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'Easter egg chickens' lay in pastel shades

With Easter just around the corner, it's basket-filling time. When it comes to the eggs, you could pick up artificial dyes for colors not found in nature or turn to ordinary kitchen alternatives, such as strong coffee or beet juice. Or, you could...

With Easter just around the corner, it's basket-filling time.

When it comes to the eggs, you could pick up artificial dyes for colors not found in nature or turn to ordinary kitchen alternatives, such as strong coffee or beet juice.

Or, you could let the chicken do all the work.

Witness the Araucana chicken, originally from South America but now delighting farmers market visitors and hobby chicken farmers all over the world.

Araucanas are friendly, intelligent chickens that come dressed in feathers of nearly every color, though that's not their chief charm.

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People love these chickens because many of them lay blue-shelled eggs. Some lay light greenish eggs, others lay speckled olive-toned eggs, and still others lay soft pink ones. The Araucanas lay so many colors of eggs that their nickname, "the Easter egg chicken," is most apt.

Different breeds of chickens lay different-colored eggs. While all eggs look mostly the same on the inside, a Pearl-White Leghorn will lay white eggs while a Dark Cornish hen will lay brown eggs. It's all in the genes.

Many of the colored egg-layers in the United States aren't true Araucanas. Those birds, which some say originated in Peru and others argue are from Chile, look a little different. The "rumpless" birds lack tail feathers and carry a lethal gene that means about 20 percent of their eggs never hatch.

Hobby farmers are more likely to have the Araucana-Americana variety, said Bud Wood, president of Murray McMurray hatchery in Webster City, Iowa. The company has been selling live poultry since 1917, and today ships about 40,000 chicks a week during the busy spring season. The week of Easter is one of their busiest of the year, he said.

Araucana-Americanas are "one of our biggest selling breeds," White said. "They are very popular for people who sell eggs at farmers markets."

Victoria Behrends picked up 17 baby chicks from Dan's Feed Bin in Superior on a whim several years ago. She babied the chicks as they grew into laying hens, feeding them fresh fruits and vegetables and letting them range around her 10 acres on the Sucker River northeast of Duluth.

"They are kind of spoiled," Behrends said.

Today she tends a flock of about 30 birds -- among them are Gizmo, Harvey, Lily and Hannah. Some are blue-egg laying Araucanas, others are brown-egg laying Australorps.

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Soon enough, her hens were laying so many sky-blue eggs that "I couldn't give them away fast enough," Behrends said.

A friend suggested she try selling them, so Behrends contacted the Whole Foods Co-op in Duluth. She sold the blue eggs for a time but then the co-op's buyers told her that customers thought the blue-green eggs were too weird so now they just stock her brown eggs.

"There's a huge demand" for fresh eggs, said Brad Rozman, one of the co-op's buyers. "I can't keep them on the shelves."

Rozman said he'd consider bringing back the sky-blue eggs, especially around Easter, if he got enough requests from customers. Depending on their size, a dozen locally grown eggs costs about $2.25.

Blue eggs sometimes trickle into the supply at the Natural Harvest Foods Co-op in Virginia, said manager Anne Carter. Rather than a full dozen colored eggs, the blues and greens are usually mixed with the brown and white eggs.

"There's a very big difference in the taste, they have more flavor," Carter said of the farm-fresh eggs, and the blue ones in particular.

"Most of the time you think of scrambled eggs as having no flavor," she said. "But these eggs have flavor... It's a rich flavor, like they have been cooked in butter."

And there's no dye required for Easter.

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JANNA GOERDT covers the communities surrounding Duluth. She can be reached weekdays at (218) 279-5527 or by e-mail at jgoerdt@duluthnews.com .

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