FLASH IN THE PAN 

The world's best hen

With spring in the air, the backyard chicken farmer's thoughts will often turn toward buying some new baby chicks to supplement his flock. Many hatcheries are happy to help, their catalogs offering an acid-trip's worth of fraggle-headed, bell-bottomed, Easter-egg laying, purple-beaked poultry that would add color and personality to any flock. But amid this array of options there's one breed I believe belongs in every diversified chicken portfolio: the large, regal, golden-hued bird known as the Buff Orpington.

Buff Orpingtons are heavyset chickens of English descent. They're quite fluffy, making them cold-tolerant to the point that in most American climates they will lay eggs all through the winter. Buff Orpingtons are excellent parents, showing a knack for and dedication to incubation and chick-rearing. But above all of these wonderful qualities, the breed's greatest asset is its unrivalled knack for not getting killed. The importance of this trait is obvious, but can hardly be overstated, since there are so many creatures out there that will eagerly kill your chickens if they can.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY ARI LEVAUX

My first clue to the Buff Orpington's talent for survival came years ago when a neighbor's Siberian husky got into my chicken yard. The ladies ran around like chickens with their heads cut off while the dog pounced with lethal quickness, crushing each victim in its jaws before moving on to the next. Before anyone could stop the carnage, six hens were dead. The only survivors were Annabelle and Annabelle, two identical Buff Orpingtons who ran for the safety of the coop via a small door the husky couldn't fit through.

I had wondered for years if it was just coincidence that both survivors of the massacre were Buff Orpingtons, and the other day I got my answer. Having just dumped some half-rotten veggie parts for my (since restocked) flock to enjoy, I took a moment in the spring sunshine to savor the chorus of excited clucks and coos as they scratched around. That's when Stinky the dog slipped through the open gate behind me.

Stinky's no killer, but she does like a good chase, especially if it ends with her nose up a chicken's butt. It was a crazy scene: flying feathers, leaping bodies and loud expressions of anger and alarm from chickens and chicken farmer alike. The only one who kept cool was Annabelle 2.0, a Buff Orpington who walked up the ramp to the coop and waited out the storm. This response was so similar to that of the original Annabelles during the husky massacre I had to conclude that something in a Buff Orpington's genetic programming compels it to head for the coop during times of distress.

After the husky massacre, only those two original Annabelles remained. One was kidnapped and eaten by a raccoon while being detained in an unsecure location (long story), leaving the other Annabelle as the sole member of my flock. She was quite lonely until some new chicks I'd ordered to restock the flock were big enough to go outside. The chicks flocked to Annabelle's warm, maternal henliness, jumping up to grab food out of her mouth.

One of these new chicks was the Buff Orpington that came to be known as Annabelle 2.0. She's golden orange, like the original Annabelles, but unlike those two sweethearts Annabelle 2.0 is a total bitch. She's the flock's only member who won't run toward you as you approach the yard. She's fiercely defensive and skittish, doesn't like to be tickled, and hates it when you walk around the coop at night. While different in temperament from the original Annabelles, Annabelle 2.0 shares their common-sense survival instincts.

Many chickens like to hop up into trees at the end of the day and sleep outside. While it's kind of cute, this behavior exposes them to predation by many nocturnal animals, and it gets old climbing up the tree every night to put the girls away. But Annabelle 2.0, like the original Annabelles, has no desire to roost anywhere but the coop.

Like many hens, Annabelle 2.0 will occasionally get broody, a state in which all she wants to do is sit on eggs, day and night. Last time she got broody I slipped some fertilized eggs under her and she sat on them for three weeks straight. She wouldn't get up to eat or drink, so I placed food and water dishes in her roosting box, at which point she pecked my hand and complained angrily. When the eggs hatched she was a dedicated mom, and woe to anyone who got too close to those chicks.

Now that I live in a rural area I can have a rooster in the flock, a little guy named Napoleon who looks like he's riding an elephant when he gets with the girls. Annabelle 2.0, despite the size imbalance, seems to be his favorite. And while Annabelle 2.0 did her best to make his life miserable when I first brought him into the flock, Napoleon seems to have finally brought out her soft side. After a recent elephant ride I watched them standing together under a tree. Annabelle 2.0 bent down and groomed the feathers of his neck.

Even though she doesn't seem to like me, I love Annabelle 2.0. There may be a few things I'd change, but she's basically all a chicken farmer could hope for in a hen. She's smart and tough, with strong family values, and for these traits I thank the breeders who created the Buff Orpington. It's truly the gold standard of chickens, and every diversified poultry portfolio should include gold like this.

Ask Ari

Underwater wonder

Q: What exactly is seaweed? It looks like a plant, but I've been told that it isn't. Also, how can you tell which seaweed is good to eat?

—Weed Lover

A: The term "seaweed" refers to various multi-cellular species of red, green or brown algae that live in the ocean. According to the way taxonomists are currently drawing the lines, seaweed does not fall into the plant category. Nonetheless, it remains a close relative to the plants due to its use of the chlorophyll molecule to derive energy from the sun through photosynthesis. Plants and algae share a common ancestor, cyanobacteria (also known as blue green algae). Plants are generally more complex than seaweeds, with different anatomical structures.

In terms of edibility, the only poisonous seaweed is lyngbya, also known as "Mermaid's Hair." It's a bright green/brown mass of skinny strands that looks like severely uncombed hair.

But while the other 9,000 or so species of seaweed aren't harmful (assuming they aren't contaminated and all the scum is cleaned out of them), most species aren't exceedingly tasty, either.

When I'm swimming in the ocean I often munch on the seaweed I find, just to see how it tastes. The biggest complaints I can usually muster is that some types are tough, while others are unappetizingly slimy.

But when I was living on the coast of Brazil I became familiar with the types of seaweed I most liked and would go collecting. Then I would rinse and boil the seaweed (to make it more tender) and make seaweed salads with dried shrimp, chili and sesame oil. My local friends thought I was crazy, and I thought they were crazy for not using this tasty, nutritious resource that's floating out there free for the taking.

Send your food and garden queries to flash@flashinthepan.net

  • Email
  • Print

More by Ari LeVaux

© 2016 Missoula News/Independent Publishing | Powered by Foundation