Donna Winningham has lived in Putnam County for a quarter century, but she’d never entered anything in the fair until this year.
In the spring of 2017, while searching online for a rooster to breed to her hens, Donna came across a “Svart Hona.” Commonly known as “Swedish Blacks,” the breed is very rare. These chickens are totally melanistic, meaning that every part of them—feathers, wattles, comb, meat, bones, feet and even eyes—is black. “I was mesmerized by the rooster’s picture,” Donna told me. “When I saw him in person, I knew he was the bird I wanted.” She paid 25 dollars for the rooster, whom she named Darth Vader. “I thought it seemed like a lot of money,” she said. “I later learned I’d gotten quite a bargain.”
Though Darth ranged freely, he was tame and easy to catch. He romanced one of Donna’s barred rock hens and was soon the proud father of 13 chicks. The better Donna got to know Darth, the more she wanted to show him off. The Putnam County Fair was obviously the perfect place. But just a week before entry day, tragedy struck. Donna found her beloved rooster dead, eaten to the breastbone by an unknown predator. His wife and all their children were victims, too. “I was devastated,” Donna said. “Not just because I didn’t have a fair entry, but because I’d lost these dear pets.”
Analysis of the predator’s footprints and photos from a game camera showed the murderer to be a “fisher cat.” Members of the weasel family, fishers were once endemic to this area but were eventually hunted out for their pelts. The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency reintroduced them in Catoosa in the early part of this century. They appear to be thriving.
“I was determined to buy more black chickens,” Donna told me, “but first I got a couple of Great Pyrenees dogs to patrol my yard.” She ordered a dozen Svart Hona eggs, at ten dollars apiece, from a breeder in Florida and incubated them. Eight chicks—four boys and four girls—hatched in March. That’s when “fair fever” struck again. “I was bound and determined I was going to enter this year,” Donna said. “I wasn’t just chasing a blue ribbon—I wanted people to know about these beautiful and unique birds.”
Earlier this month and with no small effort, she managed to capture one rooster and two hens as they dashed squawking through her yard. “It wasn’t easy,” Donna said, showing me her cuts and bruises, “but I caught them, cleaned them up and entered them in the ‘trio’ poultry category.” Her efforts paid off. Swede, Helga and Olga received the “President’s Award,” the top prize in poultry.
And that’s not all. Donna also received a check for 25 dollars. “It’s exactly what I paid for Darth Vader,” she said. “I guess this is yet another example of the great circle of life.”
(August 19, 2018)