Newton “Quizzer” Faltenstall, a teacher at Temple School in the novel Educating Waverly by Laura Kalpakian, believed that chicken was a True Food, as long as it wasn’t boiled. Newton and his wife, Sophia Westervelt, were attempting to educate young women, including Waverly of the title, to be North American Women of the Future. The North American Life-Enhancing and Perfecting Diet of True Foods was supposed to garner immortality for those who followed it. Newton also believed that his students could learn just about all they needed to know in life from raising chickens and he set them to this task.

So, what can we learn from chickens? Because my sister, Judy, raises chickens, I decided to ask her. Judy lives in the Warba area, south of Grand Rapids, Minnesota. She’s a novice chicken-raiser and has only had her birds for about a year. Most of Judy’s birds come in the mail, which seems difficult to believe. The day-old chicks are sent in a box from a hatchery in Brainerd, Minnesota. They peep, peep, peep to alert people to their presence. The male chicks will be called cockerals as they grow to young birds and then roosters when they become adults. The female chicks are called pullets when they are under one-year-of-age and hens when they are adults.

Chicks can be ordered in whatever amount is desired. A standard run can be requested from a hatchery. This means that the hatchery sends an unsorted mix of males and females. The customer doesn’t know how many of which sex will arrive and may well find that all the birds are the same sex. Judy said that she has difficulty telling which chicks are males and which are females when they are young. To solve this problem, customers can order birds of a specific sex. The price for males and females of the same breed is different. For example, a Jumbo Cornish Cross hen costs seventy-two cents, while a rooster costs eighty-six cents. The cost of a standard run of chicks is the average price between a male and female bird. Using the Jumbo Cornish Cross chicken, the standard run cost is seventy-five cents per bird.

There are many breeds of chicken to choose from when ordering from a hatchery. When raising these birds, it’s important to know what their intended use is. If the chicken is meant for egg laying, a layer-breed is selected. If it is meant for eating, a broiler-breed is chosen. Chickens come in several colors, not just the white most of us are accustomed to seeing in a barnyard. Egg colors also vary by breed.

Australorps are all-black, egg-laying chickens. California Whites, chickens that are white with black specks, and White Leghorns both lay white eggs. Brown egg-layers include Gold Links, Production Reds, White Rocks, and Bard Rocks. This last bird is black with white stripes. The others refer to the feather color in their names. Aracaunas are known as Easter egg chickens because they lay blue and green eggs. This bird is brownish and speckled.

High Y Broilers are white chickens used for eating, as is obvious by the name. Jumbo Cornish Cross chickens are also white and also broilers.

Other chicken breeds have unusual feather formations. Silkies have finer feathers than other types of chickens. Bantams, which come in many colors, are feather-footed. Polish-Crested, also known as Polish Top Hats, are birds with tufts of feather on their heads. Turkens have naked necks.

When chicks are received, they have to be kept very warm for their first week of life. The temperature they prefer is ninety-five degrees Fahrenheit. They also need enough space. Chicken owners are instructed to allow one-half of a square foot per bird for the first two weeks. After that, the space need increases to one square foot per bird. While worrying about a chicken’s need for space may seem silly, chicken owners soon learn that crowding is not good for their birds. It can cause them to cannibalize each other. According to my sister, chickens can be mean. If chickens sees a sore or something unhealthy about a chicken within the flock, they will pick it to death. Also, if a hen breaks an egg, she will eat it, shell and all.

A chicken’s diet includes more than other chickens. There are several kinds of feed for these peckish birds. Chick Starter is fed to chicks until they are sixteen to twenty weeks old. Layer Feed is fed to egg-laying chickens and Meat Bird is fed to broilers. Each type of feed has the appropriate nutrients for the specific bird. Broilers, who are bred to get fat, will eat themselves to death if they are provided feed throughout the day. They should only be given food for twelve hours in a day. Scratch, made of cracked corn, whole wheat and whole, cleaned oats, is sprinkled on the ground for chickens to eat between their normal feed times.

With that, I’ve hardly “scratched” the surface of all there is to learn about chickens. Waverly, from the novel, determined that “the chickens probably had no educational value whatever.” That doesn’t fit with what I’ve found. Why, I haven’t even mentioned all the foods that are supposed to taste like chicken! B’gok!

by Mary Warner
Copyright 2003, Morrison County Historical Society

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