"The Poultry Yard: The Management of Fowls", Regency Style

duck isolated on whiteIt seems as though everywhere you go today, there are articles, advertisements and public service messages about using, growing or purchasing locally grown produce, dairy and even meat. On my suburban street alone, three families have set up hen houses, and free range chickens are becoming almost as common a sight as cats and dogs around town (of course, it wasn't until my neighbor added a rooster to her brood that we really began to notice just how farm like our neighborhood had become!) With the local Tractor Supply offering adorable chicks and ducklings for sale each spring, the idea of starting your own brood seems simpler than ever. After all, what's not to love? They eat kitchen and vegetable scraps, and in return provide unending fresh eggs and the occasional fryer. I will admit, even I was swept away in the furor of home farming and could not resist the adorable ducklings for sale. Knowing that my sister in law intended on setting up a hen house that summer, I thought that the sweet little Mallard ducklings we found would be a fantastic present for her April birthday. We only planned to get six. It turns out that there are regulations about this sort of thing. At least in my state, you can't purchase fewer than 24 ducklings at a time, before Easter (after which the number drops to 6 at a time.) I suppose this is to stop people from purchasing them for Easter baskets and then forgetting to care for them. Whatever the cause, what started as a lark, ended that evening with 2 dozen ducklings (minus the one that "got away" somewhere in the store...) , bedding, a waterer and feeder and a 50 lb bag of chick starter  in my kitchen. It was Saturday and the birthday was a week away. "Wonderful!" I thought. It was our first year of homeschooling (need I say more?) What a great experience for our children! I would be the coolest mom ever. Two dozen ducklings to play with for a week before passing the responsibility on to someone else-- and what responsibility could that possibly be? They were Mallards! The clerk promised that they would be cute all summer, fly south in the winter and then return to the pond spring after spring for years of fuss free duckling fun. They were absolutely adorable that first day. I gaily planned to read Make Way for Ducklings, and ordered books about ducklings so that my children could fully immerse themselves in the joy of caring for their new friends. My neighbor let us borrow a large kennel to keep them in for the night and in spite of being somewhat confined, we soon discovered why poultry are not considered optimal house pets. Perhaps they would better have been named "water foul". The next day they moved to an empty wading pool on our deck while we commenced cleaning the floor and even the walls of our kitchen. Cute or not, by Monday night we had arranged to "drop by" my Sister in law's home the next day to bring her an early gift. Our Nephew gets up close and personal with one of the ducklings. Fortunately, she was delighted (and remains so) with our offering. The ducklings rapidly grew and with a few exceptions all migrated south that winter. The three that stayed behind rapidly began expanding the flock once again. Today, their children and grandchildren enjoy the run of the farm by day, but return home in the evening, showing no signs of finding their own habitats in the nearby woods or water. They have been joined by several varieties of hens and roosters, Guinea hens and Peking ducks. Their wilder cousins did return to the pond this spring, bringing with them Canadian Geese, all of whom now call the farm home. Additional ducks have gone to live with other family members, following them around like house pets, reluctant to leave the safe familiarity of home and yard. It seems they are here to stay. It seems ironic to me that the more "modern" we get, the more we realize the value of slowing down, of being mindful of what we eat and how and where it was grown.  With all the modern conveniences at our fingertips-- canned this, frozen that, microwaveable anything--"country life" (even in the suburbs) has a renewed appeal. Something as small as raising a few hens or ducks can bring you satisfaction and a feeling of connection with past generations of men and women who raised their own produce, by choice or necessity; their meals made all the sweeter by the effort and cultivation that went into them. Poultry yards full of mixed fowl were no uncommon thing in Jane Austen's day, being necessary to even a small family's need for meat and eggs (not to mention pest control!)  Indeed, the care and keeping of the poultry yard was near and dear to the Austen family. Letters show that Mrs. Austen and her wealthy son Edward Austen-Leigh, together, detailed plans for a hen house, and who can forget the dramatic theft of turkeys, which removed the last obstacle to Emma's marriage? It was no doubt based on real life events (especially when taken together with the warning given by Mrs. Rundell, below!)
Mrs. Weston's poultry-house was robbed one night of all her turkies -- evidently by the ingenuity of man. Other poultry-yards in the neighbourhood also suffered. Pilfering was housebreaking to Mr. Woodhouse's fears. He was very uneasy; and but for the sense of his son-in-law's protection, would have been under wretched alarm every night of his life. The strength, resolution, and presence of mind of the Mr. Knightleys, commanded his fullest dependance. While either of them protected him and his, Hartfield was safe. But Mr. John Knightley must be in London again by the end of the first week in November. The result of this distress was, that, with a much more voluntary, cheerful consent than his daughter had ever presumed to hope for at the moment, she was able to fix her wedding-day; and Mr. Elton was called on, within a month from the marriage of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Martin, to join the hands of Mr. Knightley and Miss Woodhouse. -Emma
Period cookbooks, like Mrs. Rundell's New System of Domestic Cookery offered tips not only on choosing fresh poultry in the market, but also for maintaining a healthy brood at home. Mrs. Rundell first published her book in 1806, however it remained in print for decades after. The following advice, from the 1859 edition, is useful to all would-be poultry owners. For a description of a period style hen house and poultry yard, read Mrs. Rundell's New Family Receipt Book.
POULTRY-YARD: MANAGEMENT OF FOWLS "In order to have fine fowls, it is necessary to choose a good breed, and have proper care taken of them. The Dartford sort is thought highly of; and it is desirable to have a fine large kind, but people differ in their opinion of which is best. The black are very juicy, but do not answer so well for boiling, as their legs partake of their colour. They should be fed as nearly as possible at the same hour and place. Potatoes boiled unskinned, in a little water, and then cut, and either wet with skimmed milk or not, form one of the best foods. Turkeys and fowls thrive amazingly on them. The milk must not be sour. The best age for setting a hen is from two to five years; and you should remark which hens make the best breeders, and keep those to laying who are giddy and careless of their young. In justice to the animal creation, however, it must be observed, there are but few instances of bad parents for the time their nursing is necessary.


Hens sit twenty days. Convenient places should be provided for their laying, as these will be proper for sitting likewise. If the hen-house is not secured from vermin, the eggs will be sucked and the fowls destroyed. Those hens are usually preferred which have tufts of feathers on their heads; those that crow are not looked upon as profitable. Some fine young fowls should be reared every year, to keep up a stock of good breeders; and by this attention, and removing bad layers and careless nurses, you will have a chance of a good stock. Let the hens lay some time before you set them, which should be done from the end of February to the beginning of May. While hens are laying, feed them well, and sometimes with oats. Broods of chickens are hatched all through the summer, but those that come out very late require much care till they have gained some strength.
If the eggs of any other sort are put under a hen with some of her own, observe to add her own as many days after the others as there is a difference in the length of their sitting. A turkey and duck sit thirty days. Choose large clear eggs to put her upon, and such a number as she can properly cover. If very large eggs, there are sometimes two yolks, and of course neither will be productive. Ten or twelve are quite enough. A hen-house should be large and high; and should be frequently cleaned out, or the vermin of fowls will increase greatly. But hens must not be disturbed while sitting; for, if frightened, they sometimes forsake their nests. Wormwood and rue should be planted plentifully, about their houses: boil some of the former, and sprinkle it about the floor, which should be of smooth earth, not paved. The windows of the house should be open to the rising sun; and a hole must be left at the door, to let the smaller fowls go in: the larger may be let in and out by opening the door. There should be a small sliding board to shut down when the fowls are gone to roost, which would prevent the small beasts of prey from committing ravages; and a good strong door and lock may possibly, in some measure, prevent the depredations of human enemies. When some of the chickens are hatched long before the others, it may be necessary to keep them in a basket of wool till the others come forth. The day after they are hatched give them some crumbs of white bread, and small (or rather cracked) grits soaked in milk. As soon as they have gained a little strength, feed them with curd, cheese-parings cut small, or any soft food, but nothing sour; and give them clean water twice a day. Keep the hen under a pen till the young have strength to follow her about, which will be in two or three weeks; and be sure to feed her well. The food of fowls goes first into their crop, which softens it, and then passes into the gizzard, which by constant friction macerates it, and this is facilitated by small stones, which are generally found there, and which help to digest the food. If a sitting hen is troubled with vermin, let her be well washed with a decoction of white lupins. The pip in fowls is occasioned by drinking dirty water, or taking filthy food. A white thin scale on the tongue is the symptom. Pull the scale off with your nail, and rub the tongue with some salt, and the complaint will be removed. It answers well to pay some boy employed in the farm or stable so much a score for the eggs he brings in. It will be his interest then to save them from being purloined, which nobody but one in his situation can prevent; and sixpence or eightpence a score will be buying eggs cheap.


DUCKS Generally begin to lay in the month of February. Their eggs should be daily taken away except one, till they seem inclined to sit; then leave them, and see that there are enough. They require no attention while sitting, except to give them food at the time they come out to seek it; and there should be water placed at a moderate distance from them, that their eggs may not be spoiled by their long absence in seeking it. Twelve or thirteen eggs are enough: in an early season it is best to set them under a hen; and then they can be kept from
water till they have a little strength to bear it, which in very cold weather they cannot do so well. They should be put under cover, especially in a wet season; for, though water is the natural element of ducks, yet they are apt to be killed by the cramp before they are covered with feathers to defend them. Ducks should be accustomed to feed and rest at one place, which would prevent their straggling too far to lay. Places near the water to lay in are advantageous; and these might be small wooden houses, with a partition in the middle and a door at each end. They eat anything; and when to be fattened must have plenty, however coarse, and in three weeks they will be fat. Published by Ward, Lock, & Tyler of London;  Harry's Ladder to Learning,  1869 Published by Ward, Lock, & Tyler of London;
GEESE Require little expense, as they chiefly support themselves on commons or in lanes, where they can get water. The largest are esteemed the best, as also are the white and gray. The pied and dark-coloured are not so good. Thirty days are generally the time the goose sits, but in warm weather she will sometimes hatch sooner. Give them plenty of food, such as scalded bran and light oats; and as soon as the goslings are hatched keep them housed for eight or ten days, and feed them with barley-meal, bran, curds, &c For green geese, begin to fatten them at six or seven weeks old, and feed them as above. Stubble geese require no fattening if they have the run of good fields. turkey-engraving TURKEYS Are very tender when young. As soon as hatched put three peppercorns down their throats. Great care is necessary to their well-being, because the hen is so careless that she will walk about with one chick, and leave the remainder, or even tread upon and kill them. Turkeys are violent eaters; and must therefore be left to take charge of themselves in general, except one good feed a-day. The hen sits twenty-five or thirty days; and the young ones must be kept warm, as the least cold or damp kills them. They must be fed often, and at a distance from the hen, who will eat everything from them. They should have curds, green cheese parings cut small, and bread and milk with chopped wormwood in it; and their drink milk and water, but not left to be sour. All young fowls are a prey for vermin, therefore they should be kept in a safe place, where none can come: weasels, stoats, ferrets, &c, creep in at very small crevices.
Let the hen be under a coop, in a warm place exposed to the sun, for the first three or four weeks; and the young should not be suffered to go out in the dew at morning or evening. Twelve eggs are enough to put under a turkey; and when she is about to lay, lock her up till she has laid every morning. They usually begin to lay in March and sit in April. Feed them near the hen-house; and give them a little meat in the evening, to accustom them to roosting there. Fatten them with sodden oats or barley for the first fortnight; and the last fortnight give them as above, and rice swelled with warm milk over the fire twice a day. The flesh will be beautifully white and fine flavoured. The common way is to cram them, but they are so ravenous that it seems unnecessary, if they are not suffered to go far from home, which makes them poor."
Laura Boyle is the author of Cooking with Jane Austen and Friends. She is the proprietor of Austenation: Regency Accessories, creating custom hats, bonnets, reticules and more for customers around the globe. Her greatest joy is the opportunity she has to teach her 3 children from home– an unending adventure, better than any novel.