Rare and unusual breeds of chickens make their homes throughout the Historic Area. From ornamental pets to supper-table staples, Manager of Rare Breeds Elaine Shirley takes care of them all.
Harmony Harmony Hunter: Hi, welcome to the podcast. I’m Harmony Hunter. A visit to Colonial Williamsburg can provide an education in history as well as an education in rare animal breeds. Our historic city is host to five rare species and preserving and caring for their unique genetic legacies is the job of Elaine Shirley, manager of rare breeds. Elaine, thank you for being here today.
Elaine Shirley: You’re welcome.
Harmony: Well we have a whole host of animals that we could talk about, but today we’re just going to talk about chickens. We have a variety of chickens that can be found throughout the Historic Area and many breeds are represented. Who do we have that we’re going to see?
Elaine: Well we have several rare breeds of chickens. The one that’s at both ends of town is the Nankin Bantam and Bantam is a group of chickens like miniature dogs. Essentially Bantams are small chickens and they’re really a plaything for the wealthy, to be honest. Because they’re so small they wouldn’t make a great meal and their eggs are very small so they tend to be kept as a plaything. So we have them at the Wythe House. Mr. Wythe is very wealthy and very well read so we showed that in his chicken coop.
And then we also have them at Benjamin Powell’s house. He lives at the other end of town and is a builder and is up and coming and hoping to marry his daughters to a higher status so he has fancy little chickens. The Nankins are a breed that goes back several centuries. It’s originally an oriental breed and it came to Europe and in England one of the uses for this bird was that the females get very broody. They want to sit on eggs because an egg won’t hatch unless a hen sits on it or unless it’s warmed somehow and it takes three weeks so you need a hen who’s very committed. You don’t need a hen who sits for two days and then decides she’s sick of this and walks off.
So in the poultry world when a female decides she’s going to sit on eggs, it’s called being broody and she will come after you; she’ll peck you, she’ll put her feathers out and growl at you like she’s going to kill you. And so Nankins, the females, are very good at going broody and so they will sit on anything. They don’t care what they sit on; rocks, door knobs. Hopefully they’ll sit on eggs, but they can sit on the eggs of other species and hatch them out. So Nankins were one of the breeds that was used to sit on pheasant and quail eggs to hatch those birds and then later you would take them out and shoot at them in your fancy estate.
Harmony: So not only they sort of a prestige breed, they’re also sort of foster hens?
Harmony: OK. And so what do they look like? I think when we think of chickens we picture the white chicken with the red comb, but what does a Nankin look like?
Elaine: The Nankin is kind of a butterscotch colored chicken. The female is fairly the same color throughout although she does have dark tail feathers. The males are kind of two shades darker than the females so they’re a real rich orangey brown, orangey red, and then they have these beautiful green/black/purple tail feathers. They’re kind of iridescent and as they hit the light they change colors and the male’s tailfeathers are a sickle, so they’re a big three quarter circle so they’re really, really handsome chickens.
Harmony: And that’s only the tip of the iceberg as far as what rare breed or uncommon breeds that are in the Historic Area. Who else is out there?
Elaine: Well the other rare breed that we are actively raising are Dominiques, and we have the Dominiques behind Weatherburn’s Tavern. Weatherburn is running a business, so he’s trying to get eggs and meat relatively cheaply so his profit margin is good and the Dominique is a great dual purpose breed for egg production and meat production and they’re a breed that was developed here in the mid-Atlantic region in the 18th century so it’s very, very correct for the time period.
We also do have some other breeds scattered around. A number of them are not as rare today as the Dominique and the Nankin. We have old English game, which were the birds that were used for cock fighting in the 18th century, which was very, very popular. Second only to horse racing in its popularity.
Harmony: I know, it’s kind of a brutal sport. They would put little spurs on the chickens and…
Elaine: Well it depends on your social status. If you’re very, very poor you would not put spurs on the bird. You would use their natural spurs. But if you’re very wealthy you cut the natural spurs off and you use silver spurs in a point to show your wealth…so…
Harmony: And these birds would fight to the death?
Elaine: No, not always and actually they probably only fight to the death 30 or 40 percent of the time. Generally you have a bird who is obviously the winner and a bird who is obviously the loser and you part their ways before they kill each other. And in our modern sensibilities it does seem like a cruel sport, but the one thing I point out to people is if you have two roosters in the farm yard, what are they going to do?
Harmony: They’ll fight anyway.
Elaine: They’ll fight anyway; exactly. So to a certain extent it’s putting human rules on what these birds do naturally and in the wild sometimes they kill each other, but typically one bird will give up and run off.
Harmony: So that brings us up to four breeds that we’ve mentioned?
Elaine: Right, and over the years we’ve had a number of others, currently we do not, but we have had Silver Spangled Hamburgs and we have had Dorkings which is a big heavy bird with five toes. Most chickens have four toes, but the Dorking is one of the few with five toes. So they have an unusual looking foot. We also currently do have a couple of Silkies. They’re a breed of chicken that Marco Polo mentioned when he was in China. He said “I saw a bird with fur like a cat.”
Harmony: And this is another chicken with a really unique plumage?
Elaine: Yes, yes. Most of their feathers don’t have shafts down the middle, so they are covered in down essentially or marabou so they’re beautiful little chickens. They are fairly popular particularly among people who have two or three or ten backyard chickens because they’re so cool looking. And then we also have currently only one Polish and the Polish is actually a Dutch breed of chicken, but they have feathers on their pole which is the top of their head so that’s where the name Polish came from and she’s black and has this white poof of feathers coming out of her head so she looks sort of like a lady wearing a crazy hat.
Harmony: So you are responsible for maintaining the health and happiness of all these breeds, I started to wonder, “What do you have to watch for in chickens, what kind of care do they need, what kind of feed do they need?”
Elaine: Well chickens are fairly self-sufficient. You do have to give them feed, but ideally what they like to have is something to do. So if you give them a poultry yard to run around in that’s what makes them extremely happy. They just love to run around and scratch and dig things up and play around with things and chase each other around. So all of our birds have poultry yards where they can scratch. And we try to give them what we call chicken treats, interesting things for them to eat, moldy strawberries, crackers that have gone stale, corn on the cob that maybe doesn’t look fit for human consumption. They love all that kind of stuff.
Chickens can eat most of the stuff, bread products or fruit and vegetable products that we would consume. They aren’t crazy about uncooked potatoes. They don’t really like apples and something like pumpkins or squash that’s real fibrous you shouldn’t give them too much of that because they have…when they eat, their food goes into a thing called a crop which is a bag that sits at the base of their neck and that’s how their food gets softened is in there and if they have too much fibrous stuff it will plug that up.
Harmony: But by nature they’re scavengers and so they’ll eat pretty much anything?
Elaine: Exactly. Exactly. They love bugs, worms. One of the funnest things to do with the chickens is go into the yard and turn over the logs and watch the crickets jump around and see the chickens go crazy. They like mice. If they can catch a mouse they will be happy to eat it.
Harmony: My goodness.
Elaine: Yes. The problem is that the mice come out at night and chickens have very poor night vision so they don’t get too many mice.
Harmony: The mice don’t have much to worry about.
Harmony: So part of what we’re doing by keeping chickens in Colonial Williamsburg’s Historic Area is representing what would have been here in the 18th century. Who would have kept chickens in the 18th century? It sounds like we’ve mentioned everybody from the Wythe House to a tavern owner. Sounds like a broad swath of people would have kept chickens?
Elaine: Yes. Virtually everybody kept chickens and even somebody like Mr. Wythe who was wealthy enough to buy food has chickens in his backyard. Now as we said earlier, they’re more of a status symbol than anything, but he does have them and we see everybody raising chickens from slaves to extremely wealthy people. Quite often in books about housewifery that wealthy women would have had they’ll be a section on poultry raising and all kinds of poultry; chickens, ducks, geese, pigeons, doves. All kinds of poultry are under the housewife’s care, the woman’s care. We know that slaves raised a lot of poultry and that was one way they could make a little extra money was by selling poultry at the market.
Harmony: And something I was surprised to learn in my research and maybe this is evidence of the times that we live in now, I was not aware that chicken meat and chicken eggs have a season. You wouldn’t eat chicken year round. You wouldn’t slaughter your chicken in the middle of laying season. What is the seasonality of chickens?
Elaine: Well, chickens tend to lay their eggs when the day length is lengthening so they’ll start laying sometimes in January and then February and then they lay very, very heavily through the spring and the summer and the reason behind that is when chicks hatch they have virtually no protection, they’re covered in down, so they get cold very, very easily. It’s not smart to hatch chicks in the winter so it’s smarter to hatch them in the spring and the summer when it’s going to be warm enough for them to survive.
Harmony: So when it comes to the dinner table you might be having roast chicken in the fall or the winter?
Elaine: …in the fall or the winter. Right. Now today chickens are put in houses with long light so that’s why we can get eggs year round at pretty much the same cost because there are chickens somewhere who right now in October think that it’s April and so are laying appropriately and laying a lot of eggs.
Harmony: Chicken keeping by individuals is enjoying a kind of a renaissance right now. Would you recommend that people get in touch with their 18th century forebears and bring this trade back into the everyday life of Americans?
Elaine: I do. Raising chickens are an awful lot of fun. And actually raising all types of poultry is a lot of fun. Chickens are the ones who have had the biggest renaissance, but pigeons, guineas, ducks, geese, turkeys, all of those birds are an awful lot of fun to raise and you’d get a tremendous amount of enjoyment out of them.
The chicken is probably easier than any of those others to raise and to get and one of the great things about raising chickens is they’re absolutely hilarious. If you have more than one chicken, and you really should because they like to have buddies, they have a very interesting pecking order and that’s where pecking order comes from. You will have a chicken who’s at the top and chickens who are below her and you really probably want “hers” because the “hims” make a lot of noise. They can eat a lot of waste from your kitchen; all those things we talked about earlier. You can use them to fertilize your garden or your lawn. They eat a tremendous amount of bugs. There a lot of people who feel that having those birds helps keep down tick populations and other bugs that are not good for us.
Harmony: And of course you always remind us that when we preserve these rare breeds we’re preserving a genetic legacy.
Elaine: Exactly, and there are some fabulous breeds of chickens. There are actually a lot of American breeds of chickens that are endangered; the New Hampshire, the Jersey Giant, the non-commercial type of Rhode Island Red, the Delaware, the Iowa Blue and one of my favorite chickens which unfortunately is incorrect for the 18th century or we’d have them is a breed of chicken called a Buckeye, which was developed in Ohio by a woman.
So there are just some fabulous breeds, and chickens come in all different sizes and all different colors so you can have Bantams and a lot of people who keep backyard chickens do keep Bantams because they’re so much smaller, but you can have a bird like a Jersey Giant who might weigh 10, 12, 14 pounds.
Harmony: Well we hope all of our listeners have a chance to get out in the Historic Area and see all these great breeds. Elaine, thank you for being our guest today.
Elaine: You’re welcome.