Caroline Cummins is Culinate’s managing editor. She lives with her husband, two daughters, and cat in Portland, Oregon.

Fine feathers

Not all chickens look alike

May 13, 2008

When my parents were kids, they were occasionally given live baby chicks as Easter presents. Apparently in the 1950s it was considered OK to dip these little fluffies in vats of dye, so that you could then give your daughter, for example, a living bird that had been dyed a bright pink, or your son a baby-blue bird.

These holiday presents usually didn’t last very long, keeling over and peeping out their last within a few days. You’ve got to wonder about the chemicals, exactly, that went into those dyes — and the youthful trauma my parents and other baby-boomer kids went through when their living Marshmallow Peeps gave out on them. Sad.

chicken feathers
Orange-and-black feathers on a teenaged Araucana chicken.

But when my husband and I got chicks of our own, we realized that, pastel peepers or no, pretty much everybody has the same mental image of what a chick should look like — yellow and fluffy — and, in turn, what the Platonic ideal of a chicken was supposed to resemble.

This ideal chicken (which presumably lives on that ideal American farm with the big red barn and green-gabled white farmhouse) has a pair of bare feet, reddish feathers, and a small head with beady eyes. Tack on a really big comb and tail feathers and you have the ideal rooster. (And in this ideal world, roosters only crow once, at dawn, and only to wake up the kindly farmer.)

This sort of chicken — otherwise known as the Rhode Island Red — is indeed common in America. But chickens are like other domesticated animals in that there are many, many variations. Our chicks, for example, were black (the Australorps) and brown (the Araucanas) — not yellow, ever. Now that they’re teenagers, the black birds are growing black feathers, while the Araucanas are growing either black-and-white feathers or black-and-orange feathers. Their chick fur still fluffs out around the feathers, giving them a hazy look. And it feels strange to run a finger down a still-furry head onto the harsh, plastic feel of a tiny feather.

extra extraordinary chickens

When grown, our chicks will resemble the Ideal Chicken in overall shape, if not color. But for kicks, we occasionally riffle through such oddities as the Stephen Green-Armytage books on chickens: Extraordinary Chickens and Extra Extraordinary Chickens. Both books feature chickens shot in fancy photography studios, and boy, Green-Armytage shot some fancy (and funky) chickens. (The online bird retailer My Pet Chicken has some crazy avian photography, too.)

Should you desire a bird top-heavy with feathers, the Polish breed is for you. Prefer feathers on your chicken feet? Try a Silkie. Want curly feathers all over? The Frizzle is your feathered friend. Cross-breed these babies, and you can have birds sporting bizarre feathers all over. And if you just want a plain ugly bird (sorry, but they are), get yourself a Turken, otherwise known as a Naked Neck.

Our chickies may have loooong necks, but mercifully they’re covered in feathers.

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