I remember a song from when I was little… I believe I remember only the chorus actually. I think we can blame the WWII era for this — it’s an abomination of a song. The part I can bring to mind went, “Chickery-chick, cha-la, cha-la, check-a-la romie in a bananicka, bollicka-wollicka, can’t you see, Chickery Chick is me.” Or something like that. Now I can’t get the tune out of my head and wish I’d never thought of it.
It’s chick time again.
My friend Barbara and I drove down to Hubbard on Friday evening, about 40 minutes south of Oregon City, to the poultry hatchery, to pick up our day-olds. We have ordered our chicks through the feed store in the past, and we are both frustrated with getting late notices of their arrival and having to choose among the poor little left-overs. Let’s go to the source! we said to each other. Barbara phoned in the order for us, and we pooled with her other friend Deb, and off we went in an evening rainstorm to get them. (Note: when I arrived home from this expedition, Richard greeted me with the project described in the previous post. Scroll down for the rest of the evening.)
Our laying flock was pretty well decimated last fall, about the time the days were getting short and the hens sleepy in the morning, I found them short count one day. And then shorter the next. I never did figure out exactly how the raider got into the hen yard, but I found remnants of my fine girls at the edge of the woods and down beside the road. Whoever it was was smart enough to carry them away from the yard before getting down to the business of breakfast. We set out a box trap at the time, and caught several of our own hens in the box, but never did get a sign of the thief. When I found myself with only two poor girls remaining, I gathered them up and put them into cages in the barn. They were not especially happy about it, but I could see no reason to keep subsidizing the neighborhood chicken franchise.
Normally I add ten or a dozen layer pullets to our flock each spring. That lets us cull a few of the older girls who have worked their way into old age. The usual pattern is for me to stock a different breed each spring so I can tell their age by appearance: one year it will be Plymouth Barred Rocks (my favorites for good nature and productivity); when they are a year old, I might add Araucanas and get green-shelled eggs; the third year, maybe it will be Rhode Island Reds; and so on. This year, being that I am down to two hens, I ordered a mix of the Barred Rocks and some Araucanas. That’s them above, sleeping in their cardboard nursery. They will outgrow that box in about a day or two. Their habit at this stage is to sleep in a pile, sharing warmth and heartbeats. The ones with the stripes are the Araucanas. The black ones are the Plymouth Barred Rocks, which we affectionately call Barcodes.
If you look for the tiny wing of this one, you can already see the barring on its primary wing feathers. It doesn’t take them long to turn into what they are.
Little darlings. In a couple of weeks, they won’t be so cute anymore. They’ll have stiff new feathers replacing the down and they’ll be loud and smelly. Eventually, though, they will grow into lovely yard hens.
These chickens are listed on the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy website as among the “heritage” breeds that are becoming rare these days. Their value to the small flock-holder is great, but they have not “made the cut” to graduate to prominence as a commercial breed. This is a mixed blessing. What happens to a livestock breed that does rise to the level of economic importance is that it moves from the farmyard to the factory. It becomes uniform in appearance and behavior, it becomes a cog in a production machine that cares little for the attributes that once made it successful as a kitchen flock. If the breed is an egg-layer, that’s the only feature of its existence that matters, and it must begin laying on schedule, must produce its egg a day in a metropolis of other hens just like itself, and that egg must be identical to the one its neighbor lays, and that they both laid yesterday, and will tomorrow. If the breed is a meat breed, it must reach its intended butchery weight at precisely the moment its colleagues do, and not a moment earlier (which would mean feeding it needlessly past its optimum input-to-output ratio), and not a moment later (which would mean it did not maximize its potential for the amount of feed, light and housing invested in it). The life of a production bird is not a happy one. But what happens to the breed that remains a “heritage” breed is that interest in its continued production falls off. The big money is in factories, not in back yards.
So what makes these hens good enough to raise and love? These birds were once the best part of the breakfast and dinner tables of the mixed farm in America. They are sturdy, good-natured, healthy, undemanding, full-bodied birds suitable for both laying and bringing to the harvest. But they, for instance, do not mature into a butchering bird of 5# in 6 weeks. They have colorful plumage, meaning that when they are plucked the places where the feathers grew still show, and the fryer market surely does not want that. Some breeds have a natural pale yellow to their skins, and the market wants white skins. I’m here to tell you these are good birds, and they deserve to be cultivated. And I love having them worry about the yard here, picking at insects and weed seeds, engaging in their chicken squabbles, running to greet us at the gate in the surety that we will have a treat for them. These little chicks will be good birds for us, and they will have a good time at it.
My niece once asked why, if these breeds are falling in numbers and are, depending on the breed, “rare” or “threatened” or “watched,” why we eat them! Here’s the thing: a farm animal has to support itself if it is to succeed as a breed. You can’t just keep an endlessly growing number of offspring, feeding them and treasuring them. They have to make it to the table or they truly have no value as breeds on a farm. It pertains to our sheep as well as the hens. They have to bring something to the deal.
I have been asked also if we hatch our own chicks. Right now we don’t. But when we buy these little hens, we are supporting the industry that does grow them, just as if we were producing them ourselves.
So here we are, restoring a decimated flock. They’ll do well and we will enjoy them. And I am looking forward to the day, a few months from now, when I come from morning feeding with a warm, small (the first eggs are always small), pale brown egg in my hand, and know that no egg was ever fresher when it came to the stove. And I will be sure as well that no egg was ever a healthier link in the food chain: One of the best reasons to keep your own flock is, it’s good to know what your dinner ate ahead of you.