It all started with a pet show that I attended! I had taken my champion Golden Retriever Leo to participate in the event, and I noticed people displaying fancy poultry as well. The fluffy multi-coloured exhibits looked like anything but chickens. Some had interesting patterns on their feathers, or splashes of colour or unnaturally long tails which caught my curiosity. I was so smitten that at that very moment I decided that I will also keep a collection of the most beautiful fancy chickens in my backyard (much to the chagrin of my family 🙂 ).
I went back and did some research on the most beautiful fancy chicken breeds , checked ideal cage size, and invested a generous portion of my monthly salary in erecting five roomy 8X4 feet cages for the birds. However the real problem was where to find these fancy varieties of chickens in my hometown Lucknow (India). On inquiring from people, I got to know that there is a Sunday market that happens in old Lucknow where I can get fancy birds. However, after spending a Sunday afternoon in the dusty crowded pet market, I found that the fancy birds were pigeons and love birds. I went back and contacted the owners of the pet show , they in turn guided me to a guy in a pet shop. While the guy at the shop did not have the really exotic breeds, I did end up buying my first fancy chicken from him. I brought a Phoenix chicken pair for 6K, they look just like normal chickens but their beauty lies in their long emerald green tails. It was a moment of pure joy when I released the pair in my first cage, freshly painted green and layered with garden hay. The rooster was so beautiful, it had a shiny red and gold body, and its tail cascaded down in beautiful green strands when it roosted on a stick, I decided to name the guy Zeus, after the Greek god of the sky.
It slowly became a ritual for me to go meet Zeus every morning before I left for office, it was so fascinating to just keep on watching it endlessly, as it dug the hay with its claws to look for insects, strutted around with its tail in full display, or persuaded its female for a romantic rendezvous. One fine day I discovered a small white egg nestled in the hay, they were breeding!! If birds start breeding then it is a strong indicator that they are happy with their environment. We persuaded a local farm to hatch these eggs for us, and I was already dreaming of my entire phoenix family to come. The shock came when the first batch of 24 eggs that was sent did not hatch a single chicken. The farm owner told us that somebody tricked me into buying an old male who was infertile now. He advised one should always buy semi adults, while they may not be the most good looking they will come into their prime soon and will have their full breeding age in front of them. I scanned the net to find that all fancy poultry suppliers in India are based out of Kerela, nothing in north India. I should have stopped then, but my passion was growing, I went ahead and contacted this guy Arun Abraham from Kochi. All the feedbacks about him on the internet were amazing.
This was the real deal; Arun really appreciated my passion and sent me WhatsApp photos of exotic breeds of fancy chickens. The one that immediately caught my fancy was the Polish chicken. The Polish is a tall chicken breed with a hanging mop of hair on its brow (imagine Salman Khan in Tere Naam), it was just soooo cute. They come in four colours – white, black, silver and golden, and I was enamoured by the golden one. I told him I wanted a pair of Golden Polish, he said he can send it to me via train and nonchalantly quoted the price of 15K for a quartet. Of course I refused, I even lost several nights of sleep dreaming about how awesome it will be to have the Golden Polish next to Zeus in the second cage. Eventually I gave in…
The real drama unfolded on the railway station, I and my friend Vishal were tracking the train on which the birds had been loaded from Kochi, and were present at Lucknow station with our receipt and everything. We got the shock of our lives when the cargo guy told us there were no chickens on the train, I told him to recheck but my head was spinning, had I just been conned ?? We went from cabin to cabin asking passengers if they had seen any cargo of fancy chickens but to no avail, finally a passenger admitted seeing some golden pigeons. The train gave a whistle, it was starting to move, we took the cargo guy ran towards the compartment mentioned by the passenger, and there they were, the most adorable quartet of Golden Polish staring back at me. They were quite the show stealers at the railway station, as a crowd gathered, curious to know what the exotic birds were, and their surprise at finding out that they were mere chickens The Polish family occupied the second cage, the magnificent golden male was christened Casanova, it was just so handsome, if you know what I mean.
The third cage inmates came to be the Silky Chickens. Silky Chickens are like fur covered little balls of fluff. Folklore has it that they were created after breeding chickens with rabbits, and looking at them as they peer at you from behind puffy eyelids, you can totally believe it, hell you would believe anything anybody told you at that moment when you hold a Silky chicken in your arms. They come in a variety of colours, mine was a pair with a pure white male and a golden brown female, we called her Cookie. I finally installed a signboard outside the compound which housed all the cages , it read – ‘Paradise Farms’, proprietor. Shikhar Ranjan!
The Fourth cage belonged to the Mille Fleur Bantam. Mille Fleur is a French word that means ‘of many hues or colours’, while bantam is a Japanese word which is akin to bon sai, meaning chickens that are miniature and more beautiful versions of their original self, bred solely for the purpose of being kept as show animals. It was like a rainbow, a splash of pink here, red there, blue on the side, green on the belly, brown on the feather, purple peeking out behind the shoulder, covered with white dots, petite with feathers all bunched up at its feet like it is wearing a shoe. Needless to say I wanted it, craved it and ended up paying another handsome amount to my supplier, within a week it was in my fourth cage, and predictably named Rainbow.
The fifth and final cage went to the Frizzle. A frizzle is the weirdest variety of chicken one can imagine, its hair basically grows inside out and haphazardly in all directions as if it just came out of the drier.
One night I got back from office and switched on the lights, Casanova , the Golden Polish was lying on the floor in an unnaturally twisted position. I opened the cage and picked it up easily, it did not resist, its neck lolled helplessly from side to side. I was petrified, Casanova was dying, how could this be, I had taken the best care, I tried to lower its beak and dip It into water, but it did not have the strength left to drink, the vet arrived half an hour later to find a lifeless bundle of feathers in my arms. It had died of a liver infection. Casanova’s death broke me, I should have stopped then but I didn’t. Next morning, along with another male Golden Polish, I ordered a pair of Black Polish and White Polish too. I got five more cages made to accommodate the new arrivals.
The smallest but perkiest chicken at my farm was the Sebright. Sebright is also a bantam chicken the size of a large pigeon, its body is either silver or golden with beautiful markings like intricate sketches of a stencil on paper. They have this uncanny habit of perching on your stretched out forearm. They are good fliers too, one day a Sebright had escaped its cage , we were all very worried because we could not find it anywhere. Suddenly the caretaker Iqbal spotted it enjoying the sun on the rooftop, immediately a complicated rescue mission was organised in which I and my friends climbed up the rickety wooden ladder and made dangerous one handed swipes at the perching Sebright. Finally it got tired of the game and flew down and settled into its cage, leaving us stranded on the ladder at different heights looking foolishly at each other
I was spending my every free moment in their company, in the mornings, after coming back from office; I even got lights installed in their cages so as to observe them at night.
One day my phone rang in the middle of a meeting, it was Iqbal from the farm, I picked up apprehensively, but he had tidings of joy!! Out of the latest batch of chicks placed in the incubator, 8 of them had hatched!! Six of those were of Rainbow, the Mille Fleur, but a couple were those of Casanova, his legacy had lived on. The chicks arrived when they were four weeks old and ready to leave the incubator. I customized the cage especially for the chicks, its floor was covered with newspapers so that the chicks don’t get hurt by the wire and it had a hundred watt bulb to keep them warm. The chicks of bantams are even smaller than those of regular chickens, and hence considerable more cute. They would always stay in a group, huddled together, if you tapped the cage, they would race in the other direction, toddling on their little padded feet. It was an experience watching them grow every day, their bodies changing from dull grey to taking on the Mille Fleur colours or the Polish chicks beginning to display their signature hairstyle.
One night we were woken up with an untimely cacophony coming from the cages, I rushed to the backyard in my pyjamas, the fog was dense, visibility was minimal but the chickens were crying with all their might. I switched on the light to find a cat slinking away in the corner, I hastily checked the locks on all the cages and was relieved to find all cages were locked, but then my eye caught sight of my Silky hen Cookie as she lay dead in the corner of her cage. The cat unable to enter the cage, had swiped at Cookie from outside the cage and injured her, but the injury was not fatal, she had probably died of shock. Cookie was survived by a host of her chicks, which later grew up to be seven healthy Silky chickens and stayed with me till the last days of the farm.
After cookie’s death, I should have finally stopped adding chickens to my collection, and I swear it was my intention to stop, and then I saw the Brahma. Brahma is the king of fancy poultry, but not for the weak hearted. Brightly coloured but huge in size, three times taller than your normal chicken, it has an erect posture with its massive chest jutting out and its padded feet are so fluffy that it doesn’t leave any footprints. Brahma’s are still very rare in India, and this specimen’s father was the winner of the UK fancy poultry show and it was imported only a few days ago. It was Diwali time in India, people were buying cars, fridges, washing machines in the festive season, and I brought the Brahma. I got a special cage constructed for the Brahma, in which it had room to roam around, and boy was it huge, it was like a mini ostrich, but oh so beautiful, its haughty walk was quite a spectacle.
My most prized possession was the Onagadori. The Onagadori is a chicken of royal lineage and it is the result of hundreds of years of Japanese creativity. It was developed by the emperor of Japan as the star attraction of his royal menagerie; it is a white/red-green chicken with a very long tail, so long that it can grow up to 25 feet. At that time, there was only one hobbyist in India who possessed pure bred Onagadori chicks, and I became the second. Keeping an Onagadori is not an easy task, first you need a wooden cage that is atleast 15 feet tall having multiple roosting points, because its long tail should not be allowed to touch the ground as there is the risk of it getting tangled and torn, you have to give it a special diet including dry fruits and worms to fuel the growth of its tail, give it regular baths (yes you read that right 🙂 ), and braid its tail from time to time. But all the effort was worth it, I named it Angel, and watched its tail grow a little bit every day, till it reached atleast 7-8 feet. Standing outside its cage on winter nights, while it looked down at you from atop its 12 ft roost, its tail swishing in appreciation, was an experience that is beyond words.
I reached the zenith of my obsession with the Aseel. The Aseel is an large Indian breed of fighter chickens that is widely bred across India for cock fights. Normally Aseels are white or muddy brown in colour, but one day I saw a picture of a rare blue Aseel on facebook and fell head over heels in love. I frantically searched the internet for this specimen and found him in Hyderabad, but the owners refused to part with it as it was the star of their fight club. Not to be deterred, I somehow persuaded my friend Mohsin to take the next train to Hyderabad. Mohsin did his job well, after treating himself to biriyani and Osmania cookies, he convinced the owners to part with one of its semi adult progenies. A 48 hour train ride later, Neel took his first tentative steps inside paradise farms. it was just so handsome, it had large expressive eyes, its long stringy neck covered in golden feathers, its body a shade of deep blue, its wings the colour of molten gold, its ripped talons a fine shade of tan and its long bushy blue tail splattered with white strands.
In a few months it grew into a huge three foot tall muscular specimen with huge talons that can tear into any flesh, in fact it looked like a mini dinosaur :). In its presence no dog or cat could dare come into the farm so we used to open all the cages and allow the chickens to roam freely under its harmless paternal gaze. But we were unaware of the silent jealousy brewing in the heart of the Brahma on being deposed as the main attraction of the farm. One day the Brahma challenged Neel, while the Brahma was bulkier, it was no match for the lightning reflexes and killer instinct of the Aseel. Neel hammered the Brahma, I and my friend Moshin rushed in, got thoroughly scratched still managed to save the bloodied Brahma, but not its pride though.
Paradise farms had become popular, word had gotten around that I owned a Brahma and an Onagadori, and people were coming over with their children from near and far to have a glimpse. We now had custom made descriptions outside the cage of each breed, and a Facebook page too! I even sold my first batch of Mille Fleur chicks for 2K each. We diversified our collection by adding large sized turkeys and ducks. I along with my friends used to release them all together to forage in the lawn in the evenings…what a sight it used to be watching them running freely, picking insects out of the bush, males chasing rival males, females snubbing lecherous males, mother hen hiding the chicks under her wings and some adventurous chickens taking tentative flights over our heads.
Well, my family was bound to get queasy at some point; the fact that they allowed me to expand so much without interrupting was a testament to their patience. The downside of keeping chickens is that the roosters crow, it’s not because something is bothering them, they simply crow because it’s in their nature. Till the time they were only a couple of roosters, the noise was tolerable, but having so many of them meant they would all erupt simultaneously in a cacophony at precisely 4 am at night. No matter how much you try to suppress the noise, you can never keep down a cock’s crowing sound, and ours being a residential colony, the residents were complaining, my parents put their foot down, the farm needed to go!!
For a while I tried to shift the farm by renting out a friends place outside town, but it was a drain on resources and I could not give personal attention to the chickens, several of them died !! I tried to sell them on OLX but North India does not have a significant market for fancy chickens and people were offering dirt cheap prices. I tried sending a few birds to a buyer in Punjab but few of them died due to the heat and rough handling on the way, it was sickening to watch my beloved chickens die. I decided to donate my fancy chickens to either hobbyists or the Zoo, that way they will be treated with care and given proper food and space.
The Zoo authorities accepted the chickens, and they agreed to our suggestion that they can have a special cage dedicated to fancy chickens and it will become a great tourist attraction. They came in their grey-green trucks and took my chickens away, while I stood silently in the corner, too exhausted to protest. I had invested so much emotionally and financially, it had drained me.
Life without the chickens seemed totally empty; I couldn’t concentrate on anything, only the thought of a good life for them in the Zoo kept me going. A month later, I decided to visit the Zoo to check up on how the chickens were doing. I went from cage to cage looking for little bundles of colour somewhere, but they were nowhere to be seen. I contacted the zoo authorities, they told me the chickens were in an internal enclosure and will be displayed next month. I went again the next month, and the month after, but didn’t find my fancy chickens. Soon they stopped responding to my fervent queries and shrugged away my concerns. Everyone conveniently forgot about the chickens. Where were they? Where had they gone? Did the zoo keepers sell them or did some animals kill them?? Or heavens forbid, had the unimaginable tragedy happened, did they end up on someone’s dinner plate??
I still don’t know what happened to them, my beloved chickens. One day in the future when I have a lot of money, I will buy a huge farm in the countryside, and raise every variety of fancy chicken there along with turkeys, ducks, rabbits and dogs. There will be no entry fee, people would be welcome to bring their families and enjoy the sheer beauty of these creatures, play with them , pet them, feed them and forget all the stress in their lives. Till then, try raising a few chickens in your backyard, you will love the experience, and trust me they are adorable !!! Cock-a-doodle-dooo !!!
The copyright of all images belongs to Shikhar Ranjan@2018