We have just passed the height of catalog season, during which my mailbox was visited by the usual assortment of unwanted and thereby wasted circulars advertising Christmas deals on clothing, food and other consumables. Most of these went directly into the recycle bin, but I set aside one catalog that arrived recently, anticipating a pleasant winter night’s perusal in front of a cozy fire.
The handy among us get excited by tool catalogs; the libidinous by lingerie or adult-novelty mailers. Cabin-bound cooks consider page after page of kitchen gadgets; avid gardeners look longingly Spring-ward by thumbing through seed and bulb brochures. My day is made by the arrival of the hatchery catalog.
I got my first Murray McMurray mailer in 2000, not long before I became a chicken-keeper. Its glossy pages are a cornucopia of poultry possibility, and it was partly through studying the photos and breed descriptions that I fine-tuned the extensive research I’d already done. I was looking for standard breeds: big, beautiful, cold-tolerant chickens with quiet temperaments who would provide me with the brown eggs I favor. To that end, I settled on buff Orpingtons, barred rocks and black Australorps.
The girlfriend with whom I colluded in this enterprise had a different method. Not one for homework or careful planning, she flipped through the catalog until she found the most outlandish-looking breed therein and jabbed a finger at the photo: “That one,” she said. “They’re gorgeous.”
And they certainly are, though Polish hens lay white eggs, have a ditzy temperament, are rather small and decidedly not cold-hardy. (During the worst of harsh winters in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, I would let our golden Polish, Punky, in the house for languorous afternoons in front of the wood stove.)
As I consider renewing my aging flock with an infusion of baby chicks, the catalog remains a delight, a reminder of the astounding and diverse beauty that characterizes gallus domesticus. It’s not just the overall avian aesthetic, but the loveliness of so many constituent parts. There’s the dazzling plumage — sometimes on the feet as well as the body — feathers that are barred, tipped, spangled, mottled and laced. And a wild array of facial features: bearded chickens, those with cheek muffs and others, like Punky, whose feathery headdress supplants a comb. Combs — the fleshy red growth that tops most chicken’s heads — come in different shapes and sizes: not just the common, lobed single variety, but rose combs, pea combs and even buttercup combs. The legs of chickens vary, too: Some are yellow; others, black. The legs of Americanas have a greenish cast. Faverolles have an extra toe on the shank.
Just writing about this makes me think I’ve been at this blog thing long enough. It’s past time to fire up the wood stove, pull up a chair — and crack open that catalog.