The Sacred Chickens of Ancient Rome

I stumbled on an odd historical anecdote last week: the use, by the ancient Romans, of sacred chickens as a form of divination. From the Encyclopedia of Diderot & d’Alembert:

Sacred chickens were chickens raised by priests in Roman times, and which were used for making auguries. Nothing significant was undertaken in the Senate or in the armies, without omens being drawn from the sacred chickens. The most common method of drawing these omens consisted in examining the manner in which the chickens dealt with grain that was presented to them. If they ate it avidly while stamping their feet and scattering it here and there, the augury was favorable; if they refused to eat and drink, the omen was bad and the undertaking for which it was consulted was abandoned. When there was a need to render this sort of divination favorable, the chickens were left in a cage for a certain amount of time without eating; after that the priests opened the cage and threw their feed to them.

I had hoped to be the first blogger to break the sacred chicken story, but a blogger named Elektra Tig beat me to it, telling the tale of a naval battle involving some sea-bound sacred chickens who delivered an unwanted prophesy. The naval commander, Publius Claudius Pulcher, refused to take no for an answer and had the sacred chickens tossed overboard saying, “Let them drink, since they won’t eat.”

Elektra Tig also found a drawing of a sacred chicken coop just in case some of you are looking for coopatecture inspiration:

Maybe some of us urban homesteader types can put together a flock of sacred chickens for the US senate. By Jove, it would probably work better than whatever means of projection they are currently using.

Update: Michael Pigneguy left a link on Facebook to a Smithsonian article with the following chicken divination anecdote:

A chicken bred for the demands of American supermarket shoppers presumably has lost whatever magical powers the breed once possessed. Western aid workers discovered this in Mali during a failed attempt to replace the scrawny native birds with imported Rhode Island Reds. According to tradition, the villagers divine the future by cutting the throat of a hen and then waiting to see in which direction the dying bird falls—left or right indicates a favorable response to the diviner’s question; straight forward means “no.” But the Rhode Island Red, weighted down by its disproportionately large breast, always fell straight forward, signifying nothing meaningful except the imminence of dinner.

Google Sketchup as an Urban Homesteading Tool

I just completed a new chicken run, greatly assisted by an amazing and free 3d design program: Trimble SketchUp (formerly Google SketchUp). While it takes some time to learn (I’m still learning!), this program helped me visualize the chicken run as well as estimate the amount of materials I’d need to buy. Here’s how I used it to create the run:

Previous runs either did not work (chickens squeezed out and flew over) or were hideously ugly. I resolved to design a run that was both aesthetically pleasing and practical. Inspired by A-Frame cabins of the 60s Kelly and I came up with this idea:

I took my A-Frame plans to a friend, John Zapf, who runs Zapf Architectural Renderings. He took some time out, literally, from rendering multi-million dollar buildings to help with my lowly chicken run project. He could see a few problems with the A-Frame idea immediately–wasted space on the side towards the fence, and a lack of continuity between the shape of the chicken coop’s roof and the new run. Taking out pen and paper (sometimes the quicker option!) he sketched out  a much better design:

I took John’s sketch and entered it into Sketchup:

Being the low-tech bumpkin that I am, once I completed the run I was excited to see how much the real thing looked like the rendering.

SketchUp has some powerful features. There’s a library of objects other people have already drawn for you that you can download for free. For instance, the fence and tree (the exact same species of tree in my backyard, by the way) were both in the SketchUp library. And, amazingly, you can drop your model into Google Maps and even figure out the shadow patterns it will cast in the course of a year.

I’d strongly recommend going through the tutorial videos before trying to use SketchUp (I didn’t do this and wasted a lot of time initially).

And thanks to John Zapf and Anne Hars for your help!

Our New Chickens

When I put out the call to you, our readers, to name the ideal urban chicken I got a call from my friend Craig Ruggless of Winnetka Farms. He said something like, “Duh, the Barnevelder, of course!” Craig and his partner Gary Jackemuk have an ambitions breeding program to take the Barnevelder from show chicken back to farm chicken. So far the results are impressive.

I took this as a message that I should fix my run and get ready for some new chickens. This weekend, I picked up four new pullets from Winnetka Farms, all crosses between a Barnevelder and an Americauna. I call them “Winnetkavelders.”

The Barnevelder, according to Craig and Gary, are a great dual purpose breed that is both heat and cold tolerant. They also take well to confinement.

The “Winnetkavelders” that now live at the root simple compound have an unusual characteristic. At least one of the pullets is laying an olive green egg:

Hmm. This color may not display correctly. Basically, the green-ish egg they lay is exactly the color of a cocktail olive. Not one of those fancy (and suspiciously) bright green olives, but the true drab olive you’ll find in your typical dive bar martini olive. (No offense to the hens! We’re just talking color here.) Yesterday we were joking with a friend that we should paint red pimento spots on the end.

This is the result of crossing the blue/green egg color of the Americauna with the dark brown of the Barnevelder. Another of the Winnetkavelders is laying an amazing dark brown egg like a purebred Barnevelder and a third is laying a green/olive egg with brown spots. They’ve been very productive and are taking well to their new surroundings.

A big thanks to Craig and Gary!

Vital Farms: Pasture Raised, Organic Eggs at Whole Foods

Image from the Vital Farms blog.

Over the weekend I attended the Natural Products Expo West, a massive health food industry convention. Yes, indeed, Fabio was in attendance selling some sort of powdered supplement and I may have seen Ziggy Marley packing up his own bottles of “Coco’Mon” coconut oil. Such are the indignities one encounters on the downward arc of a career in reggae music or romance book cover modeling.

Out of the nearly 2,000 exhibitors of, frankly, health food store junk food, one stood out: Vital Farms, purveyors of eggs from pasture raised hens. The overwhelming majority of eggs in this country are laid by chickens crammed into small cages or, arguably worse, crammed into big sheds.  “Free range,” “cage free” and “organic,” mean absolutely nothing. What makes Vital Farms different is that the eggs they sell were laid by chickens who live outside, during the day, on pasture. Their spokesperson offered to let me tour the farms they contract with, something that, I doubt, any of the big egg producers would offer.

The Cornocopia Institute gives them a “five egg (exemplary)” rating, citing their rotational grazing methods, abstinence from the practice of beak trimming and year round outdoor access for the hens. Vital Farms contracts with several farms in Texas, Oklahoma and Georgia. Their eggs are available nationwide at Whole Foods and they have expanded into meat chickens.

Now, hopefully, I can recover from the spectral celebrity hallucinations induced by downing hundreds of free samples of things like pro-biotic frozen pizza (I’m not making this up) and caveman power bars. Perhaps a pasture raised egg omelet will wipe away my açaí berry hangover.

Thanks to Dale Benson for suggesting attending this event and for driving, spending a half hour finding a parking space and pointing out Ziggy Marley or someone who resembled Ziggy Marley packing up those bottles of coconut oil.

Help Us Find the Ideal Urban Chicken Breed

Townes Van Zandt with chicken

We are in the market for new hens and lately it has occurred to us that the best breed criteria for our situation is not a breed which lays most frequently, but a breed which maintains its egg production as it matures–even if that means that it doesn’t produce as many eggs per week as a typical high production hen.

Does that make sense? Because Erik is such a soft touch, we have to maintain a nursing home for hens. It would be great if our ladies would continue to contribute eggs into their dotage. It is less important that they are daily producers in their youth, because the two of us can’t eat that many eggs.

This is not what hens are bred for–I understand that. Laying hens are bred to give as much as they can for two years, after which they are usually culled. Long term laying isn’t much of a consideration. But I thought this trait might be more apparent in some of the heritage breeds.

Let me know if you have an old hen still laying, and what kind of hen she is.

Erik adds this: In The One-Straw Revolution Masanobu Fukuoka mentions he has just such a hen–but he doesn’t go on to tell us the name. Anyone know about Fukuoka’s chickens?

Is This Egg Good?

From left: Very Fresh • Pretty Fresh • Bad • Cat

When you’re wondering about the age of an egg, put it in glass of water.

Really fresh eggs lie on the bottom the glass, flat. These are the eggs you want for poaching and other dishes where the egg is the star.

If one end bobs up a bit, as does the middle egg above, the egg is older, but still good. The upward tilt can be more extreme than it is in this picture. In fact, the egg can even stand up straight, just so long as it is still sitting on the bottom of the glass. The egg in picture above is just a tiny bit past absolutely fresh, but still very suitable for egg dishes. If it were standing up a little more, I’d use it for baking or hard boiling. Indeed, older eggs are best for hard boiling, because fresh eggs are impossible to peel.

What you don’t want to see is a floating egg. A floating egg is a bad egg. (Like a witch!) Old eggs float because the mass inside the egg decreases–dries out–over time, making it lighter. I personally don’t trust any floating egg, but I do know that other people draw a distinction between eggs that float low and eggs that float high, and only discard the high floaters. And I honor their courage.

Free Postmortem Exams for Backyard Flocks in California

It’s too late for us now, but if I had another two chickens die in close succession, I’d consider rushing the bodies off to one of the California Animal Health and Food Safety’s labs run by the University of California Davis’ School of Veterinary Medicine.

A Root Simple reader who is a veterinarian tipped us off to this service. You don’t need a veterinarian (though you might need one to help interpret the results) and the service is free to those with less than 1,000 birds. All you need to do is get the body, as soon as possible, to one of four labs in either Davis, Turlock, Tulare or San Bernardino.

The backyard flock submission form is available at: http://www.cahfs.ucdavis.edu/submission_forms/index.cfm. The addresses of the labs are on the form. I’m sure that many other states offer similar services. Call your local Extension Service for details and leave a comment if you know about your state’s testing programs.

How to start a chicken retirement community

Mrs. Homegrown here:

So–here’s the story of another mistake we made. When Erik and I first got chickens we didn’t lay out a plan for dealing with the chickens as they aged. That was the mistake. Simple as that. Make your plans, people!

We learned how to slaughter chickens–we knew we could do it if we needed to–but we never really sat down and decided what would happen to our ladies when they stopped laying. We’re very good at procrastinating that way.

What happened is sort of surprising, looking back.

I’ve not eaten chicken since high school (or other meat, except rarely, fish). My objections have never centered around the morality of killing animals for food, but rather a long-standing objection to how the animals were treated within the industrial farming system. I wanted the chickens so I could have constant access to guilt-free eggs.

Erik was a meat eater up until we got the hens. Then he fell in love with their funny ways, fell out of denial, and realized where his tasty chicken dinners really came from. He went veggie–more or less.

Somehow we did a polar flip. While keeping chickens made him a vegetarian, it made me less sentimental. It’s not that I dislike them. I love having them around. All I can say is that somehow my relationship to them was clarified through experience. I’d sit out by the coop and think, “Yep, I wouldn’t mind eating one of those–and sure as heck they wouldn’t mind eating me, either.”

Meanwhile, Erik went all Buddha on me. He developed relationships with our four hens and would not consider culling them.

That meant we had a chicken retirement home on our hands–and a distinct lack of eggs coming in–and no hope on the horizon, unless it came in the form of a convenient hawk.

But now that the bell has tolled for two of our hens (and no, I am not jigging when Erik is not looking) we’re making decisions on how to handle future flocks.

An aside:

There’s no right or wrong in this cull-no cull debate, though folks can disagree vehemently on the topic. I’ve always said that if you’re a meat eater, raising your own meat is the finest thing you can do. If you want to keep hens as pets, that’s also totally legit.

I have to say that in the city, where we have limited space and laws against roosters and backyard slaughter, our hen keeping operations are always, by necessity, somewhat unnatural. For the most part, backyard flocks are disconnected from the natural cycle of mating and birth, and so also seem to end up disconnected from the cycle of death. It’s no wonder lots of us end up thinking of our hens as pets. Heck, a lot of us buy them at pet stores!

The two paths:

For Erik and I there were two paths. Either we’d decide to embrace carnivorism and resolve to treat our layers in a more business-like fashion, meaning we would not name them and we would promise to make soup out of them when the time came. Or we’d decide–consciously– to support our old layers in their retirement.  To do this, we’d need to develop a system that would allow us to bring in new layers, but still have room for old layers. A plan sort of like this one:

The Staggered Chicken Plan:

Note: Our current flock has taught us that four hens laying at their peak gave the two of us far more eggs that we could eat the first year, and plenty of eggs the second year and into the third. That’s how we came up with these numbers. If you need more eggs, you’d need more hens.

We start with three fresh pullets. At age three, when they slow their laying, we’d introduce three more fresh pullets. We would then have six hens and plenty of eggs, even if we have some die-off from the oldsters in their 4th or 5th year. When the second batch turned three, we’d get three more young ones. The first trio would then be able to spend their sixth through ninth years playing canasta or watching the telenovelas or whatever, and we’d still have plenty of eggs coming in from the younger birds. This plan is based on an assumption that most hens won’t live past nine though some do, of course. Hopefully the numbers will even out.
  
The decision:

What it came down to for us was whether we’d be willing to invest the time and money into starting a retirement community. Not only would we have to build a new coop to hold nine hens–as per the Staggered Chicken Plan–but also we’d have to commit to feeding all those useless birds.

Alternatively, we could keep the set up we have right now (which holds 4, maybe 5 birds at the most) and resolve to cull the hens. New hens every three years.

I personally was fine either way. I could see the advantages of each approach. But Erik (the big softy!) decided he didn’t feel right about culling the hens. Putting his money where his mouth was, he  agreed to redesign and rebuild the coop to keep his ladies off the chopping block.

So I guess we’re changing our name to Sentimental Farms! Time to design that new coop…

Another Chicken Fatality

We lost another chicken last night meaning that we’ve got something infectious. I didn’t have the stomach to do a post-mortem exam, nor would I know what to look for anyways (chicken CSI would make a nice class if only there were someone to teach it). I thumbed through Gail Damerow’s Chicken Health Handbook, but I don’t have much evidence to go on.

I didn’t see any obvious symptoms other than a very small amount of listlessness just before both chickens died and a bit of what might be bloody diarrhea on the roost. Mrs. Homegrown disinfected the coop as best she could and I swept out the bedding. A heat wave last week may have weakened the flock and helped bring this on.

We are now down to two chickens, one of whom does not lay any eggs. Looks like we’ll be either not be eating eggs or we’ll have to buy them at the farmers market for the next few months.

Mrs. Homegrown here: 

I wanted to add that the remaining hens seem perfectly healthy.  If they drop over dead tomorrow, it’s going to be quite a headscratcher. They’re out happily roaming in our yard right now, all bright-eyed and perky. I’ve eyeballed them for signs of respiratory infection or diarrhea, and see nothing. All the poop under their roost looked fine.  It’s a mild day, as was yesterday–so I don’t know if heat was the culprit in either death. The possible bloody diarrhea that Erik mentions above consisted of a couple of  small dark stains on the roost. Hard to say what that was–if it was anything. All in all it’s quite a mystery.

It could be coincidence. Both of the deceased hens are of the same breed, from the same hatching, same store–maybe they were even sisters. They were very close. Maybe when one went the other followed, like devoted old couples sometimes do.

I say this just to keep hope that this isn’t some bacterial thing. It’s impossible to truly disinfect a wooden coop with a dirt floor. We’ll do our best, open it up to light and give it a good airing and hope for the best.

It looks like we might get a chance to start our flock fresh, and this time we’re going to do things differently. It looks like there are two paths we could follow–those paths, and the choice we make, will have to follow in the next post.