Monday, October 6, 2008

The chicken is dead, long live the chicken

Recently Snowbird, a fluffy white ameraucana hen, disappeared from the yard. She arrived as a peep Memorial Day week 2007. She looked quite a bit like a previous ameraucana we called Lemon Chicken (LC was very yellow as a youngster, but bleached to white as she aged), but nothing like in temperament (LC chased dogs, to the bitter end as it happens).

Snowbird was much too large to be bothered by the small hawk that likes to lurk near the barn, but all together defenseless in every other way.

I felt bad, of course. She was one of the calmer birds. She was still laying an egg or so a day. She was not prone to picking fights with the others & mostly peacefully wandered the yard, scratching & pecking & being a chicken.

Had she gone to an egg factory, seventeen months would have been her best-case life-expectancy. After being pumped full of hormones to maximize egg production, packed into very tight spaces (debeaking is often necessary so they will not injure each other), denied adequate rest periods (the lights are turned on roughly 2/3 to 3/4 longer than they are off, tricking the birds into laying more eggs), at seventeen months she would have been packed off to a processing plant to be made into tv dinners or dog food or whatever.

This factory chicken will never see grass, almost certainly not spend any amount of her life in sunlight & the bugs she will encounter will not be of the cricket or worm variety; they will be bacteria. Healthy, abundant bacteria because the conditions she lives in are too unsanitary not to breed germs with vigor.

Snowbird's life was roughly the same duration, but could not be more different. Her days were spent in either a very airy henhouse (which they all consider a punishment) or roaming the yard & pastures. She was particularly fond of a nest she made in the feed room from bits of last year's hay & spent the hottest of the summer days in that shady, cool place.

It is foolish to make a pet of a chicken. The free-range life they enjoy makes them vulnerable to every sort of predator & it is unusual for us to have any given bird more than three or so years. The exceptions here are Spotter & Big Buff.

Spotter is the ancona I have written of previously, Big Buff another amauracana. I learned this summer why they are so long lived. A fox was hovering outside the emu yard, clearly wishing he had the nerve to steal one of the hens roosting in the oak tree above the emus themselves, but he did not.

I heard the rackets, ran the fox off & herded the girls to their henhouse. & there on the rafter at the top of henhouse I found these two old girls. When they knew there was trouble, they took themselves immediately & without too much panic to the safest place on the farm: high in the henhouse in the middle of the pasture supervised by a donkey. Donkeys are the only equines that naturally look for trouble. Big, elegant stallions will run from a small barking dog, but a mangey old donkey will run toward a dog large enough to reach his throat & throw it ass-over-teakettle if he can get a good enough grip.

I do not know why everyone does not keep chickens. There is nothing so easy as a small yard & a wooden hut insulated in winter with hay bales ($6.50 will buy you enough hay to keep five birds well-warmed for more than a month). This idea that they are mean or dirty or difficult is one of the many scams played on us by Big Food & I do not know how we fell for it.

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