Country Life and the Chicken Catalog

Have I been in the country too long, or is it normal to be mesmerized by the newly arrived McMurray Hatchery catalog? “The World’s Rare Breed Poultry Headquarters,” it says. It’s fabulous.

Golden Polish chickens
These Golden Polish beauties put me in the mind of a hat that might be worn by the dowager countess on Downton Abbey.

For new readers, I am a small town Southern girl who lived in Atlanta during the ’90s and in New York City since then. Though still based in Manhattan, two-and-some years ago I began spending time with my sweetheart out here on a ranch in the Santa Ynez Valley of California. A more beautiful place on the planet there is not. A better lifestyle? Ditto. Greater people? You guessed it. Weather? Bring it. But.

Blue chickens
These are called Blues and remind me of poodles.

We are 8 miles from the nearest post office, 40 miles from Santa Barbara, and 4,000 miles from Bergdorf’s, if you see what I mean. I followed my Cowboy out here to see how I liked it–and him–and they’re both working out pretty good. But it’s different. Coyotes wake me up at night sometimes with their hollerin’, oy. On the other hand, you might catch a glimpse of a bobcat, or even a mountain lion, which is pretty exciting. Hawks swoop and dive through the clouds all day long, and I get a thrill from a huge red tail I’ve named Henry, which doesn’t sound very hawkish, but it suits him. There are horses, vineyards, an olive grove, a pond, wildflowers, Stella our black lab, and I don’t know how many coveys of quail, which pleases Stella and Henry no end. And everywhere you look is a postcard-esque view.

And yet. My stylish book club girlfriends in New York are dressing up and having a big night at 21. I’m cleaning my cowboy boots and going to taco night at Mattei’s. They walk out the door and see their waiting black SUVs and drivers. I walk out the door and see a black cow drinking from our water trough.

Really. She wandered over from her pasture and was kinda lost. Laughing out loud, I knew how she felt. The trough, not more than 20 steps from the front door, is not meant for livestock but as a feng shui water element to bring the chi and good fortune and what all. Who imagined it would bring a cow? Has to be a wonderful omen. And where, I ask, do you get that in New York City ? (The cow, I mean; good omens are everywhere of course.)

It’s all good. And by the way, taco night rocks.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ll be getting back to that chicken catalog before I leave for New York in the morning.

Sultan chickens
Sultans, the catalog says, were favored by the rulers of Turkey and came from Istanbul to England in the 1850s. Extremely rare, they have a crest, muff, beard, feathered shanks, and a fifth toe. You couldn't make that up.
Silverlaced Cochin chicken
The Silverlaced Cochin. Magnificent.
Buff Cochin chicken
The Buff Cochin reminds me a little of the late great Etta James, sittin' in her chair and belting out ''At Last.''
White Crested Black Polish chickens
The White Crested Black Polish are ''useful as well as attractive.'' Obviously.
McMurray Hatchery Catalog
A great read: the Murray McMurray Hatchery catalog.


  1. Oh my gosh…this is the best. The best! I am living vicariously from my own little corner here in Atlanta. A longtime fan of your writing, Christmas came early this year when you began posting in earnest. Enjoying every word! xxxooo

    1. Weedie! This is the nicest thing, thank you. I’m coming toyour little corner next week for the Cathedral Antiques Show; hope our paths cross. xo

  2. Frances, I love the chickens. I’m going to have the M/McM catalog sent to all my friends who have hens — from Brooklyn to Buckhead to North Georgia. I’m hoping to get some at the school soon too. Happy travels east.

    1. Emily, I love that you have so many hen-ly friends! And wouldn’t it be great to have them at the Atlanta Girls School! Talk about a hen party!

  3. This is one of my favorite posts of yours… a dear friend of mine has the most perfect English country estate and her hen homes are a mini replica of her house. I recognized many of the “fancy foul” in the Murray McMurray Hatchery Catalogue because she is a collector of these wonderful animals! Bravo!

    1. Okay now I am officially fascinated. If you have a picture of your friend’s hen houses I would love to see it. Unless she is the Duchess of Devonshire, and I have her book. (One of my favorites.) Thank you for writing, Debbie!

  4. I used to buy McMurray ceramic nest eggs to dye at Easter bc my daughter was allergic to the real deal. Now every time I get that catalog I wish I had a house in the country where I could raise chickens and fresh gorgeous eggs (although I hear ya, being near NYC is a nice compromise:)

    1. Nicole! Talented designer that you are–you would know about McMurray ceramic eggs, which I completely missed! Thanks for letting us in on your secret in plenty of time for Easter. Btw, look for Nicole Hough’s gorgeous Kitchen of the Month coming in the April issue of House Beautiful, written by moi and was a privelege.

  5. Dear Frances,
    I too, was new to the Valley a few years back and have good news! After a friend and I were having tuna sanwiches on the back porch, I had my Elizabeth Taylor in Giant moment. The FedEx man arrived loaded down with beautiful boxes
    containing everything from a green ball gown to
    Manolos. Bergdorf delivers!!
    Rio Vista Neighbor

    1. Dear RVN, Thank you for these words of encouragement, but please don’t tell His Grace about the Bergdorf’s thing. It would make him nervous. 😉

  6. Chickens have become very in and several friends have them in the backyard here in Raleigh. Tour D’Coop benefits Urban Ministies here. The coops are cooler than many beach cottages. The State Fair in October is also fun to view the real thing while eating fried butter or fried milky ways. Look on Susan Dahlin’s website for some wonderfully painted hens.

    1. I did go to artist Susan Dahlin’s website and see her chickens, and a cow, and other beautiful subjects. And the Tour d’Coop is fantastic! A garden tour of – yep – hen houses. Happens May 19 in Raleigh, and I just might have to come. Click on either link here for more info. Thank you Anna Ball!

  7. Like you Frances, I too find myself living on a farm. We have a donkey, goats, sheep(2 brand new black lambs) and of course, chickens. We have blue, white and brown eggs. I will never go back to grocery store eggs! I am currently enrolled in a beekeeping class and hope to have my certification soon. Who would have ever imagined it? I love your writing…what a gift you have.

    1. Donna, it is so great to hear from you! I love thinking about you with all those critters and on that farm. Send me a picture!…I will always be grateful for you teaching me how to shag. My cowboy is a mighty good dancer, thank goodness.

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