Debi Stuhr's Rare and Exotic Chickens
There was a time when the former casino executive couldn’t keep them, though. A 30-year stint in the Las Vegas heat was good for a career, but miserable for keeping animals, chickens in particular. Just like a gambler’s luck will eventually run out, however, so does a country girl’s ability to withstand city life.
Eventually, Stuhr felt “the mad desire to get away from Las Vegas” and began a search for country property that landed her on the edge of Red Bluff surrounded by walnut trees on land with rich, river loam soil. “As soon as I left Las Vegas, I started acquiring all the animals I couldn’t have in Vegas,” she says.
One may say that her time in Vegas rubbed off on her in unwitting ways, however. Stuhr didn’t just start raising any old garden variety chicken. She specialized in exotic and rare breeds. Her pastures and pens are filled with stunningly feathered beauties with fancy names like Black Copper Maran, Northern California Poulet Bleu and Orpingtons in buff, blue and lavender.
“It’s a massive hobby, that’s what it is,” she says of the project that started out small and grew quickly to include a website and shipments of fertilized eggs all over the United States and other countries. “I don’t think there’s a state in this country that I haven’t shipped birds to, and that includes Alaska and Hawaii.”
“I’ve got quite a name for myself across the country now,” she says. “I didn’t really plan it that way, but now people seem to know Debi from Heaven Sent Ranch.”
It turns out that the exotic poultry business is just as filled with intrigue and controversy as any other industry where animals can be raised for show. “It’s no different than dog breeding or horse breeding,” says Stuhr. “The American Kennel Association has nothing on the American Poultry Association.”
The Northern California Poulet Bleus are a prime example. “That breed is very controversial in this country, but the meat is amazing,” she says. The breed was developed in France to be a fully self-sustaining bird with exquisite breast meat. Known there as Poulet de Bresse, the breed has been carefully guarded to protect its genetic integrity.
Through various means, some legitimate and some not, Poulet de Bresse eggs have ended up in the United States and flocks have developed. Just like sparkling wine is forbidden to be labeled Champagne unless it comes from the Champagne region, so too is it illegal to refer to the American birds as Poulet de Bresse.
Stuhr’s flock started when she was gifted a box of 360 fertilized eggs. She had room in her incubator for only 240, so she asked a friend to help her hatch them out. They ended up with 86 chicks. The original flock from which the eggs came had been destroyed after the owner failed to fetch his asking price of $65,000 for 400 birds. A ranch foreman came across the box of eggs after the flock was gone and gave them to Stuhr to see what she could get out of them.
Many of her breeds now have waiting lists of up to two years for fertilized eggs or live birds.
Stuhr’s chickens are often bought to be show birds, but she’s not interested in taking hers on the road. “There are more diseases that can kill chickens than you can imagine,” she says. “And they will always kill your most expensive bird first, without fail.”
She also notes that, “There’s a certain aspect to a person’s personality to be in competition with an animal.” She doesn’t have it and she doesn’t want it.
Instead, Stuhr is content to watch her chickens roam across her ever-expanding stretches of pasture. She incubates in an old redwood incubator made by Leahy Manufacturing Company, which stopped production in 1973.
She is interested in developing opportunities for young people to get involved in the poultry business and would like to see the industry produce better show opportunities for youth. “I go to some amazing shows,” she says, acknowledging their power to educate and promote poultry husbandry.
As her work expands, especially with young people, she may just need to start buying paper by the ream. What started out as a small hobby has come to the point where she says, “I have to keep my birds on a spreadsheet or I’ll forget what I have.” •