Thursday, December 15, 2011

Chicken Chat

One of the most enjoyable parts of my daily routine is opening the barnyard gate soon after sunrise and being greeted by our colorful brood of heritage chickens racing toward me to beg for a scattering of scratch. Almost as delightful is sitting with them later in the pasture as they alternate between snuggling together and busying around in the leaves and dirt looking for bugs and other delicacies.

Before becoming interested in sustainable farming, I had never thought very much about chickens. They were not particularly exciting, not particularly complicated, not particularly lovable. They were just, you know, chickens. It is now hard to believe I ever felt that way about these fascinating, spunky, productive little wonders of the domesticated-animal world.

Here are some of the things I have learned about chickens just in short time we have been keeping our own.
  • They are lovely. The feathers of the chickens in our brood are speckled white, black (with streaks of glossy blue), golden, and barred. And they wear them with grace and dignity as the strut about the barnyard.
  • They are sociable. I have been surprised by just how gregarious and companionable our hens and rooster are. They spend all day together, chatting, cuddling, and occasionally pecking one another as they scratch around for food, lounge under the cedar tree and explore new areas of the pasture. They have even started socializing with the goats, often hanging out with them for much of the day in the goat stall. 
  • They have distinct personalities. Who knew? They each truly seem to be their own chicken. Queenie (the Buff Orpington) is the matriarch, both bossy and protective; Zebra Zuzu (the Delaware) is gentle and sweet; Autumn (the Buff Rock) is feisty and independent; Crystal (the Splash Jersey Giant) is the quintessential team player; and Captain Haddock (a Dominique and the sole rooster) delicately balances submitting to his compatriots with asserting his male authority.
  • They are fun. There are few things as entertaining as observing our nine arranging themselves on their perch in the evenings. Each time, night after night, they appear to passionately flirt, argue, repel, and persuade one another as they vie for position, and somehow always end up all cuddled together (except for Autumn, of course) on the same rung.
  • They are endangered (more on this below).

Given the popularity of chicken meat and chicken eggs in our culture, how could I have known so little about these creatures before they became a part of my own household? Like most Americans, chickens have played a big role in my diet but had almost no place at all in my consciousness. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the U.S poultry industry is the world's largest producer, and Americans consume more poultry meat than either beef or pork. We also consume a lot of eggs: between 75 and 80 billion each year. You might think all this is good news for our chickens. I'm afraid not. The vast majority of chickens raised for meat and egg production in our country are raised in deplorable conditions. They are confined in tiny, filthy cages, drugged to grow so quickly and produce so many eggs that they commonly develop organ failure, cancer, and various types of deformities. Or they get infections that lead their owners to administer still more drugs. Some are so tightly packed in their cages that their beaks are cut off to keep them from cannibalizing each other. They never have a chance to peck at the ground, take a dust bath, or bathe in the sun. Or live anywhere close to their natural lifespan. (For more information on animals raised on factory farms, see

It didn't used to be this way. Chickens have been around for ages and have been providing food for humans long before mass production came on the scene. According to scientists, the modern-day chicken is most likely descended from the Red Jungle Fowl that populated Southeast Asia around 3,000 years ago. The Greeks and the Romans may have been the first to domesticate chickens (for cock fighting, not meat or egg production). It is generally believed that chickens came to our own continent when Columbus brought them on his second voyage in 1493, though there is some evidence that they had already been introduced to native communities in South America by that time--most likely by Polynesians. Americans' interest in raising chickens skyrocketed in the nineteenth century, and for several generations chickens were a standard feature of the American household, an essential source of both food and income. They thrived in Florida where the weather was balmy; Minnesota, where it was frigid; and New Mexico, where it was arid. Sadly, it was their popularity and adaptability that eventually led to the near extinction of many backyard chicken breeds. As Jennifer Megyesi explains in her book The Joy of Keeping Chickens,
After World War II, the poultry business became industrialized, and improvements were made by crossbreeding to produce superior egg layers and meat birds. With the rise in commercial value for chickens, many breeds, now referred to as heritage breeds, were eliminated from flocks.

Unfortunately, the eggs and meat from industrialized birds are not nearly as healthy as those from chickens raised on small farms. (Free-range chickens contain 30% less saturated fat and 28% fewer calories than factory-farmed chickens; eggs from free-range chickens have 10% less fat, 40% more Vitamin A, and 400% more omega-3s.) And so most of us have spent most of our lives eating copious quantities of not particularly healthy eggs, legs, and breasts from miserably unhealthy chickens representing only a handful of hybridized breeds, while the rugged, diverse breeds of our ancestors have rapidly declined (and in some cases, disappeared). The heritage chicken movement wants to change this. It wants to bring chickens back to Americans' backyards and rescue the surviving chicken breeds that remain threatened with extinction. (Twenty-six of the 55 chicken breeds listed by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy [ALBC] are identified as critical or threatened.)

On our own farm, we have several Dominiques (the oldest breed developed in the U.S., and listed as under watch), a Jersey Giant (also under watch), a Delaware (threatened), and a Plymouth Rock, an Orpington, and an Australorp (all recovering). So raising chickens for my family means not just providing healthy eggs and meat for our table, but also making a small contribution toward preserving the unique characteristics of some of the American farmyard's most long-time residents. As an added bonus, we are also providing ourselves with endless entertainment and endlessly charming companions!

For additional information on heritage chickens see:
  • (website of the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy)
  • (website of the Heritage Poultry Conservancy)
  • Keeping Chickens: All You Need to Know to Care for a Happy, Healthy Flock, by Ashley English
  • The Joy of Keeping Chickens: The Ultimate Guide to Raising Poultry for Fun or Profit, by Jennifer Megyesi and Geoff Hansen.

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