We Have Chickens!
We now have a dozen chickens! We started a couple of months ago with Stewart and his seven ladies, a gift from someone I’ve never met, thanks to my friend Jenny Shattuck, the chicken lady’s neighbor, who volunteered to obtain a flock for us. (Her neighbor apparently had a couple hundred chickens and was paring down her flocks. All I know for sure is they were free!)
Later, we bought four 8-week-old chicks from our new friends Linnea and Gina of Laughing Frog Farm in Laytonville, here in Mendocino County. (Be sure to “enter the chicken coop” and see photos of some of their lovely birds.) In addition to heritage breeds of chickens and turkeys, they also sell heritage tomato seeds.
By the way, Stewart and his 7 ladies are Ameraucanas (not to be confused with Araucanas, though they’re related), and the new adolescent pullets are 2 Red Leghorns (“leggerns”), one White Leghorn, who we named Close Call (see below), and a white Cubalaya, whom we’ve named Cubalaya. We liked the name, what can I say. I try to handle them a bit every night, stroking their feathers as I lock up the henhouse for the night, in hopes they’ll be more friendly than the Ameraucanas, who we got as adults. I have made progress with all of them; they know me as the food lady now and aren’t as easily spooked. I toss them escargot handpicked from my garden, and eggshells, and they scramble after those. Once I dropped a newly laid egg in the chicken yard by accident and you should have seen the ladies scramble to eat it up! (That was a bad precedent, by the way. At least one of the hens has learned to like the taste of fresh eggs and is occasionally eating one, leaving tell-tale half-shells behind.)
Yes, chickens are omnivores—primarily insectivores, but they love fresh greens, egg shells, and, it turns out, their own raw eggs! You should be skeptical when you see “vegetarian feed” on an egg carton. Chickens need bugs, as well as fresh greens. Yes, we’re feeding them some standard (Organic, soy-free) layer feed plus scratch (a “treat” mix of corn, millet and wheat, less processed than the “nutritionally balanced” layer feed) but they spend most of the day out scratching around in the enclosed chicken yard, the east field, or just all around the main yard (we’re working on teaching Zimmy not to chase them).
As I learn more about chicken feed, that may change. But I don’t want to shortchange their diet while they’re working so hard to provide us with fresh eggs daily. The 7 laying hens provide 3-4 a day on average, with 5 yesterday and 6 on a couple of days. Wow! Needless to say we’re gathering egg recipes. The little chicks (about three months old now, are they called pullets yet?) won’t be laying for another month or three. What’s clear is that they love their feed, but they also love to be outside scratching and poking and clucking, expressing their chickenness. They do what they do so well. I am happy that this little flock of a dozen, at least, gets to live the good life, and with any luck (barring foreclosure and unemployment), we’ll never have to eat factory farm eggs again. Maybe someday we’ll even harvest some chickens to eat, which is why I’m not in any rush to give them all names.
Close Call got her name by virtue of surviving a close encounter with Zimmy, our cute and curious Rhodesian Ridgeback two-year-old dog. His hunting instinct keeps trying to kick in, but we’re working with him to help him understand that chasing or eating chickens is definitely not cool. Fortunately, he has a soft mouth, and Close Call was unharmed by being briefly held in Zimmy’s mouth, but she was practically catatonic for an hour from the shock.
I held her in my lap and stroked her and she was terribly still, but fortunately no broken bones or even skin. She spent two nights hiding under the nesting boxes but is pretty much back to normal several days later. Did I mention, it’s a truism that no matter how many nesting boxes you have, the hens all want to use the same one, sometimes at the same time. I’ve seen a more aggressive hen bodily throw another hen out of a nest! These are not cuddly creatures by nature, folks, they’re feathered dinosaurs, after all. But we love them just the same.
Incidentally, if anyone in Mendocino wants to help form a buying group, Tropical Traditions has a soy-free, organic coconut-based chicken feed that looks really good but would be prohibitively expensive to ship less than a pallet. Contact me if you’re interested.
I just saw this guest post on backyard chickens, on Hartke Is Online! (Kimberly Hartke is one of the wonderful Real Food Media Network bloggers pictured in my last post.) This is the kind of chicken tractor setup I aspire to. We have the pastures, just no carpentry skills! The one that’s moveable by one person would be ideal. Then I could put the chickens out without worrying about Zimmy getting to them. Incidentally, I can verify now that fresh, pastured eggs have gloriously orange, firm yolks and they stay fresh on the counter for weeks, at least. We don’t wash them until just before using, because they are coated as they come out the chicken’s vent with a protective good bacteria coating. I wipe off any chicken poop (happens now and then), but don’t wash. I eat some raw yolks in breakfast protein shakes, and I take betaine Hcl tablets to make sure I have plenty of stomach acid to deal with any stray pathogens that might be there, but I’m pretty confident about the healthfulness of our eggs. Don’t try this with supermarket eggs though! Don’t eat supermarket eggs—find a farmer, or try your own backyard flock. Books to get you started: Keep Chickens! by Barbara Kilarski, and Keeping Chickens with Ashley English.