At Living History Farms, there are cows, oxen, and horses. There are pigs, sheep, chickens and sometimes even ducks and geese and turkeys! These animals are not pets, like your cat or dog at home. These animals are working animals at the historic farms. Our farmers get eggs from the chickens, milk from the cows, and wool from the sheep. Horses and oxen pull wagons and farm machines. Farmers call these types of working animals, livestock.
Being around livestock is a simple pleasure for many of the museum farmers. A simple pleasure is a small everyday thing that makes you happy. Taking care of these animals makes us happy. Our farmers also like to just watch the livestock do what livestock does. Do you like to watch your dog play with a ball in the yard or your cat chase a squeaky toy? Do you like to watch birds on your bird feeder or squirrels in the park? It can be a simple pleasure to watch a pig be a pig, hanging out in his pen, or a cow be a cow, munching grass in the pasture.
I like to watch chickens be chickens. Have you visited the Tangen House in Walnut Hill or the 1900 Farm to watch the chickens? Here are some things to look for when you go chicken watching! Some scientists believe that chickens are descendants of velociraptors and Tyrannosaurus Rex. These tiny dinosaurs hunt and pounce on bugs and flies in the grass. They scratch in the dirt looking for things to eat. They walk and run, strutting or bobbing their head. They chirp, cluck and chatter at each other. Roosters crow to impress hens or warn them about danger. Chickens are curious and will come to see what you are doing.
If they get startled, they will jump or squawk. Smaller chickens can actually fly over fences. They preen; this means they use their beaks to clean, oil and comb their feathers. They will find a dusty spot on the ground and roll their feathers in the dust to clean oil and tiny bugs away. They argue with each other, finding a pecking order—that means they boss each other around to prove who is in charge of the flock. They roost or perch on machinery in the shed or hay in the barn.
Living History Farms has many types of chickens. Just like dogs and cats, chickens can be different breeds of all sorts of shapes and colors. Brahma chickens are big and stocky. Cochins are smaller. Both of these chickens have feathers all the way down their legs! Polish Topknot chickens have fluffy feathers on the top of their head called a crest. Plymouth Rock and Rhode Island Red chickens are usually a deep red color. These are the perfect “little red hens” from the storybook. Barred Rocks and Dominiques are black and white striped—or “barred”. Dominques are sometimes nicknamed Dominickers.
In 2018, many people love chickens with special colors or feather patterns. What about farmers in 1900 or 1875 or 1850? Most Iowa farm families needed plain chickens that laid lots of eggs and were good meat birds. They often sold the eggs in nearby towns for extra money. But in the year 1850, new breeds of chickens were brought to America from Europe and China. It started a “hen-fever”! People wanted to raise and show off fancy chickens. The Iowa State fair in 1871 gave prizes for chickens like Houdans, Black Polish, Brahmas and Dorkings. It also had prizes for fancy ducks and even pigeons! We know Mrs. Flynn, the lady who lived in our Flynn Mansion, had a large chicken house and was proud of her fancy chickens.
The types of chickens here at the museum can change through the season as new flock members come and go. Come out and enjoy some chicken watching of your own! When you visit, look for the differences in the colors of their feathers and the size and shape of their bodies to tell them apart. How many chicken things can you see them do?