Thursday, December 07, 2006

The interpreter

When we first started keeping chickens, I would hear these screeches coming from the henhouse and go running out to see what was going on. They sounded so awful, I was certain they were under attack by a fisher or a fox.

I'd get out there, and I'd find one bird in the laying box and the other one (the screecher) wanting to use the occupied one rather than the empty one right next to it. Said screech was not a call of DANGER!, rather it was the equivalent of "Come on, hurry up bitch, I gotta get in there!"

Over the years, I have come to know what the different screeches mean (one more clue as to just how pathetic my life has become). Sometimes they're out scratching around the woods and one will get separated from the flock. There's a screech that says "HEY, WHERE'D EVERYBODY GO?" That always results in a callback from the flock.

There's another that tells you: the pellet bowl is empty, and would you please get off your duff and fill it?

Now I know when something is really wrong in the henhouse, and when it's just a little hen-fight going on.

As you read this, another bird call may come to mind: cuckoooo!

But! I offer you this from a brochure a nice young Vegan gave to me today outside the Student Union:
"Contrary to what one may hear from the industry, chickens are not mindless, simple automata, but are complex behaviorally, do quite well in learning, show a rich social organization, and have a diverse repertoire of calls. Anyone who has kept barnyard chickens also recognizes their significant differences in personality."

Bernard E. Rollin PhD
Farm Animal Welfare
Iowa State University Press, 2003

A fellow traveler. Here's the site:

The price of eggs

Years ago I wrote a story about a third generation Franklin County dairy farmer who was going out of business, one of hundreds of New England dairymen who sold off their herds in the past two decades.

As he sat on the porch of his ramshackle house looking out over a million-dollar view, over hayfields toward the southern hills, he mentioned what, 'til that point, was the strangest part of the whole thing: for the first time in either of their lives, the old timer and his wife had to go to a store to buy a gallon of milk.

I have thought about that guy every time I've gone shopping over the past month or so, because the ladies have stopped laying.

On strike.

The Big "No Hay" on the huevos.

We haven't had an egg in at least six weeks.

They do this every year, of course, but still. They keep eating their pellets.

"Maybe we need a new flock," says Dan. "Time to get rid of them."

Nooooo! I say in my most Mister Billish voice.

I was in the egg section at Foster's Supermarket the other night when I heard a similar exchange between a husband and wife.

"Ticks me off that we gotta buy eggs," says the guy.

"It' just temporary, they'll be back," says the wife, perusing over the whites and browns.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Listening to the food chain

This morning, just after the rooster started crowing, we heard a different sound from the woods down below: coyotes howling.

The rooster crowed again.

The coyotes howled again.





Rooster. Coyotes. The call and response of the food chain.

Life and death, part II

Last Sunday we figured we'd be down one hen by this Saturday, and we are.

Remember that sign Michael Moore comes across in a Flint, Michigan backyard in "Roger and Me," that reads: "Rabbits for sale: for pets or meat"? When you've got backyard chickens, that becomes a question: Which is it, pets or meat?

Years ago when we realized we had two alpha roosters who kept fighting each other, my friend Pat offered a solution: Coq Au Vin. I was horrified! But then I realized: keeping chickens may be chic, but it is not for sissies.

This has come into full relief in the past few days, as we debated the fate of the one-eyed hen in the cellar. We're only half-joking when we muse over whether our local glassblower Josh Simpson would accept a commission to create a tiny glass eye for her.

Could we get her a tiny chicken eyepatch?

We were thinking we'd have to put her down.What to do? Take her out into the woods and leave her there? Ring her neck? We couldn't do it.

Then she started to rally. The antibiotics might have kicked in, or maybe just relaxing in the cellar window--the hen spa. She's still missing an eye, but she doesn't seem to bump into things as much.

Then I brought her out to the flock and, the rooster took after her again. We could be facing the poultry version of "Lord of the Flies."

This leads us to the term "pecking order." From Merriam Webster's: "the basic pattern of social organization within a flock of poultry in which each bird pecks another lower in the scale without fear of retaliation and submits to pecking by one of higher rank" (Hey, sounds like your last job, right?)

But here is the strange thing: we lost a bird this week, but it wasn't the Barred Rock who got the crap pecked out of her. It was a Blue Andalusian who, yesterday, seemed fine.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

What the chic-est chickens are wearing this season

I was joking about finding a tiny eyepatch for the one-eyed hen, but apparently, accessorizing your chickens is not a new idea.

Egg Scrambler sent this along:

This from one of my loopier design web sites:
In 1936, Diana Vreeland began a column in Harper’s Bazaar titled “Why Don’t You…” which dispensed inspirational tidbits in her typically broad style.
Such bons mots included:
“Why don’t you…tie black tulle bows on your wrists?”
“…raise chickens and let them wear tiny bowties around the barnyard?”
“…wash your child’s hair in champagne?”
“…build a private staircase from your bedroom to your library and cover the stairs in needlepoint?”
“…have your bed made in China?”
The column was widely read, ridiculed and imitated.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Life and death

"You're not going to put this in your blog, are you?" my husband asked.

"Nah!" I lied.

He was working in the cellar when one of the tough old Barred Rock hens came up to cellar door and started to come in; he shooed her off before he realized that she had a huge gash in her head, in fact, much of the skin on the back of her head had been stripped. And one eye was either missing, or so bruised that she couldn't open it.

Dan thought the rooster had done it--he's prone to rough sex in the driveway--actually, he's one of the most sexually active roosters we've ever had. But he figured it out too late. After he shooed her away, we went looking for her around the yard and the woods, but couldn't find her anywhere.

We resigned ourselves to the idea that she'd gone off into the woods to die. We've lost five or six birds since we began keeping chickens four years ago, and it's still a sad event. I once held an injured Blue Andalusian chick in my hands and felt her last jolt of life. Other times, you find them out in the coop.

Sunshine, our big old Buff Orpington rooster, just keeled over one day out in the yard. Sometimes birds die and you don't even know why.

So we went to some friends' house for dinner with the thought that we'd never see that Barred again.

Then we came home around 10:30, and there she was, sitting on top of the coop, looking like something out of a bad cartoon, one eyelid bloodied shut, the back of her head and neck a black ooze of blood an pus. All that was missing was the little crown of stars rotating over her head!

We brought her into the cellar and made her a box, fed her some water and crunched up pellets, and she started to come around a little. Today, she's still a scraggly mover--we don't know whether she'll make it, but she has at least survived another day.

I thought: sometimes, this is what your life becomes: midnight on a Saturday night and you're down in the cellar, nursing a one-eyed chicken.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

She's doing it for the chickens!

Jerry's kids have Jerry.

Chickens? Well, they have...Oh, you won't believe who.

As career moves go, this one's brilliant.

But if you're going to eat 'em, don't name 'em

I was sick last week, but when I was finally able to eat, my kid made me supper: French toast with our own eggs and maple syrup made up in Newfane, Vermont. Now that's a meal that can bring you back from the dead.

This is one reason why I love having chickens: the fantastic eggs, rich and bright yellow. And people are figuring that out, as an eagle-eyed reader from Oklahoma noted this piece from USA Weekend:


The year's trendiest pet comes with breakfast.
Chickens cost between $1 to $5 each and can lay up to six eggs a week.

It seems the "Old Farmer's Almanac" was correct when it predicted that chickens would be one of the hottest pets of 2006. Demand for the birds is up in urban areas because of their low cost, minimal care requirements and the benefit of cheap, fresh eggs every day.

"Our average order keeps getting smaller, which means we're selling to more hobbyists," says Bud Wood, co-owner of Webster City, Iowa's Murray McMurray Hatchery, one of the country's largest rare-breed hatcheries. He notes a "significant increase" in sales to large cities.

Egganic Industries in Ringgold, Va., reports a 15% jump in sales of Henspas, chicken coops that range in cost from $300 to $9,000. Linnton Feed & Seed, suppliers of farm products in Portland, Ore., sold just 200 chickens in 1996; last year they sold 800.

"People raise chickens [mostly] for their eggs," says store owner Dan Cadmus. "They want to know where their food comes from. There's no better way than to have it pecking around in the yard."

Chickens cost $1 to $5 each and can produce up to six eggs per week. They need about the same care as cats: food, water and a daily scoop of the coop.

Seattle Tilth, a non-profit group that teaches organic gardening, now offers City Chickens 101, a course covering the basics on raising chickens in urban and suburban settings.

Still, check local zoning requirements before buying a flock. Regulations vary widely for hens, but roosters, which don't lay eggs, often are banned.

"Once you've tasted an egg that a hen has laid that morning," says Seattle Tilth's Karen Luetjen, "there's no going back to supermarket eggs."

-- Jodi Helmer

Know your eggs

Don't want to raise chickens to get the eggs you need? Then get the eggs you want at supermarkets, which stock an increasingly wide variety.

We consulted the U.S. Department of Agriculture and United Egg Producers to clarify egg carton labels.

Conventional: Hens live in stacked "battery" cages, usually four to eight chickens to a cage, with at least 67 square inches of floor space per chicken.

Cage free: Hens live on the floor of a barn rather than in cages.

Free range: Hens either live outdoors or have unlimited access to the outdoors.

Organic: Hens are fed vegetables grown without any antibiotics, commercial fertilizers or growth hormones.

Omega-3: Hens are fed a diet containing ground flaxseed, which produces eggs containing slightly more polyunsaturated fatty acids.

-- Kristina Stefanova

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Chickens today, people tomorrow?

"We have to eat happy eggs from happy chickens."
Thich Nhat Hanh

Apparently, Ben and Jerry's have come around to this sentiment, having now agreed to use humanely-produced eggs in their products.

The Times article also pointed out that Whole Foods Market was making accommodations to make their lobsters "more comfortable in its stores."

Er, before people buy 'em, take them home, and plunk them into pots of boiling water. But I digress.

I'm all for ethical treatment of chickens. But jeez, if only foodies would get as riled up about ethical treatment of humans.

A few years ago I heard then-Dateline NBC producer Andy Court speak at a journalism conference about a story in which he and his camera crew followed a migrant farm worker from Texas as he made his way north with his family for the picking season.

After thousands of miles of travel, long days and weeks of picking, lots of problems with the broken-down van, the family arrived back in Texas, with no more money than they had when they left.

Viewers were so moved by the report, that they sent the network thousands of dollars in donations to help the family.

But that story is the norm in our food production and distribution system. Pick up the book Fast Food Nation and you'll see it also applies to meat production. It was big news last year when Taco Bell increased payments to its tomato pickers by a penny per pound. But this step almost doubled the wage; according to the Washington Post, pickers had to pick two tons of tomatoes to earn $50.

If Americans are willing to send a farm worker a check for 25 or 50 bucks, would they pay an extra quarter for a jar of pickles if they knew that the cucumber pickers had been paid a decent wage?

Why not a Certified Humane label that indicates that the farm and food factory workers are treated at least as well as the chickens?

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

La Reine de Palais de Poulets

What, you were thinking Marie Antoinette?

Here's a pic sent in as a chicken blog "must have," from Peter down in Connecticut, who had the good fortune to sit behind Martha at a showing of "Capote" at the local movie theater earlier this year, and pronounced her "better looking in person than she is on t.v."

I can't be sure, but that might actually be a guinea hen in her arms.

I used to make fun of Martha, but as I get older, I like her more; her magazine is beautiful, and okay, if she still gets a little over the top with the stencils and projects, well, that's just Martha.

One year she had a great story on fancy Christmas wreaths--too much work. I just cut the pages out and hung the pictures of the wreaths up around my house.

You decorate your house with the army you have.

My sister Sandy thinks it was Martha who started this whole chicken thing, and then I remembered her first book and the Palais de Poulets (for you unwashed, that's palace of chickens in French), which she had in her backyard. She also single-handedly pumped up the market for Araucanas, who lay those lovely blue eggs and, who also, I think, happen to be among the smartest birds in the flock.

Coops are a subject of endless discussion among chicken owners. We are on our second one now, and recently ran into the couple who bought our original coop, and were glad to hear they were still happy with it.

They had set up a laying box, using the green luminescent shell of an I-Mac, and said the birds LOVED laying in it.

Now that's recycling.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Chicken Lit 101

New York Times readers are probably familiar with Bill Grimes's My Fine Feathered Friend, his book about the chicken who showed up one day in his Queens backyard.

Grimes's work is but one piece of a growing body of chicken lit.

In his book, Living With Chickens, Vershire, Vermont, author Jay Rossier writes almost as much about the metaphysical value of chicken ownership as he does nuts-and- bolts information.

British author Martin Gurdon, in his droll poultry-memoir, Hen and the Art of Chicken Maintenance: Reflections on Raising Chickens, sums things up nicely:
"Having a few hens at the bottom of the garden was supposed to be a bit of fun, a mild distraction, but it was fast becoming a life-changing experience."

Can a Woman Love Her Chickens Too Much? (Holiday rerun)

Go ahead and laugh, but it's a question worth asking. When I published this essay asking that very question in the local paper recently, I got a lot of responses.

For a couple of days, at the grocery store, at the post office, everywhere I went, people would come up to me and say, "So, how are the chickens?"

Then they'd tell me their own chicken stories. There are a million of 'em.

The big, brawny police chief in the next town told me that, when he was a kid, he lived next to a chicken farm that had several thousand hens and 500 roosters.

It made me think of a fortune cookie: Man who lives next to 500 roosters (fill in the blank).

But today I heard the capper, sent to me from my friend Bill,
a closet chicken lover who lives in Santa Monica:
Cops: Chicken dies, wife shoots husband
September 6, 2006

CHESHIRE, Ore. --A woman shot her husband in the back after he killed her pet chicken, the Lane County sheriff's deputies said. Deputies said they were sure that Mary Gray, 58, intended to shoot her husband, Stephen Gray, 43. They weren't certain if the husband meant to fire at the chicken.

"We don't know if it was an accident or if it was on purpose," Sgt. Clint Riley said. "It depends who you ask."

Riley said the couple had been drinking for much of Monday while they did yard work at their rented home in the town northwest of Eugene, and they began arguing after Stephen Gray shot the chicken with a .44-caliber handgun.

Deputies said he was then hit with a shot from a .22-caliber rifle, and is recovering. Mary Gray was arraigned Tuesday on an assault charge.