The Mystery of Snowball

Three years ago at a poultry show and swap meet, we were lucky to find and purchase Snowball. The woman who sold her to us said that the hen was a Bantam White Leghorn. Everyone adores this little bird. She loves people, likes to be held, and has the funniest beepy cluck. Of course, when I wrote a children’s book about chickens, she was chosen to be the star. (Snowball Lays an Egg, due out in 2009, published by Scholastic.)

Afraid to have all of my eggs in one basket, I decided that we needed a couple of more Bantam White Leghorns as stunt doubles. Besides, Snowball is so much fun, I wanted more of the same breed. Don Nelson, a poultry judge and breeder from Rhode Island sold me the “party girls” – Eggers and Betsy Ross.

Now, Don knows what a Bantam White Leghorn is supposed to look like, and the party girls are gorgeous. But, put side-by-side with Snowball it’s clear that these chickens are not the same breed. Snowball is rounder, her feathers held at less of an angle, her neck thicker. AND she lays light beige eggs. The real Leghorns lay pure white eggs.

So, what breed do you think Snowball is? I’d still like to find some stunt doubles. But I doubt that I will. Snowball is one of a kind.

Roosting Behavior

One way to better get to know your chickens is to watch them at dusk, as they settle in to the coop at night. There is the inevitable jockeying for position. Top ranked hens get the highest roost. In the Hencam barn, the most vied for spot is the roost next to the top nesting box. Marge will get there first, but them up comes Eleanor who squeezes in and pushes her over. Blackie doesn’t even bother to try to get that prime real estate.

Friends sleep together. Betsy Ross and Eggers perch next to each other on the edge of a nesting box. Marge and Petunia like to be near each other. Petunia, for some unfathomable chicken-brained reason, is my only hen that sleeps facing the wall. The other hens, with that nice hen rump right in their faces, peck at her tail feathers. It’s not mean or aggressive. They can’t help themselves. That’s why Petunia’s tail looks so scrawny.

Recently, with chilly night temperatures (50s!), the hens are sleeping closer together. Snowball is up to her old tricks. She wedges herself between the two fluffiest girls on the highest roost and stays toasty warm between those live feather comforters.

Signs of Autumn

Here in New England the season is changing. Goldenrod is in bloom (that’s a tall, yellow plant that fills abandoned hay fields), the pumpkins are turning orange (the photo below is from my garden), and Candy is shedding clumps of fur and replacing it with her winter coat. She is also eating like a pig and layering on the fat to keep warm this winter.

As far as I can tell, the chickens are oblivious to the coming cold. However, some are molting, which might be linked to the falling temperature, or perhaps the fewer daylight hours. Walking into the coop in the morning, and seeing the feathers strewn across the floor, I startle, thinking there’s been a predator attack, but, no, it’s just the hens losing their old feathers and growing in new finery.


chicken feathers

The Noble Ig Nobel

I am sure that many of you are nerds (in this family, that is a compliment, not an aspersion) and so you will be very excited to learn that this year’s Ig Nobel Awards will feature the CHICKEN!

Ig Nobel 2007 poster

For those of you not familiar with the Ig Nobels, these are awards for real science, that should never, ever be repeated. The awards are given out by real Nobel Prize winners. One year, an Ig Nobel went to the inventor of blue Jello, another year an Ig Nobel went to the acoustic scientist who studied why people hate the sound of chalk screeching on chalkboards.

I can’t wait to see what chicken research the Ig Nobel committee believes is worth their attention. My husband and I will be there. We are contacting the organizers to see if they would like some live chickens on stage.

Dining Out

I’m helping to organize a fancy, expensive annual dinner for about 100 women in the food professions. The chef presented his menu to us, and each of the 7 courses were his most extravagant creations. Meat, mushrooms and cream formed it’s base. My first reaction was, this meal is brown and boring!

The pleasures of the new “farm to table” cuisine (you know, the ever so trendy buy local) is that the chefs have a great love and respect of the basic ingredients. They don’t want to hide them; they want to showcase them. A beet looks and tastes like a beet, chard is wilted, not pureed with cream into pablum. And the meat! Often from rare breeds, raised in small herds, on pasture, it has a different flavor and fat profile than what you usually see coming from the huge farms. A chef has to handle it just so. A good chef brings out the flavor notes of the region.

I’ve been away for a few days, researching my next book. Part of the research required that I dine at the Sheppard Mansion in Hanover, Penn. Their chef, Andrew Little, grew up in this area that is rich in agricultural resources. Luckily for Hanover, after stints at some nationally known restaurants, he returned home. In Hanover, he knows the “tomato lady” and the cheese maker and where to find the best sweet corn. The owners of the Mansion raise Scottish Highland Cattle, just to have good beef for the table. They’ve contracted with a farmer for pastured pigs. I’m trying to convince them to raise their own chickens.

The food, from a chef who spends much of his time sourcing ingredients, is just the way I like it- dishes sparkling with color, and with flavors that speak of the ingredients. It doesn’t hurt that the breads and desserts are made with care on the premises. (I live and die by the bread basket.) Best of all, after a three-course meal, I felt sated but not bloated.

The best thing to do after a meal at the Sheppard Mansion is to spend the night there. I had to do that, too, for my research. (Yes, it’s a hard job, but someone has to do it!)