On Our Bookshelf: The Magnificent Chicken

by Maxwell Tielman

Ever since I read Susan Orlean’s 2009 essay about raising backyard chickens in The New Yorker, I’ve been completely and totally obsessed with the idea. Although I consider myself a city guy through and through, there’s something irresistibly romantic about the bucolic act of owning one’s own chicken coop. As the modern world’s gastronomic climate changes and local/organic/slow food movements gain traction, the vocation has taken on even more appeal. I often imagine the various pleasantries that must accompany chicken husbandry—waking up to the comforting sound of rooster call, picking freshly laid eggs for breakfast, tending the chicken coop, and enjoying the little feathered beasts as they cluck-cluck-cluck around the yard. Unfortunately, I live in a shared apartment building, so I can only imagine—at least for the time being.

Luckily, a wonderful book has been released this month that at least somewhat satiates by bizarre urge to become a mother hen. Entitled The Magnificent Chicken, the volume contains stunning photographic studies of all manner of domesticated fowl, from the more traditional breeds to the downright strange. Photographed by Tamara Staples, a photographer who earned her acclaim by documenting poultry shows, each image is a loving portrait of its subject— the beautiful, but oftentimes overlooked chicken. Each portrait is accompanied by a wonderful information page with facts about the breed and diagrams of the bird’s feather pattern and color palette.

Although the photographs are the book’s main attraction, one reason that it’s a keeper is because of the wonderful insight it provides into the strange, somewhat underground world of poultry showing. Similar to dog shows, these events judge poultry by their adherence to The Standard of Perfection, The American Poultry Association’s 1874 guide to judging fowl attractiveness. “The American Standard of Perfection is regularly likened to the Bible,” Staples writes. “Almost every breeder or judge speaks of the book in such exalted terms. The Standard exhaustively discusses every possible nuance of a show chicken, and there is little to no ambiguity between its covers.” Staples, in her prefatory interview with noted radio host Ira Glass, notes that her photos are often only a hit amongst urban-dwellers, because they veer too far from the Standard’s standards. “The tail needs to be higher, she is not standing erect, chest isn’t out, head needs to be up more….” Still, despite Staples’ divergence from the typical practice of poultry documentation, her beautiful photographs document a different kind of perfection—one that is rooted more in the nuance than exactitude. Through her photographs, one can see the beauty of the bird’s form, the way its stunning feathers interact with light, and the odd, almost humanistic expressions of her subject’s faces. It’s certainly not a book to miss, especially for aspiring chicken-keepers like myself. To see more photos of this fabulous love letter to “the fairest fowl,” continue after the jump! —Max

Above image: An illustrated page outlines some of the features of a “winning” bird.

Above image: The Lemon Blue Modern Game Bantam Pullet, a rather unique-looking breeder chicken.

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  • The book looks really great. I can not really imagine that a “city kid” can imagine the different chicken breeds there.
    Many people only know the famous broilers and laying hens. That’s so sad. My mother bred “breed chickens”(??? Sorry, I’m german. I hope this is the word …). Since I was a child I have so already met many different types of chickens. And it is truly amazing: Just as there are different kinds of dogs with different traits (dog owners know what I mean), there are also different types of chickens, who have for years pronounced in people close to different behaviors. There are, for example, fighter types that are inherently properly tame and trusting. This is because they have already been held in Roman times in the direct family nearby, for example in the kitchen … Oh, there are so many interesting things about this animal to tell. We have to put a lot more on it than eggs. ;)
    And I love the idea of “backyard chicken”. We should give them a try.

  • as a fellow brooklyn dweller, i also love that essay in the new yorker and have a surprising number of books about chickens on my shelf. a favorite of mine (although not chicken specific) is julia rothman’s “farm anatomy’ which i heard about from you guys a couple of years ago. thank you for the heads up on this one as well.

  • my husband and I moved from brooklyn to a rural area in north carolina — and he has taken up the hobby of chicken farming…for eggs and meat! i’ll have to get this book for him..thanks for the post!

  • Here in Portland, OR it can seem like everyone has chickens. If you’re thinking of having a coop in the city, though, you should be aware that with chicken coops come rats. Everyone I know who has chickens has rats in the coop. Gross.

  • Well, this isn’t entirely true. It must be regional. Growing up we kept chickens for many years and never had rats.

    I, too, long for a backyard coop and fresh eggs.

  • First off, Max, your writing is so eloquent! Second, in Kansas (where I lived the past couple of years) the backyard chicken coop trend was beginning to gain more ground. Here in CA we have homeowners’ associations and ordinances to deal with (that many people ignore). I certainly would love to become a backyard chicken-keeper someday!

  • While other kids dreamt of being princesses or living in mansions some day, i dreamt of one day having chickens in my back yard. I thought i was the only one.

  • Ok, this book is on my wish list now. We have been keeping chickens for over 3 years (first in the city, now on 20 wooded acres in the country) and they have seriously brought me so much fulfillment and joy. I adore my chickens!

  • I grew up with having chickens mainly for their eggs, and also their ability to completely remove all vegetation and add fertilizer to our vegetable garden in between growing seasons. I am definitely going to put this book on my wish list! Thank you for sharing this!!

  • I bought this for my partner’s mom as a holiday present. It was the first time I met her! I knew she liked chickens and I figured she should know I was weird right off the bat…