An Araucana Egg

Our Araucana hen, the lowest hen in the pecking order of our backyard flock, took a bit longer to start laying. Yesterday we got our first egg with the distinctive blueish green hue Araucanas are known for.

And once we get over the nasty flu we’ve picked up (not the bird flu!), we’ll get back to regular postings and some big changes to the blog.

Do Hens Make Noise?

Yes, indeed hens make noise. Far less than a rooster, but when it comes time to lay an egg you often get the stereotypical hen vocalization, technically known as “cackling,” which goes something like, “cluck, cluck, cluck, CLUCKAAAAAWWWWK!” Thankfully this only happens around laying time, which for our three productive hens is no more than once a day, and usually at a respectable time between around 9 a.m. and 2 p.m. Some of our club hopping neighbors may get an early than wanted wake-up call, but so far nobody has complained.

Being naive first time chicken owners, the first time we heard this sound caught us by surprise. We suspected that it’s the result of discomfort from squeezing out an egg, or some wonder of selective breeding, a way to announce to the poultry farmer, “Hey, time to collect an egg!” In fact, research presented by University of Sheffield animal scientists Tommaso Pizzari and Tim R. Birkhead, in an article entitled “For whom does the hen cackle? The function of postoviposition cackling,” posit that cacking is a way for hens to get the message out to nearby roosters that they ain’t in the mood. As Pizzari and Brikhead put it, “One function of postoviposition cackling may thus be to avoid the costs of sexual harassment by signalling to males a particularly unsuitable time for fertilization.” This contradicts earlier theories that cacking was, in fact, an invitation to boogie.

For those who’ve never heard it, we’re pleased to present the postoviposition cackling sounds of one of our barred rock hens. Towards the end of the track you’ll hear the usual soft clucking. For the DJs out there, please feel free to use for mashups, mixes and Quinceañeras:

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2008 . . . a year of luxury

2008 began with the sort of absurd juxtaposition we’ve come to expect from life in Los Angeles–loading 25 pounds of chicken feed into a $70,000 Jaguar (not our car for those keeping score). It was all part of a combination run to the feed store for chicken supplies and trip to the Getty Villa to scope out their Roman herb garden and ancient tchatzhahs.

The reason to hit the feed store was a return of schoolyard bully behavior from our pushy Rhode Island Red hen. We bought a bottle of Rooster Booster Pick-No-More Lotion™ to keep her from pecking the araucana hen. Thankfully the lotion, combined with a few other measures we’ll post about, seems to have stopped the problem. The lotion has lessened the amount and severity of the pecking and turned the araucana’s butt into a matted tarry mess. Mission accomplished!

While at the feed store we also picked up a copy of The Chicken Health Handbook by Gail Damerow. It’s a detailed guide to preventing and treating chicken diseases and problems. We’re new to poultry and, in just an hour of reading, have learned a lot from this book. It’s a must have for anyone thinking about getting chickens. Thanks to info in the book and our microscope, we’re looking forward to a year of DIY chicken fecal examinations and turning those parasite egg counts into a drinking game.

We’ll inaugurate a new year of posts with an entertaining excerpt from The Chicken Health Handbook,

Spontaneous sex change is a phenomenon whereby an old hen develops the characteristics of a cock, perhaps because an infected ovary has caused hormonal changes. The hen’s comb grows larger, she molts into male plumage, and she may crow or mount other hens. If the infection is successfully cured before the next molt, the “cock” will lay eggs. This phenomenon was once considered witchcraft, the most famous case being a “cock” named Basel who was burned at the stake in 1474 for laying eggs.”

Chicken Guantanamo

So you want your own backyard hens? Some time ago Homegrown Revolution reader Toby asked about what it takes to keep chickens. While we’re far from being experts we thought we’d share what we’ve learned so far and welcome comments and suggestions from poultry keeping readers to add to and amend our advice. In our opinion the first step in keeping a backyard flock is to figure out where you’re going to house them.

We’ll get into more detail over the next few months, but for now we thought a few pictures might help explain what we’ve come up with. The two main purposes of chicken housing are to protect them from predators and to protect your garden from destruction by your chickens. The more room and foraging area your chickens have the happier they will be. Give them access to your whole yard however, and they will munch and scratch down every plant they find edible behaving, as the Petaluma Urban Homesteaders put it, “like a pack of delinquent teenagers”.

Our chicken housing consists of three zones. Zone one is the hen house–that aluminum structure on the right in the photo above. It contains a roost for the chickens to sleep on at night and a nesting box for the hens to lay their eggs in.

Zone two is a secure run covered in 1/2 inch hardware cloth–the area left of and below the aluminium sided hen house. We used hardware cloth because chicken wire will not prevent raccoons from reaching in and eating a chicken through the fence (we can’t help but admire the fact that chicken wire isn’t really good for keeping chickens). And as our doberman has been known to tree large families of raccoons, we took no chances and ran the hardware cloth across the entire bottom of the run buried a foot underground to keep these critters from burrowing underneath. The run also gives our hens access to dirt as well as a way for us not to have to be around to lock them up in the hen house when it gets dark.
Zone three is a mobile structure made of PVC pipe covered with bird netting and butted up against the coop and secure run so that the hens can move between all three zones. We used to let the hens free range around the yard, but a recent near miss with a hawk, the general devastation of our herb bed, and chicken poo all over the back porch where they took to roosting on lazy afternoons, convinced us to restrict their movements at least while unsupervised. This PVC structure can be shifted around a bit to let the hens work different parts of our small backyard. It will keep out hawks but it’s not raccoon proof, so the girls must be back in zone two’s more secure run (nicknamed “chicken Guantanamo”) when it starts to get dark or we’re not around.

The PVC structure replaces a more permanent enlarged run we built out of scrap wood we found under the 101 freeway. As you can see from the photo below, this structure was an aesthetic disaster, with all the appeal of a dirty mid-town mini mall. We took one look at it after it was complete and decided to demolish it the next day. If only all those mini mall developers in the 80s would have come to the same conclusion.
We’ll describe our hen house, run and “zone three” in more detail once we know everything works out. So far, we’ve got eggs and no raccoon, skunk, owl or hawk casualties. For those looking for detailed plans check out Judy Pangman’s book Chicken Coops: 45 Building Plans for Housing Your Flock. We loosely based our coop and run on one of the designs in Pangman’s book. Stay tuned for more details including our ongoing attempt to stay one step ahead of those bad-assed LA raccoons.

Breaking News

Today at approximately 11:50 AM, after a morning of god-awful screeching, our Rhode Island Red, Stewpot–who is in the foreground of the picture above–laid her first egg–that is, our very first homestead egg.

Go Stewpot!

Of course this event would happen when Mr. Homestead is out of town & in possession of the camera. The lay site was a difficult to access cranny behind the coop. It may not have been photograph-able anyway, but I will report that the egg was deposited quite attractively in a shallow bowl of yellow and brown leaves. I got it while it was still warm, having come out to see what this most recent and particularly loud round of screeching was all about. Stewpot walked away from her egg with nary a look back. The egg was amazing in the hand–warm and heavy and almost pulsing with life.

To mark this historic day, I did what I could to record the blessed egg: I scanned it alongside a Trader Joe’s grade A brown for comparison, which resulted in the mysterious, murky image you see below.

Stewpot’s egg is smaller than the commerical egg, but it is her first. Her egg looks the same color at first, but close up it is covered with tiny brown speckles, whereas the Joe’s egg is more monotone.

An open letter to Trader Joes

Dear Trader Joes,

First off we’re not an animal rights activists, nor are we even vegetarians. We’re just people who like honesty in packaging. So let’s take a look at the carton for your Grade AA Cage Free eggs and assess the truthfulness of the illustration on its cover. Now conventional wisdom says that you are to be congratulated for selling only cage free eggs in contrast to many other food retailers who continue to sell eggs produced by hens living in cramped “battery cages“. Battery caged chickens do not have the ability to stretch their legs, run around, or roost–activities that come naturally to all poultry. But what exactly does “cage free” mean? Unfortunately the USDA does not regulate the term cage free so its definition in terms of the actual living conditions of the hens who laid the eggs is uncertain. Perhaps you could redesign your packaging to give us an actual representation of where these eggs came from to clarify a few issues for us.

To save your marketing folks some time we’ve done it for you:

First off we removed the chickens grazing in the open pasture since it’s highly unlikely that these eggs came from chickens freely wandering outdoors and feeding on vegetation and insects. This might be called “pasture raised”, though this is also a term not defined or regulated by the USDA (largely because the huge companies that control poultry farming in this country and whose political influence puts the USDA in their back pocket don’t want to acknowledge that pasture raised eggs are superior to factory farmed eggs). It’s a shame that your eggs aren’t pasture raised especially since, according to a study conducted by Mother Earth News, pasture raised eggs contain 1⁄3 less cholesterol, 1⁄4 less saturated fat, 2⁄3 more vitamin A, 2 times more omega-3 fatty acids, 3 times more vitamin E and 7 times more beta carotene. It’s too bad that the “all natural feed” that your package advertises does not provide the nutrients of a real pasture. And FYI–we also removed the rooster since that would signify that these eggs are fertilized, making us think that your package design folks were snoozing during their high school biology classes.

We replaced the picturesque barn with a windowless industrial shed to show the most prevalent housing for poultry and, more than likely, where these cage free eggs came from. The family poultry farm alluded to in your cover art has long since been replaced by huge industrial operations housing thousands of chickens in enormous sheds. Our relatives, living on a nearly century old family farm in Missouri, can no longer make a living from raising livestock and must supplement their incomes with construction work.

While we’re happy these eggs do not come from hens dosed with antibiotics, when you pack that many chickens so close to each other you have to practice extreme bio-security. This is why we’ve added the image of the man in the clean suit which has replaced overalls as the modern poultry worker’s garment of choice. Ironically this worker (probably an underpaid immigrant) must be extremely careful since these hens don’t get antibiotics.

Here’s a picture of one of our four backyard hens. When she starts laying in a few months we will no longer be customers for your eggs. To use an old Italian expression, we like to “know our chickens”. We suspect many of your customers share our concerns and will soon be joining our homegrown poultry revolution.

Perhaps we’re wrong in our speculation about the conditions that produced these eggs. If so please send us a photo of the farm and we’ll post a correction.

Regards,

Homegrown Revolution

The Chicken and the Egg

Back before we relegated the television to a junk pile in the garage we used to channel surf the obscure reaches of cable television creating our own mood-leveling visual mix of Korean melodramas, infomercials and the ongoing freak show that is Los Angeles public access television (click for some Francine Dancer!). Now instead of television we just pull up a chair in the late afternoon and watch the four chickens that populate our backyard in their ongoing search for seeds, bugs and the need to sort out the pecking order. After many hours of poultry behavior viewing it’s no surprise to us that some anthropologists believe that the chicken was first domesticated to provide entertainment (through cock fighting) rather than eggs or meat.

But more important than the entertainment value backyard chickens provide is the far superior taste and nutritional value of eggs from poultry allowed access to pasture. Mother Earth News has an ongoing study comparing supermarket eggs with the eggs of pasture raised poultry and the results are astonishing. But first some definitions. Pasture raised poultry are allowed access to bugs and vegetation. The USDA’s definition of free range is just “Allowed access to the outside”. This can mean a door leading out of a massive shed to a patch of lifeless concrete or barren dirt. “Cage free” hens more than likely spend their entire lives inside and never see the light of day or breath natural air. Most eggs, however, come from chickens that live in cages, and don’t get to move around at all. The shameless flacks at the American Egg Board (AEB) like to mislead the public into believing that “free range” is the same as pasture raised and that there is no nutritional difference between free range, pasture raised and caged chicken eggs.

According to evidence from tests conducted by Mother Earth News Pasture raised chickens have 1/3 less cholesterol, 1/4 less saturated fat, 2/3 more vitamin A, 2 times more omega-3 fatty acids, 3 times more vitamin E, and 7 times more beta carotene. The AEB along with their cronies in the USDA continue to spread the lie that there’s nothing wrong with confining poultry to crammed, inhumane and unsanitary conditions and that eggs produced by factory farm hens are no different than pasture raised hens. As Mother Earth puts it,

“It’s amazing what a group can do with a $20 million annual budget. That’s what factory-farm egg producers pay to fund the American Egg Board each year to convince the public to keep buying their eggs, which we now believe are substandard.”

Now we haven’t counted our chickens before they’ve hatched. Pasture raising chickens, even in a small backyard entails more risk (mainly from predators such as hawks and loose dogs) than confining them to a cage. It’s definitely easier and more economical for commercial producers to confine chickens.

But consider the consequences of the economic and quality race to the bottom of factory farming’s economy of scale–an abundance of cheap, tasteless and nutritionally deficient eggs that like the endless flood of shipping containers full of plastic crap from China poisons both our bodies and souls.

Here’s a list of questions to ask the folks who provide your eggs.

And more Francine Dancer for those without chickens.

Chicken Cannibalism!

We caught our Rhode Island Red pecking at the base of our Araucana’s tail this weekend. Fortunately we stopped this act of cannibalism before it got past a small wound and a few missing feathers and we’ve been able to isolate the victim from the perp until she recovers. Cannibalism is common amongst chickens and there are a number of theories as to why it happens including dietary inadequacies, genetics and simple chicken boredom. The most plausible theory in our opinion is that cannibalism results from insufficient opportunity to forage.

Simply letting our flock out of their run to free-range throughout the backyard seems to have taken care of the problem. Sure we may lose a hen or two to hawks and cats, but that seems a better fate than being eaten alive by one of your own kind. We’ve also switched to a higher protein feed to see if that will help as there is a minority opinion in poultry farming that chickens resort to cannibalism as a result of protein deficiencies.

Most commercial poultry farms take care of cannibalism by cutting off beaks when the chicks are around 4 to 6 weeks old. We believe beak trimming along with the associated practice cramming chickens in “battery cages”, as pictured above, to be inhumane. For more on the behavior of corporate agriculture read about the Humane Society’s Factory Farming Campaign or better yet start your own backyard flock.

We’ve taken the flowers out of our hair

Homegrown Revolution is back from San Francisco with a couple of random observations from our trip:

1. The picture above of a gas cap spotted in the Mission District demonstrates, that even in a bike and mass transit friendly city many folks take their cars a little too seriously. Let’s remember folks, we suspect that Jesus rides two wheels and takes the bus and does indeed look anguished every time we open the gas cap.

2. We took our bike with us and enjoyed the numbered bike routes that take you north-south and east-west. While not perfect (we would have preferred a few more signs to point the way) these routes help a cyclist navigate thought the city taking you down more bike friendly and less hilly streets. The San Francisco bike map (pdf) shows the routes in addition to signage on the streets.

3. Raising chickens made us appreciate San Francisco’s strident health food store, Rainbow Grocery which has a chart in their egg section to show how the chickens that produce the eggs are raised. We meant to get a photo of this elaborate chart but unfortunately we forgot the camera. Posted on the refrigeration cabinet, the chart tells you which of the brands they carry clip beaks or wings and whether the chickens have access to pasture. Rainbow Grocery was the first San Francisco retailer to carry only cage free eggs.

4. Unfortunately we didn’t see this exhibit by photographer Douglas Gayeton at Petaluma’s Singer Gallery, but you can view images from his slow-food related photo essay about Tuscany here.

5. While Homegrown Revolution promises never again to get into celebrity gossip, we’ll note that we spotted gravelly voiced alt-rock singer Tom Waits gassing up his Lexus SUV at a filling station in Berkeley. More exciting to us was discovering that our base of operations in the Mission was a mere block from the infamous Symbionese Liberation Army safe house where heiress Patty Hearst became urban guerrilla Tanya. We have a feeling we’ll see the return of revolutionary noms de guerre in the coming few years and when that happens we’ll see Tom ditch the SUV for two wheeled transit on Berkeley’s many bicycle boulevards.