The motto of St. Paul Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, is “Joyful Catholic Leaders.” Whether that was chosen before or after Fr. Tony Birdsall was ordained there in 1960, he is surely its ultimate poster boy.
Birdsall speaks joyfully about the many years he spent as a full-time priest: four years in Green Bay, six in Appleton, 16 in Hilbert and 21 at Corpus Christi in Sturgeon Bay, where he retired in 2008. (He’s still in demand to “fill in,” especially in Northern Door.) He’s equally happy to talk about the prize-winning roses he’s been raising for years.
But he is absolutely jubilant when the topic turns to his 75 exotic hens and roosters. It’s easy to understand why Birdsall is known by many as the Chicken Man.
Growing up on the Birdsall farm near Maplewood, he was just eight when he was assigned the responsibility of caring for the family’s flock of chickens – and not a small flock, either. The family bought about 200 chicks every spring, with many of the roosters destined to become Sunday dinners, while the hens grew up to be egg producers. (Fr. Tony’s dad, Lawrence Birdsall, worked in the shipyards for 41 years and sold untold dozens there.)
Many – probably most – people who grew up tending chickens remember it as a less-than-desirable job, but young Birdsall fell in love with his charges. He continued to care for them throughout his eight years at Maplewood Grade School, then went away for 12 years – six at St. Nazianz near Manitowoc, and six at St. Paul.
Around 1990, three years after he arrived in Sturgeon Bay, he started assembling a small flock of colorful chickens at the deacons’ home near Potawatomi State Park, and when he retired on acreage southeast of Sturgeon Bay 11 years ago, he couldn’t wait to start assembling a larger flock of exotic birds.
Two of his former parishioners turned a good-sized barn near his farmhouse into a series of large pens, each holding up to 20 chickens. Birdsall’s flock grew with acquisitions from a hatchery in Minnesota, the Cackle Chick Hatchery in Missouri, and Murray McMurray Hatchery in Iowa, where he gets “a couple of this and a couple of that” to add color. “The best stock,” he said, “comes from other hobbyists,” and he’s in touch with other exotic-chicken raisers in California, Illinois and Minnesota.
At this point, Birdsall’s barn is home to 75 chickens of 16 breeds, including Light Sussex, Rhode Island Red, Australorp, Minorca, Bantam, Brahma, Single-Comb White Leghorn and Black Wyandotte. He hatched out more than 100 chicks this year from those breeds. They may look alike to visitors, but to their tender, they have their own personalities. A rooster or two occasionally has to spend time in a separate cage for “attitude adjustment.”
When Birdsall faced knee-replacement surgery in December, he planned to “farm out” his breeding stock to the kids he works with on 4-H poultry projects. Neighbors, though, said, “No way. We’ll take care of them for you.” And they did – through two months of a Door County winter.
4-H is another part of the Birdsall family history. Fr. Tony’s parents, Ann and Lawrence – both natives of the Maplewood area – were declared “4-H pioneers” in a long-ago feature story in a local newspaper. And that involvement, as is often the case, led to the Door County Fair. Birdsall has the newspaper story framed, along with the eight ribbons his mother won at the fairs in 1922 and 1923 for canning and demonstrations.
Birdsall grew up with his chickens, 4-H and the Door County Fair. He was 12 when he won his first ribbons for showing two calves and (of course) chickens. This year, he’ll turn 85 right in the middle of fair week. For many years, he was superintendent of the Small Animal Building, and though he gave that up a while back, he still prepares the building and the stalls. Someone asked one of his friends why he loves the fair so much. “He can’t help it,” the friend said. “It’s a weak gene.”
Birdsall will be showing 35 birds this year, along with about 40 floral entries from the 15 rose bushes at his home and 35 others at Corpus Christi. It’s fun to be involved with the fair, and it’s even more fun to win. Birdsall has, literally, boxes and drawers full of ribbons. He’s also taken birds to the Wisconsin International Show in Portage, where they’ve been winners among the 2,500 entries there. At last year’s Door County Fair, just for variety, he showed Sis, the grand-champion dairy cow, for his cousin, Theresa Kinnard, who operates East Maplewood Dairy on the former Birdsall farm.
Birdsall just loves the company of chickens, whether in the barn or in his home, which friends and family members have filled with hundreds of hen- and rooster-themed décor items: a lamp, kitchen accessories, pottery, a teakettle and an entire curio cabinet bursting with chickens of all sizes and colors.
Among his most-prized chicken-related possessions is a small metal item once used as a feeder for new baby chicks. It sits on a table in his living room, filled with M&Ms. The other treasure is a pair of tiny black shoes, just the right size for a two-year-old boy who loved chickens. On the sole of one shoe is a spec of dried chicken manure. “My mother saved these for me,” he said. “Totally germ-free now.”
A small building attached to the barn is the Chicken Chapel, for prayer and cackling daily at 6 am. Fr. Tony and his chickens. Still joyful after 80-plus years.