Breed in Focus – The Ancona

I’ll tell you all about my current obsession, The Ancona Chicken. (Gallus gallus domesticus)

(To all of the World of Warcraft people who accidentally got redirected to this blog, this is not “The Ancona Chicken” you are looking for. Now, go outside and don’t come back in until the street lights come on.)

savage henry

The Ancona Chicken is a stunning Mediterranean breed with mottled feathers, black with white tips. Sometimes referred to as the ‘Mottled Leghorn,’  this is a separate breed with its own bloodline.

When a breed is established and standardized, it will, traditionally (though this is not always the case, especially with “Ornamental breeds”) will be named for a city nearby.  Ancona is a city in central Italy, originally established by the Greeks in 387 BC. That should give you an idea how deep this bloodline goes. When chickens were first brought to this area, Plato was teaching Aristotle at the Platonic Academy.

H. C. Sheppard

H. C. Sheppard

The standardization of this breed dates to the 19th Century. They were first shipped to the United States in 1888. H. Cecil Sheppard of my hometown, Berea, OH imported Anconas in 1906 and quickly became a major player in this popular breed with a rather sizable farm. If you are wondering where the farm is these days, it is called the Cleveland Hopkins Airport.

From the book "A Little Journey Among Anconas" by J. Cecil Sheppard, 1922  (Special thanks to Google for digitizing)

From the book “A Little Journey Among Anconas” by J. Cecil Sheppard, 1922
(Special thanks to Google for digitizing)

We ordered our start, 25 hens from Murray McMurray Hatchery since Sheppard is out of business. The problem with starting a show flock is that you have to start it with show birds, and try to maintain the breed. Getting substandard birds and trying to breed them up to show quality is difficult and time consuming. I discovered that the Ancona was the perfect way to test a breed store’s knowledge, as well. If you ask about an Ancona and they keep trying to correct you to Ameraucana, they don’t know anything about chickens.

Since I was introducing this breed to the area, I got the purest strains I could, and ordered 25 hens. There is a method to this madness. As any chicken farmer can tell you, every hatchery has ‘Chicken Sexers’ and they are actually paid quite well. That’s because Sexers can move quickly through a batch of chicks and their services will change your odds of getting all hens from ’50/50′ to ’90/10,’ yet there is no real basis for the science of how it gets that way.

Even with the odds being heavily stacked against getting a rooster, I knew that I still would, and when they grow up together, they get along better.

My original intention was to get 25 chicks and sell half of them, but I discovered very little interest at the time (November), and I was a little nervous in that I am _not_ a chicken sexer, and I didn’t want to hurt my chances  by giving away my rooster.

A culling happened anyway, and it was completely unintentional, but worked out to our advantage. The heater in the brooder box had a thermostat error and went on the fritz. 90° in November is not uncommon in Southern Arizona, but having a heater decide that is too cold is. By the time we discovered it, half of our precious flock was dead.

Yet, half of them were not, despite enduring 125° for a couple of hours. That’s the mark of a good desert chicken.

Anconas are an ‘egger breed,’ and as such, they stay very small and lean, using most of their feed as energy for the egg machine. They lay standard sized white eggs, which were the brown eggs of the early 20th Century (no difference beyond the color of the shell, but people wanted them because they were different than what they were used to), and they lay them in prodigious numbers.

Some chickens are ‘flighty’ in that they go to great lengths to avoid human contact, but Anconas seem to have more of a pheasant-like wariness. They stayed out of my way, but they were not scared of me.

They were also quirky in strange ways. Every night when it was time to coop up, they would line up, with the rooster supervising, and file patiently in.  Feeding time had the feeling of a formal dinner, each chicken taking it’s place and eating in an orderly fashion.

They made up for this by being some of the most talkative and curious breed I have dealt with. As they matured, I realized that I should not have them penned, but having a mixed flock pastured, I didn’t want them to get mixed together. I began putting things into their pen to climb on, just to try to keep them occupied.

The Ancona Rooster stares down a Dark Cornish Hen

The Ancona Rooster stares down a Dark Cornish Hen

My flock’s rooster was Henry, and he immediately excelled at the role. He made sure that treats were distributed evenly as were his attentions. He also had a spectacular crow that sometimes he would start unleashing at 3 in the morning. We began calling him Savage Henry when he began defending his territory from safely inside his pen against all comers, though he remained quite friendly with me.

When my wife’s heath deteriorated, it went quickly. The pain had been with her for about a year and a half, and suddenly we had a brain surgery immediately on the horizon. As I took up more and more slack, my time and ability to care for the chickens quickly disappeared. I ended up selling the flock as a lot at cost or slightly lower and they sold within an hour. You have to do the right thing when your care of your flock becomes you taking the eggs out with a shovel once a week. (That is a hard thing to do, to have to throw away buckets and buckets of eggs because your coop is a mess.)

I miss them. Their enclosure is currently full of Easter Eggers I got on the cheap, and they have no real personality. I did keep one Ancona hen, and now in the mixed flock, she has excelled at free range pasturing. She’s still quick and alert, even with one eye being covered in a ‘comb over.’ Her pattern makes her vanish in the shade of a tree and look spectacular in the sun, which brings out the green beetling of her black feathers.

If I get the chance, I will get the Anconas again when I know that I can keep them exclusively. What a fine bird!

Added 6/5/2014: Please donate to our Brain Surgery Recovery Fundraiser:


Big Red Oedipus

The Big Red Oedipus

The Big Red Oedipus

It suddenly occurred to me that I should probably start talking about agricultural interests. My preaching can get a little heavy handed… That’s why I don’t do it professionally.

We had just completed a Dark Night of the Soul when Farming began calling us. It was a lifeline because we had lost everything. It’s was when you realize that you really didn’t fall _that_ far that it occurs to you that perhaps it is time to try a different course.

We began with a Hobby Farm introduction to chickens, and the research began. My wife and I come from two different types of thought. She is a Valedictorian and I am an Obsessive Dyslexic. As such, we planned tackled the world’s combined knowledge of this feathery breed, much of it contradictory.

Nest egg before eggs in the nest, we moved back to my hometown, Cleveland, on some bad tips… but maybe that’s why you don’t order steak at the International House of Pancakes.

From a crappy long term stay hotel minutes from the airport, we began ordering any farming catalog that would send one to an address next door to The Crazy Horse Gentleman Club.

See? It's still about chickens.

See? It’s still about chickens.

The only person that it was difficult to give directions to was my mother. It had everything to do with a ten foot tall Stallion’s Head with its tongue hanging out, done in pink neon. I could find my house in a whiteout because I just had to follow the glow. Did a couple of times.

We carried chicken catalogs everywhere we went and nattered in anyone’s ear whenever anyone gave us the slightest window to turn the conversation to chickens. We studied constantly, because what else are you going to do in Cleveland in the Winter? …Yeah, we did that, too. Now, with another mouth to feed on it’s-his-her way, our studies took a new urgency.

By this point, we knew we were going back to the desert. No one really escapes. I had heard of an old Indian legend about the mountains around Tucson, that due to their bowl-like circumference of the city, part of your soul stays here, dooming you to return. I told that to one of the Tohono O’odham, and he looked at me like I was sun-touched. He took it well though. The Tohono O’odham have a long history of having to deal with sun-touched Europeans babbling nonsense.

The things is that there is a wealth of knowledge about chickens, but it is woefully lax in the Southwest, and as you can understand, this is a very real concern. Summers start in March and hit 100°F fairly quickly. We get 12 inches of rain a year, and it still causes flash flooding because the top soil here is only a few inches deep before turning to natural concrete.  After two years of research, we developed a list. Our tester breeds identified, we found a place and set up shop.

Now, a word of warning to the wise…. If you have a game plan, stick to it. This does not mean that there should not be an allowance for chaos.

We saw an ad with everything we needed to set up a tractor, plus all the extras, feed and two hens named Betty and Cornelia for some third the value. Normally, I would recommend trepidation when getting someone else’s chickens. Illness, too old, cannibal… the list is rather extensive, the problems you might inherit when you take one someone’s bird, especially on the cheap.

I arrived to find a young, disinterested professional gentleman who owns a solar panel installation service, slicker than owl turds. Someone had tried his hand at a little green-washing and found it not to his tastes. So I collected his entire lacquered deco-chicken tractor, his feed in pool chlorine buckets and two hens used to having to fend for themselves.

Corny, the Dark Cornish

Corny, the Dark Cornish

I put them in what, I eventually found out, was Chicken ‘Nam, and they were happy anyway. When one, the Dark Cornish that we called Corny, went broody, we got them a succession of roosters and learned a valuable lesson in Chicken Romanticism. Namely, that the duplicitous nature of the Female boils down to the fact that they have minds of their own and do as they please, just like everyone else.

Eventually, we settled on getting fertile eggs from a local, established farm. We figured that even a breed that is not supposed to do well in our brutal summers and bitter warm winters, after a few generations in this place, they would be. We borrowed some local genetics, and we successfully utilized a broody hen, which is the easiest way to make them stop brooding.

The last man standing was Big Red Oed. A Rhode Island Red that, I think, has a touch of Black Java. (*Edit: It has been established that he is an Auburn Java) Awash in flaming red feathers, he grew to the proportions of his massive Island kin. Tempered in the fires of a desert summer, he grew up hearing the coyotes right outside and a speedy feathery death from above.

(Also silly packs of domesticated dogs that always, inevitably, included a Chihuahua. Each pack is a psychic penalty for the hubris of my youth. As a young man, I would loudly proclaim that Chihuahuas had been bred for show, and that you’d never see a feral pack of them taking down a cow on the Discovery Channel. It turns out that these little [expletives] are quite adept as killing and survival.)

oed 4

Big Red was a warrior, and he needed more of a name. I had already had a Big Red rooster before, so this one needed something to distinguish him. Something Roman and powerful, like 300 and Gladiator were put in a blender powered by War and eaten by Lance Armstrong the day before he got caught. He needed a legendary name for his legendary life….

Big Red picked that unfortunate moment to try and get freaky with the hen that hatched him and he’s been Big Red Oedipus ever since…. Or at least, ‘Big Red Oed.’

He doesn’t seem to mind.

oed 3

Gilligan Re-Stranded

This has the potential to be spot on or awful…. Maybe even both at the same time.

The line up for the new Gilligan’s Island movie is not on imdb, but Yahoo gave a stab at casting which made a pretty good go of it with, I assume, at least one ad:

When you have seen the line up, you’ll realize that most of this hypothetical cast is perfect. You might also be confused as to why Marissa decided to sell it with Josh Gad.

If you are unfamiliar with the show, Gilligan’s Island is a situational comedy where seven specific stereotypes who would never have anything to do with each other in real life are shipwrecked on an island together and struggle against odd stereotypes that are thrown in at random in an effort to escape said island. Think J.J Abrams’ ‘Lost,’ if it was intentionally funny but with fewer smoke monsters and errata polar bears .

There is scuttlebutt about each of the seven characters representing the Seven Deadly Sins, and that might be how they decided on what characters to select, but after watching the show for years, I never got that impression.

After heading out on a three hour boat tour from Honolulu, Hawaii, the ship gets caught in a storm and the captain saves all aboard, but wrecks on an uncharted island. The seven survivors are the Captain of the ship and his first mate (who the series is named after), an affluent couple, one of Hollywood’s top female actresses, a college professor and a Midwestern girl next door.

In the title role is Micheal Cena, and I never realized until now that Gilligan is the character Micheal Cena has always played. Shy, sweet and good-natured  yet horribly naive and and somewhat bumbling, if Michael Cena were to play anything else, jarring and off-putting.

Another role that was handled with brilliant typecasting is the role of Thurston Howell the Third. In the original series, Jim Backus was able to create a Rich Man character that became so beloved, it spun off into its own existence as Mr. Magoo. Thurston was a Harvard Man who was able to put on airs like a second nature, but was so good natured that you had to wonder if his fortune would have been able to survive if he _had not_ been shipwrecked.

Yet, in today’s world, that would be something difficult to portray. The stigma surrounding the rich these days has them on par with cartoon super villains. However, casting came up with an answer so obvious that none of us would have thought of it. Kelsey Grammer played a character that he, himself, described as, “flawed, silly, pompous, and full of himself, [yet] kind [and] vulnerable.” In fact, he’s so  identified with this character, Fraiser Crane, that he played for 20 years that it is almost impossible to see him as anything else.

The same can be said for the casting of Mary Anne and Ginger. Scarlett Johansen as a red headed Hollywood vamp? Mila Kunis as the hot Midwestern girl next door? Typecasting at its finest.

Though I am somewhat salved by the prior casting the three remaining character are filled with actors I am not familiar with, and two of these roles can make or break the entire movie.

Russell Johnson played the original Professor and, despite having a massive resume before and after the original Gilligan’s Island, he’ll always be the Professor. Delivered in a rapid fire deadpan usually associated with 1950’s G-Men and the doctors in commercials, it was perfect for the time that the series played.

Having not seen the Lone Ranger reboot, I am not sure what type of actor Armie Hammer is, and only know of him because he has the perfect G.I. Joe name. The problem is that the character itself existed in a time that is no longer here, and if he tries to be the original Professor, there is a very good chance that he’ll blow it, but to remake the character might alienate people.

The other most difficult character to play, the one that has doomed former Gilligan’s Island reboots, is The Skipper. Originally played by the irreplaceable Alan Hale Jr., many people don’t realize that, except for hamming it up a bit, the Skipper was all Alan Hale. He didn’t ‘do a voice’ for the character… That was actually how Alan Hale sounded. Every reboot since then has tried to get somebody to ‘do’ Skipper’s voice, and it always sounds like someone ‘doing a voice.’ The magic of Skipper was that he was this larger than life father figure with a blustery voice, and that _was_ Alan Hale.

Now, nothing against Josh Gad, because I really am not familiar with his work, but watching his interviews, he seems more like a Jonah Hill clone than an Alan Hale clone. To me, this means that he is going to try to ‘play’ the Skipper, and if he does, it will doom the entire project. Esther Zuckerman over at the Wire came up with the perfect person for this role, and I agree with her completely.  John Goodman would not only be able to carry off the Herculean feat of playing The Skipper, but he would be able to carry the movie even if all the other big names on this list turn it down. Take Walter Sobchek out of the Big Lembowski and put him in the Captain’s Hat, and you’ll have a movie destined to become another cult classic.

Finally, we have Lovey Howell. I have no idea on that one, and will leave it to the professionals.

There you have it; my critique of Yahoo’s casting for Gilligan’s Island. Dead on for many of the parts, but completely off the mark on others.

A perfect example of how this reboot might go is a commercial floated by TBS for their series, The Real Gilligan’s Island, encompassing too many fanboy dreams for it to be a success, and topping it off with a lousy Skipper.

Irreligiousness – the quality of not being devout

Usually, if you were to ask me if I was religious, I will tell you that I am a Zen Atheist and that, every Sunday, I attend ‘Our Lady of the Mattress by the Springs.’ I don’t mean to be glib (actually, that is exactly what I mean), but the question is loaded with many assumptions that I hope to dispel.

No one asks that question without assuming that you will tell them anything except some form of Christianity. Perhaps it is to be expected… when the majority belief in your country is Christianity and, as a white male, averages would assume I am one, it is to be expected, but it doesn’t mean that I should play along.

The problem arises, too, in that I still preach. It isn’t intentional, but I do. Fruits of the Spirit, Jesus’ stance on Hypocrisy, whether or not Christians are called to do in this world, these are all topics on which I can pontificate on with assurance.

I was once, a long time ago, headed to a career of a Protestant Preacher. I truly felt the calling inside that this is what I was called to do, and I dove into it with both feet. Despite being at a Public School, I packed my Bible in my book bag and read it whenever I could. I was considering Falwell’s Liberty University after my time in the military, and planned on telling them that I was there for Chaplain training as well.

Instead, my faith was eventually shaken by Psalty the Singing Songbook.

This is Psalty, with his pal Charity Mouse, and they are both property of Maranatha! Music, distributed by Warner. Psalty is the Christian version of Big Bird, except he’ll teach you all of the books of the Bible and Christian citizenship skills.

The oldest of my siblings is just short of a decade younger than me, and so, every time we went anywhere, Psalty went along too. Tape after tape was played, over and over, until I reached a point only achieved by those poor bastards in Guantanamo Bay, forced to listen to Elmo in their psychological not-torture.

One song sticks with me to this day, as clearly as if I just finished listening to it. It is two Bible verses, with some repeating as is necessary with any poppy song, but inexplicably coupled with a classic Cuban beat.

“Beloved/ Let us Love one another (love one another)/ For Love is of God, and everyone that loveth is born of God and knoweth God/ He that Loveth not, knoweth not God, for God is Love (God is Love), Beloved, let us Love one another, First John Four: sen-un ‘n eight!” (Cha-Cha-Cha!)

(The song is property of Maranatha! Music. I added the Cha-Cha-Cha, because I always did. First, it was to make my sisters laugh. Later, it became a form of passive protest)

To clarify, this song beat a specific verse into my head. Namely, 1 John 4:8. “The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love.” (New American Standard Bible)

Here I was, learning all that I could from the Bible, yet I’d walk through the doors of a church and be met with the rankest hypocrisy. You see, most churches belong to a governing body, and mine was the Southern Baptist Convention. They would meet regularly, to clarify the finer point of contention so that everyone in the group was preaching the same thing.

The problem is that they also establish who is to be excluded by virtue of their sin. If you are ever curious what this list looks like, street preachers love to scrawl in in angry Sharpie marker across poster board.

 The Besmirchers' frontman Lenny Mental counter-protesting (Tucson Weekly)

The Besmirchers’ frontman Lenny Mental counter-protesting a man of God at the Fourth Avenue Winter Street Fair (Tucson Weekly)

You know what, this guy put a lot of effort into not loving (Not Lenny. The other guy.)  and if he put this much effort into it, 1 John 4:8 tells us that he does not know God. He puts forth a lot of noisy gusto, but without Love he is outside God’s plan. It is right there in their Book. I didn’t take it out of context, and I didn’t adjust it.

When you begin taking a broad general view of things, you begin to realize that none of them know God, and in this world of Pain and Grief, if you spend all of your effort on taking umbrage to what someone else does to find Comfort and Love, you don’t know your Deity at all.

You can look at the whole list of the Fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23) and you will not find righteous indignation nor holy judgement.

Now, I have said that I am an Atheist, and that is technically true, but not in the way the label normally applied. I do not believe in a Supreme Being that rules this thing we call ‘Reality,’ waiting to punish the unfaithful. I also do not believe in any magic that can be called upon to change my situations in this reality, through prayer or otherwise. I also do not believe that any religion has the whole schematic on saving me from damnation, keeping my consciousness immortal nor having any real impact on anything in my everyday existence.

That being said, I also don’t believe that the Science explanations of chemical and electricity in this blob we call a brain can fully explain the gnawing empty spot behind my eyes that asks, “Why?” This awareness we call ‘Me’ can be greatly affected by the goings on of our chemicals and baser desires, but it can also resist them.

There is a tradition that says that Brahma, through a series of bad decisions ended up making our world and chopping his awareness into tiny bits. Each of those bits is using that world to experience everything possible in the hopes of gathering back together. It says that we are all flecks of consciousness in the mind of a sleeping god, living in his dream world in an effort to better ourselves.

This thing we call ‘Reality’ has always been subject to questions. A few Quantum Scientists have begun to question whether we live in a hologram, and even my layman’s mind can grasp the basics of it. Everything that surround you, and you yourself, are made up of atoms, and the only thing that separates you from your chair, the air you breathe and the ground you sit on is that all those atoms vibrate at different rates. When you put it that way, it sounds almost like that Matrix from the movie.

Whatever the nature of ‘Reality,’ what we do know is that every life around us is striving to be safe, still alive and better at it tomorrow. If we made that our moral touchstone, would we need Commandments? It’s why I like the Brahma story, because it also implies that we are all in this together. If I can help you in some way, it helps me because we all, in the end, have the same goal, and if we can do it in a way that is Happy, it becomes its own reward too.

Take care.

Retail Ninja

I remember when we started mystery shopping, people would always say that they thought it was a scam. After a while, though, they became more prevalent, consistently arriving once a week with modest pay and a little reimbursement. Usually, it was stores in your general area, most of which you were going to anyway.

They give you a list of instructions to follow, a survey to complete, a time frame for completion and send you on your way. Usually they want you to go to specific sections and ask an employee a specific question.  Sometimes, they want to know what product is being pushed, but most often, they want to know what the employee looks like and how they are doing their job. Are they a rude slob or a clean cut professional?

It is a weird mindset you have to adopt to complete this. Usually, they expect you to act like a retail spy. Sometimes, despite this, they expect you to ask  questions that makes you sound as if you have suffered some mild head trauma.

Sometimes, they ask you to do something weird. The summer before last, I was told to steal something sizable but cheap from a chain of grocery stores by leaving it under the cart to see if anyone noticed. The first few times, you print off all of the documentation they give you, convinced that you will be leapt upon by grocery security and have to prove that you were hired by a shadowy organization to extract this item, and you chose to accept this mission before the message self-destructed.

This fear is born of a real occurrence in my life. Almost two decades ago, I was a heavy, heavy smoker who ended up out of work. Addiction will drive you to desperation and, after searching though all of your spent butts ‘looking for tails,’ you’re willing to throw aside your morals to scratch that itch.

I went into the grocery store with the idea of buying food, but money was extremely tight and, at that time, cigarettes were in a kiosk right out were everyone could reach it. I took a pack and stacked it with my things, telling myself I couldn’t afford it and that I should put it back. Instead, I slipped it into my pocket. I was allowed to check out before the store detective asked me to step to one side.

I was asked directly for the pack of smokes I had placed in my pocket, and when I sheepishly handed them over, I was taken into the back of the bakery, of all places. Somewhere quite and dark, where no one could see. There, I was made to sign forms saying that I would pay the store $300 to keep them from reporting me to the cops.  I was also told to stay away from the store forever or face the consequences.

That I was such a pushover tells you that I am not the type of person that normally steals. For two weeks, I waited in dread, checking the mail to see if wages for my sin had arrived. The scare tactic was effective, and I didn’t step foot in that store again until 3 years after it had been bought by another company. It hung with me like a weight on my soul, a bullet dodged, and I swore I would never cause myself such grief again.

Instead, during that summer, I got really adept at stealing watermelons. Looking at this pattern on the floor, I selected them because it would blend in the best, like old school military camouflage. When I got to the cashier, I was friendly and open, which if you know me, is as surprising as getting punched in the face by your grandmother. I kept them completely distracted from doing their jobs with the force of my friendliness. I became so notoriously good at stealing watermelons, the parent company started training for the watermelon-thief specifically and it became the mark that told the store that you were a mystery shopper. Once you’re ‘made’ at that store, you’re done at that location and cannot shop it again (just like Real Crime!)

Mystery shopping changes how you think about retail. I remember times I would come home full of righteous indignation, because I received awful service and I was not mystery shopping them. When you did get awful service on a ‘shop, you would come home cackling with glee. ‘Gotcha, you jerk! I’ll show you. DON’T YOU KNOW WHO I AM!?’

Mystery shopping also changes how retail treats you, eventually. If you get sent into one place, doing the same scripted reactions over and over, someone is bound to catch on, which is how you get ‘made.’ After that, everyone at that store treats you like gold as if you stepped into a Norman Rockwell painting. Employees will suddenly chat you up as if you were old friends (while making sure that their nametags are pointed directly at you the whole time, of course).  I have been flirted with and complimented. I have been handed free bread straight from the oven, given the ‘don’t tell the boss’ extras and received better employee discounts than the employees, themselves, receive. It can be rather intoxicating.

Today, I was contacted about two job offers via text message (which was a unique occurrence, in itself), neither of which will require me to pay for anything up front. One is to go into the office of one of my service providers to complain, and considering I have been bombing this provider on various social media sites for a few months, I am not surprised. The other is to go into a dealership and engage a salesman. One I have needed to do for a while and the other is just fun, but both will pay me extremely well.

That was when it really hit me. Some of the places that I would mystery shop were very slow to change bad habits, to the point that I was genuinely confused at their lack of progress. Sometimes, the reimbursement was a little less than the cheapest thing you could buy to prove you had been there, or you’d get distracted and spent much more than you were to be reimbursed. Granted, you would be paid for the trip as well, so if done right, you still weren’t out anything, but sometimes you’d surpass that amount too.


That’s when it hit me. Like the Ouroboros, this is what Retail America was doing to keep themselves alive. They could care less what my survey said in most cases. At best, I was a little bit of profit, at worst, I was a sales number on a spread sheet and a Joseph’s Goat leading other shoppers inside, because no one like to shop in an empty store.

So, in the end, yes, mystery shopping is real, and you can make quite a lot if you apply yourself.

… and to those people that said it was a scam, it is. Just not the type of scam you thought.