A Storybook Life of a Polish Chicken

A Storybook Life of a Polish Chicken

By Tamara Staples, New York — Jan Brett is an author and illustrator of dozens of children’s books. Each book, with its intricate illustrations and colorful stories about animals and children from far away places, is treasured throughout the world by children and adults alike. Landscapes, habitats, fashions and customs come to life with gorgeous details. Jan’s travels have taken her to Switzerland, Scandinavia, Costa Rica, China, Russia, the Arctic and even her native Nantucket to name a few. Although books were Jan’s first love and passion since childhood, there is another side to this author: Jan Brett is also a chicken breeder and serious competitor at The Fancy.

Jan grew up in the Boston suburbs. Her parents purchased a house after falling in love with the adjacent barn. The Brett parents knew that Jan and her two younger sisters would learn responsibility caring for animals, and the pets were plentiful: a horse, guinea pigs, donkeys, chickens. If they weren’t playing with their own animals they were down the road watching the neighbors milk the cows or if lucky, watching a calf being born. Most of the chickens that Jan loved were pets, but a few had been purchased with the idea that they would provide food for the family. When eating a chicken dinner one night, Jan finally made the connection and was so shocked by the idea of killing what she thought were pets that she became a vegetarian.

In 1999, Jan’s was working on a new book, Hedgie’s Surprise; one character was to be a chicken. She needed a suitable subject that was easy to handle, that would sit atop a table in her art studio that she could draw from life. When researching, she found one bird that was not only beautiful but would make a great pet: the Silver Laced Wyandotte Large Fowl. The plumage was full and luxurious, and it had a rose comb, which is perfect for the New England Winters. Day-old chicks were readily available at the feed and seed store nearby.

Jan was hooked and quickly added other breeds to the pen: Silkies, Buff Brahma and finally White Crested Black Polish, which would become her signature bird. She purchased her first White Crested Black Polish in 2003, the same year she showed for the first time at the Boston Poultry Exhibition. She credits many a fancier with teaching her to breed a champion and to keep her flock in fine feather. She singles out a few breeders although there have been many: Janet Winnett, a Silkie breeder who spoon fed her the knowledge she’d need for a lifetime of chicken breeding; Joel Henning and Rick Porr were always generous in sharing their breeding stock, giving her the greatest gift, two top bloodlines.

Jan always had a keen interest in the genetic history of animals. When raising guinea pigs as a child, she delighted in keeping meticulous notes, therefore, the breeding aspect of show chickens came naturally to her. Her breeding secret is this: she is careful to match up birds with complimentary features, but she gives chickens a chance to “fall in love.” She admits that this might sound preposterous to some, she is convinced that it happens with some regularity. Jan describes how the males begin an elaborate dance and make special sounds to attract the females. The males are seemingly kind to their “ladies” by making a nest for egg laying, roosting nearby for company or even delivering a special food item like kale as an offering.

Polish Chickens
Jan’s White Crested Black Polish Bantam Hen Cobleskill Poultryshow, 2010.

She’s even witnessed content love triangles with two hens. Watching these rituals and relationships unfold is at the very heart of Jan’s love for these birds.

It’s the everyday that attracts Jan to this life of chickens. There is joy in watching the mothers with the babies; sweet little calls get the chicks to come running to find safety under the hen’s massive wing. Walk around to the other side of the bird to see the little chick peaking out from the backside, reinforcing the mother/child bond. Jan also admires the way chickens and children are so natural together. The birds have an innate trust and patience in their dealings with children.

My 1940s Standard of Perfection shows the Polish breed is in a class all by itself, literally. However, a newer version puts the Polish Bantams in the least exotic class of: All Other Combs Clean Legged Bantams. Europeans call the Polish “The Crested Dutch.” Charles Darwin classifies any top-notch chicken as “Crested or Polish” but did not give specific data regarding the origin.

There’s no dispute that the Polish has a long history. Some agree that the bird was found in the Netherlands in the 15th century. Regardless, it is one of the most instantly recognizable birds due to the protrusion of feathers that sits prominently on the top of the head, known as a crest. The female’s crest is round, where the male’s crests are much looser, due to the nature of the feathers, which are longer and slimmer. This crest is the trademark of this particular breed, but should be in proportion to the body. Too big a crest offsetting the balance of the bird is not desirable, and when the crest impedes vision the bird will not be vibrant in its show pen.

A slender and elegant country fowl, the bird has a mostly erect carriage. The back slopes down to the tail, which stands at a 45-degree angle about the horizontal. The males have well-developed ornamental feathers in which the sickles gracefully fall long over the tail. The comb if any is small, red and V-shaped; wattles are to be uniform, thin and well rounded on the lower edges. The neck is of medium length, with a slight arch and abundant hackle flowing over the shoulders. Eyes are reddish bay, earlobes white, shanks and toes slate and beak should be bluish black.

Hen House Painted
This is a painting of Jan’s on the backside of her hen house. Photo by Tamara Staples.

The Polish Bantam is an energetic but friendly breed. A roofed in run is best for these birds. If let free in a garden, their crests tend to get very dirty and their head plumage is an inviting breeding ground for crest mites. And the most important reason to keep an eye on the birds is that due to a limited field vision, they are easy prey. These are the Standard’s recognized varieties of Polish Bantams: White Crested Black (non-bearded), White Crested Blue (non-bearded), Buff Laced (bearded and non-bearded), Golden Laced (bearded and non-bearded), Silver Laced (bearded and non-bearded), and White (bearded and non-bearded).

Jan’s routine includes regularly cleaning her pens with a dry vacuum, distributing lots of soft dry shavings and spraying for insects. She keeps a close eye on their health by checking their droppings for an unusual odor, color or shape. Jan is a firm believer in smell as an indication of the well-being of birds. She loves the smell of baby chicks. When doing school tours, she’ll bring in a few chickens for the students to smell. Certainly, when it comes to chickens, smells are abundant, so I was delighted to hear Jan speak so lovingly of the good smell. The health of her birds is a great source of pride for Jan: Health equals Beauty. True to her artistic sensibilities, Jan can see the smallest aspects of physical beauty in these birds.

Polish Chickens
A Polish male (top) and female. Photographer is Arthur Schilling, 1922, from The Standard of Perfection. Used with permission from The American Poultry Association.

She describes the view from afar is like gazing upon a jewel, but as you move closer, you will see a world of textures and colors from the individual feathers, the unusual hue and pattern of the eyes, the reptilian markings of the legs, the natural arrangement and luminosity that the feathers together produce. She describes with awe, the way the female tail makes a little tent covering a field of fluff underneath.

Cinders Book

In Jan’s newest book, Cinders, A Chicken Cinderella, (Penguin, 2013) these details come to life in stunning illustrations. When Jan began raising Silver Phoenix Large Fowl, they became the inspiration for Cinders and the Prince Cockerel. Because of her intimate knowledge of birds, we are treated to gorgeous, realistic drawings of a variety of breeds. It is here that Jan’s two worlds merge.

Originally published in the October/November 2013 issue of Backyard Poultry magazine.

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