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Posted April 4, 2009 | Copyright © The Northern Virginia Daily
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Pecking order: Local girl raising designer hens, living up to the responsibility
By Natalie Austin -- firstname.lastname@example.org
WOODSTOCK -- Holding a basket of pastel-colored eggs, Hannah Arthur scurried up her backyard like she was preparing to hide them for an Easter egg hunt.
The little girl was going to gather eggs, however, from her coop containing a variety of hens, that don't need dye to improve the aesthetics of their production.
Their eggs are as colorful as the birds are exotic.
A closer look at the child's basket reveals its purpose: "Hannah's Coop Farm Fresh Eggs."
These colorful eggs aren't for hiding, they are for eating. They are packaged by the half-dozen and consumed by the family, friends and neighbors.
"My chickens are nice. They let me hold them," says the little red-haired girl, dressed in a Hannah Montana shirt and hot pink crocks.
She reaches in the elaborate, tidy coop and picks up a large hen with immense furry legs and backside. The big bird doesn't budge; Hannah knows them by variety and her pet names.
A handmade, wooden cross stands a little ways back from the coop. Bubbles, Hannah's favorite chicken, was buried there after her death in January. A small bouquet of artificial flowers remain on the grave.
"Roo," a Cochin variety, is one of the oldest hens in the coop, she says, busy now taking care of the living all around her.
Hannah's father, Clay, started researching chickens about a year ago, when Hannah was given the choice of chickens or rabbits.
He found an advertisement for a farm in Banco, with more than 1,200 varieties from which to choose. Chickens also are available by mail order and on the Internet.
Arthur called longtime friend, Pastor Rick Goeres, of St. Paul Lutheran Church in Strasburg, and, working from Arthur's design, they built a coop.
"I told folks I was building a coop for designer chickens," says Goeres, smiling.
Suddenly, the Arthurs were chicken farmers, but Hannah was in charge.
The first week-old chicks were purchased last April, tiny, furry, yellow things that had to be kept in the house for the first eight weeks, giving ample time for the coop to be completed.
The big hens -- no roosters are allowed and are quickly returned to the breeder -- could be called designer. No two are alike.
The fancy Araucana -- Hannah named this one Sweet Tart -- is known as the "Easter Egg Chicken" for its colored eggs, pastel blues and greens. A big Rhode Island Red, probably the most recognizable, charges out of the coop. A Delaware white scratches alongside. A showy buff Cochin is on the other side of the coop, its feathers glowing in the afternoon light. Little Miss Blackie, a Black Jersey Giant, is impressive. A Golden Laced Wyandotte hen looks like its feathers were applied individually with a paintbrush.
Hannah looks proud.
"These are my pets not for killing," she says, with authority.
The first egg appeared last Thanksgiving. The little girl dashes in the house and comes out with a fancy box containing colorful Easter grass and that landmark egg, the yolk of which was blown out so that it could be kept.
Arthur says his daughter picked out all of the hens. There were a dozen until Bubbles' untimely death.
The group of zany looking girls strut around the coop. They produce, among them, about a half dozen eggs a day.
"We give them away and eat them," says Arthur, adding he has an omelet every morning. "They are delicious."
Inside the coop is a heat lamp and nesting boxes for the hens. Golf balls have been added to fool snakes, who might ingest a Titleist rather than eat an egg. The hens will sit on the eggs even though they are unfertilized and will remain unhatched.
The outside includes two runs, so the birds can be diverted if the ground on one side needs a rest. Five gallons of water and a 30-bird feeder are in place.
Arthur and Goeres say they are impressed that Hannah is still as motivated by the project as she was in the beginning.
"It teaches responsibility," says Goeres. "It's a great way to see how the food we eat is raised and that by caring for something else, it is caring for you."
Arthur says his daughter wants more chickens, and the coop could easily house 18 before becoming too crowded.
"I fully expected Hannah would lose interest but she has really taken care of them. It's neat to see her stick with it," he says.
Hannah made the colorful birds her pets and cares for each one, picking them up and hugging them like big, feathered babies. The hens seem to like the attention.
"We have pets that happen to lay eggs," says Arthur, smiling.
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