In the SCA, the Kingdom I live in is The Kingdom of Caid. In modern terms, I live in inland southern California. My home is on land zoned rural-residential, overlooking a major freeway. This means, among other things, that we can keep chickens and other animals that not everyone is allowed to keep. Since we were going to get chickens, I figured it would be fun to specifically get some breeds that were known in period. I wrote a brief introduction to them for display at our recent Festival of the Rose, and have expanded it somewhat for this post.
Warning: I have not delved into the archaeology of chicken breeds in anything like the depth that I have for intaglio carving. I’ve been keeping chickens since early 2014, and what I’ve learned, I’m happy to share. I am a member of Backyard Chickens, which I recommend as a good starting point for information on chicken-keeping and connecting to your chicken-keeping neighbors. Please remember that chickens are a ridiculously over-regulated animal, and many areas will not permit you to keep even one hen, let alone a flock. Check your local and county ordinances regarding livestock before getting chickens. A chicken is a real commitment: they can live thirty years or more, regardless of the average production chicken’s lifespan.
Period chicken breeds are all what are now called ‘heritage breeds’, which are different from modern ‘production breeds’ in several ways. Heritage breed chickens produce fewer eggs and less meat than production breeds in their first year or two, but where a production hen rapidly produces fewer eggs after her second year, a heritage breed hen will continue to produce at peak volume for five to seven years, and then still produce some eggs for many years after that. Heritage breed chickens tend to be better parents and are generally healthier and more able to fend for themselves than production breeds. They forage well, and watch out for predators (with a notable exception below). Heritage breeds have been less favored in the interest of making massive profits in the food industry; however, for the small farmer or backyard chicken keeper, there are many reasons why a flock of heritage breed chickens would be better to keep than production birds. Personally, I like the personalities and beauty of the heritage breeds, and wouldn’t trade them for any number of optimized producers.
Meet Our Chickens
Sitting on my shoulder is Nova. He is a black rose-comb bantam rooster, a breed that was established in England in the fourteenth century. Intelligent, handsome, and tiny, he is a fierce protector of the youngest of our flock. In the photo, he is perhaps two years old.
I got Nova for free from a Craigslist post advertising him as a White-Faced Black Spanish bantam – another period breed. However, as you can see, his face is not white. Also, the rose comb is a dead giveaway. The previous owner said he was flighty and not particularly friendly, but I had driven a long way to get him, so I gave him a chance. When I got him home to the coop, I sat down and opened the cat carrier he and another rooster had ridden home in. He came out of the carrier, hopped onto my knee, hopped onto my shoulder, and started talking to me and grooming my hair. He’s been my little friend from that day on, and I have never regretted the long drive to go get him.
Dots is an Old English Game Bantam rooster. Beautiful, but aggressive, we gave him to a family that had far fewer roosters, as he can’t resist arguing with them. This breed was developed in medieval England specifically for fighting. They can have different types of combs, but this little guy has a rose comb like Nova’s. Even though he is a bantam, he weighs about twice what Nova does, and every ounce of it is muscle. He is very attentive to his hens, and, like Nova, is an excellent guardian.
Ozzie is a Silkie rooster who I got from the same Craigslist post that gave me Nova. Bred originally in China, Silkies are described in Marco Polo’s journal as chickens with fur. The Mongols traded them to Europe. To this day, their black meat is used in traditional Chinese medicine and cooking, and reputed to treat a number of ailments, including diabetes. Hardy in heat and cold, Silkies are excellent pets and produce medium white eggs. They come in many colors.
Silkies are also some of the best mothers a chicken owner can hope for. They become broody often and will sit, hatch, and raise clutches of babies not their own, and even not their own species. This is Inky, one of our best broody hens, raising yet another baby not her own (a Russian Orloff, as a matter of fact – a critically endangered heritage breed). I often joke that Inky will eat your face if you mess with her chicks… while she is a very cuddly hen when she isn’t broody, it’s only half a joke when she is. She is fiercely protective of her babies.
Docile and friendly, Silkies make an excellent chicken to bring to SCA events and demos. They look very different from most people’s experience of chickens, are a true bantam breed (there are no large Silkies), and are soft to pet. Storm here is actually at a demo in this picture. She sat on the table for several hours, without complaint, and only needed a small bribe of treats to keep her there. Small children and a few adults got to pet her and learn about an unusual kind of chicken, and about trade from China during the Middle Ages. Even their roosters tend to be gentle; we have a black Silkie rooster named Khan who helped the hens incubate their last clutch of eggs. A couple of other things that make them especially unusual: they have ten toes, like we do (most chickens have eight), and, if pure-bred, their earlobes are pale blue.
Thorin is a Polish rooster. Polish chickens, or something much like them, have been kept since Roman times. One of their distinctive skulls was found in the remains of a Roman British settlement. Salt, below, was one of our first Polish hens. Beautiful as she was, her ‘hairdo’ kept her from seeing the hawk that took her, so we no longer let our Polish free range. Instead, they live in a large covered run which the hawks periodically land on, looking frustrated.
Black as coal, this is Yaban, or in English, Midnight. She is a Korean period variety of chicken called the Ogye. Like the fluffy Silkies, she has black bones, skin, and organs, but her feathers are black as well. Ogyes come in no other color, though their eggs are white. Treasured to this day by families who raise them to eat in traditional Korean food, Ogyes are relatively rare in this part of the world, but still common in Korea.
Our chickens are work, I’m not going to lie. Even the most easy-going free-range flock requires care. But we’re reaping benefits we didn’t expect: did you know they cheerfully eat spiders, including black widows? We had a major black widow problem here the summer before we got chickens. They’re a rare sight now. Our larger hens even eat mice. They weed the yard, break down the leaf mulch in the front yard, and absolutely wrecked the pretty color-blocked bark chip beds we had set up on our thrown weapons range. The roosters do wake us up, but they also will defend their hens even at the cost of their own lives, as several did when a bobcat broke into a coop one night. Roosters (good ones, anyway) are actually touchingly chivalrous, calling their whole flock over to eat any special treat they find without a bite for themselves until everyone else has eaten. And the biggest surprise: some chickens really love people. During the day, they have Important Chicken Business to take care of, but in the evening, they’ll cuddle and watch TV with you and try to steal food off your plate if you’ll let them. Nova will fly up to my lap or my shoulder, say hello, and then fly back down to care for his part of the flock (he’s a lieutenant in our bantam and Orloff flock), and it makes my day. Ozzie loves to run away from us, but not too far… he wants us to catch him eventually, and will sit on a towel on the couch politely while I go to the kitchen and get my dinner.
I guess what I mean to say is, I love our little dinosaurs, and I think they don’t get enough credit for being awesome animals in addition to being ‘livestock’. And fresh eggs… they’re a whole other thing.