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Polish: The Gateway Chicken
Even as chicks, they stand out: tiny, downy fuzzballs with a cotton ball topknot on their heads. As adults, they sport outrageous hairstyles that bring to mind 80's hair bands and pop star divas. Their temperaments run the spectrum from outgoing and friendly to skittish and shy, but whatever their personality is, they will have a lot of it. They are the breed that is single-handedly responsible for my chicken addiction. They are polish.
A Very Old Breed With a Very New Look
Polish are an old breed. So old in fact that no one is exactly sure where they came from. Although their name would imply that they are natives of Poland, it is believed they were actually given this name because their crests resembled the feathered helmets of Polish soldiers of the era. Although its history goes back even further, the polish was first established as a "thoroughbred" breed in the Netherlands in the 1500's, making it one of the oldest existing breeds alive today. As new as the breed may seem to us, it has actually been around longer than the works of Shakespeare.
But while the breed may be ancient, the outlandish style of their prominent crests never goes out of fashion. They are often compared to 80's hair band rockers, Phyllis Diller, and even David Bowie's role as the Goblin King in Labyrinth. (And should you acquire polish in your own flock, be prepared to hear exactly those observations on a regular basis.) Their sleek, road-runner-like bodies only amplify the impact of their outrageous hairstyles, making them a guaranteed conversation starter should you keep them in your flock.
10 Pounds of Personality in a 5 Pound Sack
I have a saying when describing polish chickens: "They're ten pounds of personality in a five pound sack." Unlike most breeds that can be described as generally docile or generally flighty, polish run the spectrum from timid and shy to gregarious and friendly. The friendliest and the nastiest chickens in my flock were both polish, while the rest of them fell somewhere in between in a diverse cast of characters that turned our back yard into a daily soap opera. Chicky Gaga was of course the star. Outgoing, fearless, and friendly, she would come running at the sound of her name, and to this day she continues to delight visitors to our flock and is somewhat of a local celebrity. Elvis Poultry was a nightmare--a tragic combination of violent and stupid--and we culled him from the flock before he was a year old because of it. Meanwhile, a polish hen named Bubbles would quietly lean against your leg, asking to be cuddled, and Aretha Chicken was dubbed "Inspector Chicken" because she had to investigate every single thing that entered her domain.
Although our chicken Elvis was an extreme example of a bad polish, the breed at large leans more towards the friendly side than not. The only issue they really have is that their impressive crests obstruct their vision, making them easily startled and jumpy. Their crest also puts them at greater risk of predation, since they can't see approaching threats as easily. Otherwise, they would make excellent free range chickens since they are so lean, energetic, and willing to forage. You can try flocking your polish with other breeds that have better vision to give them a fighting chance in a free-range situation, or you can keep them confined for safety, but if you confine them, give them lots to do: polish will go crazy if they don't have an outlet for their abundant energy.
Keeping Polish in a Mixed Flock
There is some concern, not entirely unfounded, that keeping polish in a mixed flock will have poor results. If you are worried that the other chickens will pick on your polish because of their distinctive look, here are a few things to consider:
-Will your polish be raised alongside your other chickens from chickhood?
-Is your flock already mixed, with a variety of sizes, feather types, etc?
-What are the personalities of your existing flock?
-What is the personality of the polish chicken you are considering adding?
In my experience, polish chickens who grow up in their flock from babies integrate much better than adults who are introduced later. Chicky Gaga and her crew had no trouble integrating into our established flock after growing up in the brooder attached to the coop. The older chickens were able to observe the polish chicks growing up, and recognized that the crests were in fact a normal part of their body--not something foreign or something that needed to be "cleaned off", which is a common problem in birds with unusual feathering.
If your flock is already mixed, that will also make it easier, since your chickens will already be somewhat familiar with chickens who have feathers in odd places. As I mentioned, chickens will sometimes innocently try to "clean" stray feathers off of a chicken with feathered feet or a crest. They're not trying to hurt their flock mate--they may honestly think they're helping or just be curious and don't realize that they're causing pain to the other bird. If your birds already flock with birds who have beards, feathered legs, or feathered feet, then a crest will not seem so outlandish and won't draw as much attention.
If you have a bully in your flock, then your polish addition will make a tempting target. You probably already know if you have a chicken who is a bully, since they make their presence known in obvious ways by needlessly attacking their flock mates. Just like with human bullies, they are birds who feel insecure in their position and think they need to abuse the other chickens to assure their status at the top of the pecking order. Chickens who are already bullies will see the funky polish chicken and zero in on their obvious crests like a target. In such cases, the usual recommendation is to remove the bully and allow the new bird (polish or otherwise) to establish themselves before reintroducing the bully bird. If you don't have any bullies in your flock and you are just adding another hen, then it is unlikely you will have more than the usual challenges of introducing an adult to an established flock.
If the polish you are adding is a meek and timid bird, it will have a harder time integrating. A bold, confident chicken (like Chicky Gaga) will push her way into the flock and establish her position without letting anyone tell her otherwise. You will need to play integration by ear whatever your situation, because there are simply too many variables to offer a concise tutorial.
The Funky Chicken That Leave You Wanting More...
Don't be surprised if polish chickens change the way you look at chickens in general. It was Chicky Gaga herself who was responsible for forging my chicken obsession four years ago. Prior to that, chickens were just livestock that we raised for eggs--and maybe meat. While I had a few friendly chickens already, I had none that came even close to Gaga's degree of personality, and interacting with her awakened a deep curiosity and a passion in me for the subject of chicken keeping that I may not have developed otherwise.
In short, every article I have ever written or ever will write on the subject of chickens is thanks to the polish breed.
Owning polish also opened our minds to the possibilities of other breeds we might not have otherwise considered. Previously focused only on utility, all of our chickens looked pretty much the same until Gaga and her crew arrived. After that, we began to wonder what other, likewise diverse breeds were like, and we began to add things like cochins, silkies, and even naked necks to our feathered family. We learned far more than we ever imagined there was to learn about chickens, all because of polish. While I can't promise the breed will have the same paradigm-shifting effect on your life, I can say from my own experience that they awaken a special place in the hearts of those who meet them--especially children.
Are Polish Right for You?
While polish are not bred to be prolific layers and have lean bodies without a lot of meat, they can nonetheless be a great addition to your flock. Their personalities alone make them worth the trouble, and they will be great fun to watch and interact with. They lay a reasonable number of large, white eggs, particularly in the warmer months. They rarely go broody, but I have one hen named Pat Henatar who will set eggs about once a year.
Since their crests make it hard for them to spot danger, you will want to consider the possible challenges involved before adding them to a free-range flock, but a simple trim of the feathers around the eyes can help considerably. They are perfect for a backyard flock where they will be let out for a few hours a day in a fenced-in area where they can be closely observed, but be careful: they like to roost high! Whenever I let my polish flock out for the day, I do so knowing that I will spend my evening plucking them out of trees, hedges, and off the roofs of coops. Given the option, they will almost always choose to roost outdoors.
If you decide to acquire polish, your best bet is to buy them from a breeder with friendly stock, but you can also find them at most hatcheries. Meyer Hatchery in particular has produced some of my friendliest and quirkiest birds, so I can highly recommend them.
Egg Color: White
Body type: Medium, lean
Feather type: Tightly feathered, crested
Personality: Active, energetic, wide spectrum of personalities
Bears confinement: Well, with adequate enrichment