next holiest option would have been to buy the chicks at one of the \”swaps\” held by the Vermont Bird Fanciers Club.  These chicks are locally hatched by chicken aficionados, and the money you pay for them stays right here, where it\’s needed.  But we were away when the most recent swap was held, and I didn\’t want to wait for the next one.

So I took the least holy, most convenient option (though it\’s still somewhat purer than buying supermarket eggs):  I bought my chicks at a chain farm-supply store, which buys them by the hundreds from hatcheries in Iowa and then sells them to the public, sort of the way Home Depot imports lettuce seedlings from Alabama.

The second environmental issue at stake was which breed of chick to purchase.  The chicken world is divided between \”heritage breeds\” and \”sex-linked hybrids.\”  The latter are the fairly recent result of hybridization.  They are called \”sex-linked\” because males and females can be distinguished at birth by the color of their down, and the hens when they reach puberty will lay a big brown egg a day through cold and heat and all kinds of chicken stress.  The \”heritage breeds\” spring from the backyard flocks of yore that were the farm wife\’s pride.  They are charming and picturesque and offer genetic diversity.  They will lay some eggs, too, if conditions are right.

My present flock is composed entirely of heritage chickens:  three Buff Orpingtons (the color and shape of a well-risen souffle), one Barred Rock (white and black stripes, bright red comb), and two New Hampshire Reds (red).  But my chicken history also includes experience with sex-linked hybrids, and I\’m sorry to say that their laying talents far outstrip those of their heritage sisters.

So as I stood over the vats filled with dozens of what looked like peeping eggs on legs, I had a choice to make:  charm and genetic diversity, or sheer egg-laying power? 

In the end, I compromised:  two Rhode Island Reds for charm, then three Red-Star hybrids and three Black-Star hybrids for those big brown eggs.

At the moment they\’re in the basement, in a galvanized metal tub with a mattress of wood shavings, a waterer filled with sugar water (for the first day only), a feeder full of tiny feed for their tiny beaks, and a mother-surrogate heat lamp.  They figured out about the food and drink right away, and they\’re not cheeping loudly, which is good, because cheeping is a sign of distress.  They still have that disconcerting newborn habit of falling asleep and collapsing in mid-stride, which used to send me into a panic when I was a novice chick handler.

I\’ve been talking to them quietly, letting them eat out of my hand.  Like dogs, they like having their chest scratched.  And it\’s hard to stop touching that heavenly fluff–lighter than velvet, more substantial than dandelion down–as I try and fail to imagine how on earth an egg yolk turned into that.

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