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Jan Brett's chickens

This best-selling author-illustrator gives her tips on raising fancy fowl.
  • Author and chicken fanatic

    Jan Brett's books have sold 35 million copies, but a stack of books is not what she unloads from the hatchback of her car at the American Bantam Association National Meet -- it's a trio of prizewinning Polish chickens. Brett, one of the nation's foremost author-illustrator of children's books, is a chicken fanatic and the winner of many awards for her fancy fowl.<br>Best known for her Ukrainian folktale, The Mitten, featuring a mole, rabbit, badger, bear, and a tiny brown mouse, Brett now incorporates chickens into many of her beloved books.<br>

    Date Published: April 13, 2012
    Date Updated: December 2, 2013
  • Love of animals

    The love of animals started early for Brett. She grew up in a suburb of Boston and had a horse, guinea pigs, donkeys, and chickens. "I had chickens that rode on the handlebars of my bike," she says. When she wasn't playing with her own animals, she was riding down the road to visit the neighboring farm to see the calves. "I've always loved animals, it goes way back in my family. We had so many animals."

    Date Published: April 13, 2012
    Date Updated: December 2, 2013
  • Chicken paradise

    Today, Brett raises about 60 chickens and 10 ducks on her acreage near Norwell, Massachusetts, where she lives with her husband, Joe Hearne, a member of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. She bought her first chickens, a batch of Wyandottes, 11 years ago at a feed store. Those hens lived for 10 years and became dear pets. Since then she has added fancier birds to her flock, making improvements as she goes.<br>"Chickens take a bit of a learning curve," says Brett. "I bought my first Silkies from a dairy farmer and would call him when I had questions or concerns." Once she thought a hen had a stuck egg and called him in a panic. "She's just broody," he told her.<br>

    Date Published: April 13, 2012
    Date Updated: December 2, 2013
  • Cochin and Polish birds

    At chicken shows she bought Cochin and Polish birds. "I'm intense, so I got into the Polish breed," she says. "It is a high-maintenance breed."

    Date Published: April 13, 2012
    Date Updated: December 2, 2013
  • Poultry shows

    Today she exhibits her poultry at shows all over the country and gives demonstrations to youth. "I'm involved with the 4-H clubs here and show them how to wash and groom the Polish for show." Brett says she has figured out what makes a winning show chicken, and it is mainly about nurturing and attention to detail.

    Date Published: April 13, 2012
    Date Updated: December 2, 2013
  • Best feed on earth

    No run-of-the-mill chicken feed will do, for one thing. Brett's fowl are fed flaxseed, wheat, whole oats, sunflower seeds, green onions, mealy worms, and more. "They like kale, so I chop it up and tie it with twisty ties," she says. One room in the barn has grow lights positioned over 4 inches of soil where seeds sprout and the chickens graze.

    Date Published: April 13, 2012
    Date Updated: December 2, 2013
  • Breeding and egg laying

    Her chickens live in family groups and "the males even make nests for the females," says Brett. She keeps one pen of broody birds (Buff Brahma and Silkie crosses) that love to be mothers. Each hen sits on up to six eggs. (If Brett wants more eggs to hatch, she puts them in an incubator.) "The hens like to nest in tandem, so when one gets off her nest to get water, the other moves over." Brett candles the eggs at three days to see if they are fertile and then again at 10 and 15 days to make sure the chicks are alive.

    Date Published: April 13, 2012
    Date Updated: December 2, 2013
  • Barns and coops

    The birds are housed inside soundproof barns except for an hour a day in the summer when they go outside with Brett while she does chores. A free-range chicken is a dead chicken, she explains. "I have handouts for people listing all the animals that kill chickens. A fox can dig under a pen in 10 minutes. A great horned owl once followed me to the pen when I had a Wyandotte in my arms. It swooped so silently I didn't hear it coming, but my husband saw it from the window. Scary. A hawk once busted through a pen that had mesh over it. I was stunned."

    Date Published: April 13, 2012
    Date Updated: December 2, 2013
  • Barn castle

    No need to feel sorry for the cooped up chickens, as the barn is a castle. "These chickens live such a great life," says Brett. "They like to be washed and blown dry. I enjoy the nurturing."

    Date Published: April 13, 2012
    Date Updated: December 2, 2013
  • Buying and selling

    When Brett wants to buy a new bird, she barters. <br> "I never buy a chicken because I trade my artwork for them," she says. <br>If you can't trade with your paintings, you can buy an older bird from a great bloodline fairly cheap. "It's not that difficult to get the top of bloodlines if you go to shows," says Brett. A young show-quality bird sells for about $60, but some top show Silkies can bring $100 to $500. Brett sells many of her chickens to homeowners for about $15 each. These birds might have white on their wings or a split crest and are not for show, but they do great in the backyard.<br>

    Date Published: April 13, 2012
    Date Updated: December 2, 2013
  • Do your homework

    Do your homework on the breed before you buy, says Brett. Polish are tame, but their vision is obstructed and their crests require grooming. <br>"Silkies are wonderful, but almost like bunny rabbits," she says. "When you are looking for a breed, if it is characterized as 'flighty,' it won't be tame."<br>Brett also has quiet breeds of ducks like East Indies and Mandarins. “None of them makes much noise, because my husband is a musician and doesn't want to hear them when he is practicing,” she explains.<br>

    Date Published: April 13, 2012
    Date Updated: December 2, 2013
  • Health care

    If you want to show your chickens, they'll need to be healthy, says Brett. "Judges want glossy feathers and red wattles." Chickens that Brett takes to shows are isolated for two weeks when they get home for disease control. Brett has an avian veterinarian nearby but doesn't need her too often. "I use my senses to check out the health of the coop," she says. "I can smell if there is an infection and nip it in the bud." When Brett is traveling, someone comes twice a day to care for the chickens and to give her a report.

    Date Published: April 13, 2012
    Date Updated: December 2, 2013
  • Such amazing creatures

    No time or expense is too much for her birds. <br>"Chickens might be expendable to others, but they are not expendable to me," she explains. <br>"The chickens calm me down. I work on my art late in the evening and go out before bed to check the chickens. If they are not on their roosts, I make sure they are OK." Chickens are "such amazing creatures," she says. "I have so much love for them and am so enthusiastic."<br>

    Date Published: April 13, 2012
    Date Updated: December 2, 2013
  • Learn more:

    Jan Brett<br>
    P.O. Box 366, Norwell, MA 02061<br>
    www.janbrett.com<br>

    Date Published: April 13, 2012
    Date Updated: December 2, 2013
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