It’s an exotic life

Donna Cromarty’s Icelandic chickens sun themselves on a bench they sometimes share with her on the farm near Twin Butte, Alta.  |  Barb Glen photo

TWIN BUTTE, Alta. — There’s a wooden bench beside a small stream and tiny pond in Donna Cromarty’s chicken run.

Some folks might be inclined to sit there and admire the green foothills and imposing blue Rocky Mountains a scant distance away from that perch.

Cromarty sits there to watch her chickens. And sometimes the chickens sit there to watch her.

Ten breeds of poultry walk around her small farm, some of them crowing and all of them sporting colourful feathers.

There are Cream Brabanters, Bantam Barred Rocks, Bantam Blue Silver Laced Wyandottes, Blue Wyandottes, Golden Wyandottes, Black Wyandottes, Bantam Blue Smooth/Frizzle Cochins, Bantam Buff Brahmas and Icelandics.

A few Royal Palm turkeys scratch around as well, with tom turkey Carl strutting his plumage every chance he gets.

Cromarty loves animals but chickens are a passion and within that passion, the Icelandics, or “icys,” as she calls the latter breed, are her pride and joy.

There are only about 6,000 purebred Icelandic chickens in the world, and about 3,000 of them are in North America. Cromarty has about 20 of them and sells hatching eggs to other chicken enthusiasts.

The way she figures it, if a person is going to keep chickens, why not make it interesting?

“Backyard chickens right now are huge,” she says. “People are breeding exotic birds, rare birds, birds that lay coloured eggs — terracotta and blue and pink and every shade in between. There are people that buy hatchery birds … who just want table eggs.

“But if you’re going to keep chickens, you might as well keep some really exotic ones. They eat the same, they require the same housing, the same care, so you might as well spend a little bit of extra money and get the really cool ones.”

Cromarty doesn’t sell either chickens or eggs for the table. Her hatching eggs sell for $100 per dozen or more, and she recently sold a dozen for $157 in an online auction.

The money she raises covers chicken feed but her real joy comes in watching her flock.

“In this (Icelandic) breed, there’s a ton of variety and that’s what’s kind of nice about them. It’s so much fun watching the little babies feather out and it’s a guessing game what they’re actually going to look like as adults. It’s like Christmas.”

She isn’t the only one enamoured with the colourful chickens. She has sold hatching eggs to people in British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario and Quebec, who learn about her through Facebook and chicken websites.

Even so, she is discriminating when it comes to selling either chickens or eggs.

“I have a compassion for these animals. I can’t hand a bird off to you and look him in the eye knowing that next week he’s going to be on your table. I just can’t do that. It’s my choice,” says Cromarty.

“I have to say I’m a little stingy with these birds. I don’t want everybody to have them, and not everybody wants them.”

As she walks from chicken run to the various sheds and enclosures that hold chickens, chicks and turkeys, Cromarty speaks to them and keeps close watch on their activities. Daily observation reveals the intelligence and survival instincts of her feathered flock.

Are chickens stupid?

“I would totally disagree,” says Cromarty. “Anybody who actually lives with their birds knows this.

“When you talk about the intelligence of animals, these chickens for instance, what are you comparing their intelligence to? If you’re comparing their intelligence to yours, well, that’s hardly fair for the chicken. Are you comparing it to a horse or a dog? They are smart enough to know what they need to do to survive.

“You have people who raise chickens for what they can get from them, whether it’s eggs or putting them in the freezer, so they don’t spend time with them and they don’t realize that there are different levels of intelligence in that group.”

The beautiful colouring of the Wyandotte chickens and the Royal Palm turkeys are a source of obvious enjoyment for Cromarty, but when it comes to the Icys, sheer variety is a thrill.

Because it is an endangered landrace breed, there are rules surrounding Icelandics. True representatives of the breed cannot have barred feathers or feathers on their legs. However, they can and do have a variety of comb shapes and shank (leg) colours.

Cromarty frequently incubates eggs to test fertility and when she has some hatching eggs to sell, she usually uses an internet auction.

When the deal is made, the eggs are individually wrapped in cartons, surrounded by packing material and shipped in Styrofoam-lined boxes via Canada Post.

Then she hopes the eggs don’t arrive broken or scrambled, and she says the success rate is fairly high.

Cromarty has kept chickens for about 30 years, but used to raise more common types. Now she explores the rare breeds and is hoping one day to obtain some rare Ayam Cemani black chickens as well as Oregon Gray turkeys.

“I chose expensive, rare birds to keep them off the dinner table, and I find it works for me,” she says. “I can’t keep them all but I want to make sure they are going to go where they are going to be appreciated.”

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