Thursday, April 5, 2012

The Queen, the Bearded Lady and the Easter Egg Chicken

Her Majesty Queen Victoria.
Of my backyard flock of six birds, five have already been introduced here: Alice, Amelia, Emmeline, Henemoa and Vanessa. The only exception needs, in some ways, no introduction. One doesn’t introduce the Queen; one has an audience with her — if one is deserving, well bred, or very lucky.

Victoria is so named because she was (fairly) victorious at the Kumeu Show, not long before she took up residence in the palais de poulet at Avondale Heights, as we call my suburb at times of class self-consciousness. She came second in her category.

“Victoria” has proven to be apt in other ways, too, because this little grey hen will stand no nonsense, just like the Royal Highness for whom we named her. Though shorter than those around her, she will quickly put others in their place. (Ever heard a chicken yelp?)

She loves mash and greens — woe betide any bird that gets too close to her food — but she’s not nearly so stout as her predecessor. Victoria II is more angular and less rounded than the other members of my flock, most of whom have those comfortingly familiar mother-hen curves.

My bearded lady.
Exotic Flair
She looks unusual, and thanks to her breeding, she is: she’s an Araucana, a type of chicken first associated with Chile’s Araucano Indians, and reported as early as the 1520s. That accounts for her headdress, which has a certain exotic flair, though she could also be said to resemble a decidedly non-exotic 1970s governor-general’s wife, hatted but handbagless. There’s something else that tips the scales in favour of an “exotica” label, however: the fact that this hen wears a beard. 

Yes, my Queen Victoria is a bearded lady. It’s not conspicuous; I only noticed the other day when I read about this characteristic and took a closer look at her, below the beak. 

She has another difference from your average backyard chook, whose red headgear with perky points is called a single comb. Victoria’s comb is flatter and has the bobbled look of an over-worked piece of macrame — its called a pea comb.

The Easter Egg Chicken

Possibly the most interesting thing about Victoria is that she lays green eggs. Or blue ones. (Opinions, rather than her eggs, vary.) The fine specimen pictured in the top right-hand corner of this page is one of hers. It’s an achievement that has given rise to another name for her kind: the Easter Egg Chicken, which seems especially appropriate as I post this, a day before Easter weekend. 
Victoria’s eggs are only green
on the outside (but don’t let the
truth get in the way of a good story).

I can’t yet confirm whether Dr Seuss (aka Theodore Geisel) was inspired by Araucanas when he wrote Green Eggs and Ham. The summaries I’ve read so far suggest he was focusing on a vocabulary challenge set by his publisher — to use few words, and very simple ones — rather than any particular chicken. However, the extra-extraordinary appearance of some Araucanas is quite Seussian: they have ear tufts, and many of the creatures that Dr Seuss has brought to our attention do, unquestionably, feature tufts in various places. 

Rumpless or Rumpled?
Some Araucanas are also “rumpless”, lacking a rear end, or at least a tail. (Feral chickens find this a useful trait because it makes them harder to catch.) Which leads me to wonder if birds with rumps, such as Victoria, are rumpled. It’s an amusing thought ...except, no doubt, for Araucana breeders, who seem to take such things terribly seriously.

There’s quite a bit of controversy about exactly which birds meet the official standard for Araucanas; what
’s more the UK has different rules from the US, which has a sort of spin-off called the Ameraucana. For instance, beards are sometimes acceptable in the UK; I’ve read they are required for rumpless birds there. In the US, a beard brings a place in the naughty corner — Disqualification.

What’s a True-blue Araucana?
Apparently, true-blue Araucanas — officially sanctioned ones, rather than a named variety lay blue-shelled eggs. Any that lay green or turquoise ones are hybrids, or “mutts”, as members of called them during an online kerfluffle in which feathers flew. Shell colour seems to be important wherever you are: the Araucana Poultry Club of Great Britain website states that “More egg colour charts have just been successfully printed for those of you who have been waiting.” Perhaps the Brits paint their Araucana eggs?

Victoria is rumpled, bearded and pea- rather than single-combed. She has no distinctive ear tufts, and she lays greeny-blue eggs. According to my now voluminous reading, all these things suggest that her pedigree is less impeccable than it might be. But I don’t give a fig for the standard: in my backyard Victoria’s still the Queen.

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