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The chickens of “Game of Thrones.” May 29, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in chickens, homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. Our friend Ben and I are getting a small flock of new heritage chickens in early July. There will be six, and as always, each will be a different heritage breed: Rhode Island Red (red), Barred Rock (black and white), Buff Orpington (gold), Delaware (white), Ameraucauna (red and gold), and Silver Laced Wyandotte (black with white edgings). Quite the colorful group, and all are hefty birds that lay big, brown eggs, except for the Ameraucana, who will lay blue or green eggs.

We’ve never ordered pullets through mail-order before, but couldn’t find anyone locally who would sell us some. (Pullets are young hens who are about ready to lay, as opposed to the day-old chicks that are normally shipped and sold in April.) Luckily for us, Murray McMurray hatchery (http://www.mcmurrayhatchery.com) sells pullets individually, so you can buy one of each or any number that you want. They carry many heritage breeds, and they let them range on grass and eat grass and forage for bugs, seeds, and etc., as opposed to cutting their beaks as other hatcheries do, a horribly cruel practice akin to declawing cats. I suggest that, if you’re interested in chickens, you check out the Murray McMurray website; they’ll even ship you a free catalog.

So what does this have to do with “Game of Thrones”? Well, we’ve always named our chickens, since once we get them, we keep them (well-fed on organic pellets and grains, along with fruits, veggies, bread, and scraps from meal prep and leftovers) until they eventually die of old age. They also have their own enclosed yard, safe from predators, including hawks and owls, with a grapevine growing over it for shade and a chicken coop with a window and a transparent roof to let in light. We know from experience that every chicken knows its own name and will respond to it.

In the past, I’ve named chickens for Regency heroines (Venetia, Sophia, Lucretia, Charis, etc.), Tolkien characters, and the like. But at the moment, OFB and I are on a “Game of Thrones” kick. (And, alert viewers, chickens have appeared in a number of episodes.) So we’ve named our soon-to-arrive flock accordingly: The Delaware, white-feathered, for the white-haired Danaerys of House Targaryen. The Buff Orpington, gold-feathered, for the golden-haired Cersei of House Lannister. The Rhode Island Red, red-feathered, for the red-haired Catelyn of House Stark. The Ameraucana, red-gold, and less domesticated than the other heritage breeds, for the Wildling Ygritte. The Barred Rock, black-and-white, a fearless breed, for Arya of House Stark. And the Silver-Laced Wyandotte, a fancy, glamorous girl, for Margaery of House Tyrell.

Have fun with your own flock and their names. T.S. Eliot once noted that “The naming of cats is a difficult matter.” We beg to differ, both with cats and with chickens. But it’s especially fun to choose a theme for your flock and name them accordingly.

‘Til next time,

Silence

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Giving chickens a bad name. August 6, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in chickens, homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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Yesterday morning, our friend Ben and Silence Dogood had been delighted to see a “Crazy for Chickens!” decal on the window of a passing car, including an outline of a happy hen. We wished we could find one for our own car, the Red Rogue, where it could join our “No Farms, No Food” and “Buy Fresh, Buy Local” stickers. Go backyard chickens!!!

We have a small flock of heritage-breed hens, who provide us with fantastic organic eggs, entertainment, high-quality fertilizer for our garden beds (their high-nitrogen poop naturally composted with the straw of their chicken yard and the shredded paper in their nest boxes), feathers for our fly-tying friends, and a ready source of appreciative and ever-hungry diners for all our past-peak produce, bread, etc., plus any leftovers we’ve had enough of, pulled weeds that are too scary to compost, spent garden plants, and so on.

Chickens are nature’s garbage disposal. And unlike actual garbage disposals, they give you delicious eggs and free fertilizer, not to mention good company. Ours not only look different—we try to choose each of our six or seven from different heritage breeds—but have their own personalities and know their own names. They also know us and our black German shepherd, Shiloh, and relate to all of us with varying degrees of affection and complacency.

Our chickens take up little space and require little in the way of care: a snug enclosure (coop) with nest boxes where they can get out of the elements and lay eggs, a chicken yard where they can wander around outside, enjoy the sunlight and fresh air, take a dust bath, revel in the feel of rain running through their feathers, forage for anything they might find, and enjoy a steady supply of fresh water and a diversity of foods, including fresh greens, an assortment of fruits and veggies, scratch grains, egglayer pellets, bread and other baked goods, pasta, rice, and milk or cheese that’s past its prime.  

We love our chickens. They’re colorful, personable, low-maintenance, and they reward us with the best eggs we or anyone we’ve given some to have ever eaten, with huge yolks like glaceed apricots and a rich, delicious flavor. So we’ve been thrilled to observe and read about the rise of the backyard chicken movement across America. In cities from Seattle, WA to Madison, WI to Pittsburgh, PA to New York, enthusiasts are raising a few (ordinances generally limit the number to between two and five) chickens and reaping the rewards. It’s one step closer to sustainability, a link to our ancestors, who couldn’t have imagined not raising chickens along with their veggies, herbs, flowers and fruits. Back to the future! Great eggs, no salmonella, no guilt over patronizing the hideous factory farms that remind us of the human “flesh farms” in “The Matrix.”

Seeing the pro-chicken decal buoyed our spirits, but our delight was short-lived. Arriving home, Silence went online to see if any e-mails required a response and saw a “This Just In” e-mail from our local paper, the Allentown, PA Morning Call. One of the headlines was “Lower Saucon rooster repeat offender, attacks elderly woman.”

On the morning of August 5th, the rooster ran out of its yard and attacked a senior citizen as she took her morning constitutional. According to police, who cited the rooster’s owner with “violating the township ordinance of failing to keep his rooster on his property,” this was the third time the rooster had charged and injured a passerby, the other two instances occurring in May and June. In response, the rooster’s owner informed the officers that he was “aware of the attack.”

This is the kind of thing that gives chickens a bad name. Even roosters that are confined to a chicken yard are loud, disturbing the neighborhood with their early-morning cries. They are protective of their flock by nature, charging perceived intruders with beak and spurs, as the super-sharp claws on the backs of their legs are called. Their instinctive ferociousness, designed to defend their harems from predators whatever their size, is why the so-called “sport” of cockfighting came about, and their legendary fearlessness is why countries like France chose a rooster as their national emblem. Many’s the farm child who’s grown up with scarred legs from rooster attacks.

It’s insane to keep a rooster in an urban or suburban situation anyway, much less a free-roaming watchrooster. You don’t even need to keep a rooster to get eggs: Hens lay them anyway. The eggs of roosterless hens are sterile, just like the ones you buy in the store; they’re for eating, not hatching. The only possible excuse for keeping a rooster is if you want to produce your own chicks, not really an issue for city dwellers.

The owner of the attack rooster has clearly rusted out a few bolts in what passes for his brain. To allow one’s animals to attack elderly passersby, or children walking by, or anybody passing by, is criminal. Had the rooster escaped its enclosure and rushed someone once, it would still be inexcusable, though accidental. (Imagine the lawsuit if a dog had done that!) But clearly this rooster is, ahem, free-range.

The damage one owner and one bird like this can do to law-abiding, quiet, peaceful urban and suburban chicken owners is incalculable. Each time the rooster attacks, it makes the news. Not only has an unoffending neighbor been savagely attacked, but the owner’s comment is not, “Ohmigod, I’m SO sorry! I should never have tried keeping a rooster in a neighborhood setting! I’ll send it to a local farm at once, and of course I’ll pay all emergency-room fees.” Instead, what he says is “I was aware of the attack.” What a great guy! Just the kind of neighbor everyone dreams about.

What happens next is only too predictable. Next thing you know, a group of outraged citizens will demand that the township revoke any ordinances allowing chickens within city limits, or demand that an anti-chicken ordinance be instated if no laws regarding chicken-keeping are on the books. Because of one idiot, an entire city could be deprived of the delights of chicken-raising, the ability to learn useful husbandry skills, to enjoy the freshest possible eggs, and to savor the feeling of a little more self-sufficiency and control over their own food supply.

We think this is a shame, even a tragedy. Rather than banning chickens from the community, we’d like to see that stupid, uncaring bastard punished instead, and to make sure that his punishment fits his crime. We think it would be fitting to close him up, in only his underwear, in a very, very small space with his beloved rooster for a very, very long time…

Eggs: grow your own. August 24, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in chickens, critters, homesteading, pets, wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben confesses to feeling a bit smug this morning as I walked into the kitchen with three big, beautiful, organic, still-warm-from-the-nest eggs. Not that I would eat a raw egg, but I knew that I could eat these eggs (or feed one to our egg-loving black German shepherd, Shiloh) raw without worrying about salmonella or anything else. No recalls here at the Hawk’s Haven Pullet Palace!

The fact that salmonella-tainted eggs are once more in the news shines a spotlight on factory farming and its loathesome, cruel, filthy practices. According to The Washington Post, just 192 “agribusinesses” own 95% of the laying hens in the U.S. And if 192 companies producing pretty much all our eggs doesn’t strike you as too small a number, consider this: Americans consume 60 billion eggs a year.  Our friend Ben has noticed that it’s now trendy to refer to the monster pharmaceutical conglomerates as “big pharma.” I’d like to suggest that we start calling these agribusiness conglomerates “big farma.”

But there is a way to feed your family safe, wholesome eggs, and it’s as close as your backyard: Grow your own. Chickens are the easiest animals to raise after aquarium fish. They’re colorful, personable, and fun. You don’t need a rooster to get eggs, so you don’t have to worry about crowing disturbing your neighbors or a rooster going nasty and trying to spur you or your kids. And just two or three hens will give you the luxury of farm-fresh eggs every day (or, if you have a big family or a big egg-eater, every couple of days).

Our little flock of five heritage-breed chickens provides our friend Ben and Silence Dogood with plenty of eggs for omelettes, huevos rancheros, fried eggs, and hard-boiled eggs for our salads, as well as for baking. And we almost always have some to give away to friends (and, of course, share with Shiloh). In return, we supplement the chickens’ diet of scratch grains and egglayer pellets with tons of fresh greens, bread, fruits, veggies, and the occasional leftover pasta, rice, or what-have-you. They thrive on it all, and our eggs are out of this world. Thanks, chickens!

Keeping chickens isn’t cheap, but that’s only because of the initial outlay for a coop and a secure chicken yard. We designed the Pullet Palace ourselves and had a carpenter friend build it, then enclosed it and a good-sized yard around it in tall kenneling walls set over horizontal wire to keep critters from burrowing under. We also added kenneling panels over the top as a secure roof to keep out hawks and raccoons, then grew a wine grape over it to provide shade for the yard in summer. (Not to mention yummy grapes for the chickens and us!)

Once the setup is in place, it’s simply a matter of providing food, water, grit, and straw (we also line our nestboxes with shredded paper if we have it on hand), visiting with the chickens, and collecting those yummy eggs. We think it’s a wonderful return on investment!

Chickens in diapers. July 14, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in chickens, homesteading, pets, wit and wisdom.
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Chickens. The Wall Street Journal. Not the first pairing that springs to our friend Ben’s mind. So I was surprised when our friend and fellow blog contributor Richard Saunders brandished a section of last Thursday’s Journal at me, pointing out an article titled “Fowl Fans See Golden Eggs in Catering to Pet-Chicken Market.”

I found the article screamingly funny. Especially priceless were the quotes from Ruth Haldeman, founder of ChickenDiapers.com: “Everyone was talking about how there was a need for diapers” and “People like to have their chicks inside the house roaming free.” (This gives a whole new meaning to “free range” eggs.)

Our friend Ben has never heard anyone, much less everyone, talking about the need for chicken diapers, nor have I ever seen a hen roaming through anyone’s home. But Ms. Haldeman is apparently having the last laugh: Her diapers, which sell for $9 to $14, have been purchased by customers from coast to coast and as far away as New Zealand, according to the article.

Entrepreneurs who cater to backyard (or indoor) chicken fanciers apparently have plenty to crow about. The article cites one couple who started a pet-chicken company in 2005 with $10,000 and expects to make over a million this year. Not a bad return on investment! That’s because interest in chickens is at an all-time high: BackYardChickens.com has 60,000 members, and Andy G. Schneider, better known as the Chicken Whisperer, attracts 15,000 listeners per month nationwide to his hourlong daily show on backyard chicken keeping.

Our friend Ben is a fervent believer in the “chicken in every yard” philosophy. Here at Hawk’s Haven, our five heritage-breed chickens (Imelda, Griselda, Olivia, Lucretia and Stella) have their own Pullet Palace and securely fenced yard. They get greens, veggies, fruit, bread, and appropriate table scraps every day in addition to their organic egglayer pellets and scratch grains, and in return, we get a lot of entertainment from their antics and the best eggs on earth.

But chickens in the house? Chickens in diapers? Or, worse still, chickens in handmade holiday outfits that cover their wings as well as their bodies?

The article ended with a profile of a woman who makes these costumes for her own birds; they remind our friend Ben of the craze around here a few years ago for attiring lawn-art geese with festive seasonal costumes (in the “Who on earth thought of this?!” mode). When, in another priceless quote, the originator of these chicken costumes says she’s thinking of turning them into a business because “It’s an area of business that’s untouched,” our friend Ben can only say, thank God.

To read the article (published July 8, 2010) and see photos of the chicken products, go to www.WSJ.com/US.

Eggzactly what do you mean?! June 13, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in chickens, homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. A friend of ours just forwarded us a piece from The Washington Post, published on June 2, 2010, that claimed that there was absolutely no difference in taste between eggs from free-range, happy, healthy backyard chickens and factory-farmed chickens who’d had their beaks cut off, were crammed in tiny cages with no room to even turn around, fed the minimum pseudo-diet to keep them alive for the year or less they were kept to pump out eggs, sprayed regularly with miticides and pumped full of antibiotics, and then sent to the slaughter, doubtless a blessing after the brutal lives they’d led to that point.

Well, as backyard chicken owners for the past dozen-plus years, we beg to differ. We also wonder what would have prompted the author of this article to write a piece encouraging people to support the unspeakably cruel practices of factory farming. A Monsanto-size kickback springs to mind.

Here at Hawk’s Haven, we currently have five heritage-breed chickens: Olivia, Stella, Lucretia, Imelda and Griselda. Needless to say, they lay more eggs than our friend Ben and I can possibly eat, so we regularly give six-packs of our organic homegrown eggs to our friends. Said friends continuously beg us for more eggs, not because they can’t afford to buy a dozen eggs from the store, but for one reason, and one reason only: “Your eggs are the best we’ve ever eaten.”

We know this ourselves for a fact. That’s because, in the natural cycle, hens stop laying eggs when the daylength shortens in fall and don’t start laying again until the daylength lengthens in spring. Commercial operations keep their hens laying year-round by tricking the poor souls into thinking it’s perpetual summer with lighting and heat. But our hens are with us for life—often up to 12 years—and we let them take their winter break and store up strength for themselves in the cold months. We figure they’ve earned it.

So during the time our own hens aren’t laying, we buy free-range organic eggs from our local farmers’ market. We figure it’s the next-best thing. But please, put that emphasis on “next-best.” Yes, it’s way better than factory-farmed eggs. But still, the pale-yolked eggs bear no comparison to our own flock’s amazing, apricot-yolked eggs.  No comparison at all. I avoid making egg-rich dishes in fall and winter so our friend Ben and I don’t have to deal with these comparatively pallid, flavorless eggs any more often than we must. Ah, welcome, spring!

Our eggs don’t just look different from other eggs. They taste different. The Post article notwithstanding, our eggs have a rich, luscious flavor that store-bought eggs don’t touch. Even the texture is different. I think it’s simply a reflection of the way the chickens are raised. Yes, of course we give them organic scratch grains and egglayer pellets as a base diet. But every day, we supplement their diet with whole-grain breads, tons of organic greens, a rich variety of weeds, and other treats, from pepper cores to pasta, popcorn, corn cobs, green beans, fruit, and cheese rinds. Our chickens enjoy a healthy, varied diet. And they reward us with those amazing eggs.

To the author of that article, I can only say, I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt. Maybe you weren’t paid off by the egg industry, one of the most unsconscionable businesses in the country. But hey, maybe writing articles like this isn’t paying you as much as you’d hoped. No worries, though, I’m sure there’s a great job at a factory-farmed chicken facility near you. Go for it! You’ve certainly earned it. And like all the unfortunate people who are making their livings there, I’m sure you’ll enjoy it.

Meanwhile, like the guy who travelled to Korea to eat dog so he could be sure to get published back in the States, I hope you’re proud of yourself.

         ‘Til next time,

                       Silence

Is there a rooster in the house? April 8, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in chickens, homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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The hen house, that is. When people find out that our friend Ben and Silence Dogood keep chickens, the conversation almost always goes like this:

“Do you have a rooster?”

“No, just the six hens.”

“Then how do you get eggs?”

This has to be the most common misconception about chickens, that hens need roosters to lay eggs. The truth is that you’ll get just as many eggs without a rooster as with one. What you won’t get is fertile eggs. So if you want chicks, you need a rooster. If you just want eggs, you don’t.

Two other misconceptions that are almost as common:

* Brown eggs are more nutritious than white eggs. Not true, but we can see where this probably came from: For a long time, pretty much all factory-farmed eggs were white, while farm-raised hens were often hardy breeds that laid brown eggs. A healthy hen that gets plenty of variety in her diet and runs around on a farm will certainly lay more nutritious eggs than a factory-farmed hen, whether her eggs are brown, white, blue, green, or pink.

* Which brings us to this classic, that blue eggs have blue yolks. Take this line of reasoning to its logical conclusion, and white eggs would have white yolks! All eggs, whatever their color, have yolks that range in color from pale yellow (those factory farms again) to a deep, rich apricot-orange (our hens’ eggs). And yes, the deeper the yolk’s color, the more nutritious the egg. (Hens that lay blue, green, or pink eggs are called Easter Egg chickens. Ameracaunas all lay blue eggs.)

Have you heard any curious questions about eggs?

Save the chickens!!! March 31, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in chickens, homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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Here at Poor Richard’s Almanac, we feel strongly about chickens. Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood have kept a delightful flock of five or six heritage-breed chickens here at our rural cottage home, Hawk’s Haven, for at least a decade. Not only are the chickens easy-care, personable, and colorful, but they provide us with extraordinary organic eggs and high-nitrogen organic fertilizer for our gardens. We love our chickens and would recommend small-scale chicken-raising to anybody. 

So you can imagine how horrified we were to see today’s post on GardenRant (www.gardenrant.com), “Backyard chickens in jeopardy,” about how a couple in Buffalo, New York were being investigated for keeping chickens, even as they tried to make a sustainable stand in a drug-dealing downtown neighborhood. God forbid that anyone should try to keep a few hens when they could be dealing heroine in the streets instead! GRRRRRRRRRR. 

We suggest that you read the post itself, followed by the comments from readers who detail how many chickens their own urban governments deem that they may or may not own.

Yes, we understand that chickens make noise, especially after they’ve just laid an egg. All their noise, however, can’t compare to the sound of one barking dog or screaming siren. And if you don’t keep a crowing rooster (which you shouldn’t, unless you live on an isolated farm) that noise is under control.

Some people have heard that chicken coops smell bad. Well, no, that would be the factory farms where bazillion chickens are stuffed in the equivalent of a double-wide trailer. All you can smell in our chickens’ yard is fresh straw.

Hey, what about salmonella? Well hey, what about it?! In the crowded, horrific, malnourished conditions of factory farming, salmonella could be a real issue. In our Pullet Palace, where our hens roam freely and eat an abundance of fresh fruits, veggies, whole grains, and dairy products along with their organic seed and pellet rations, we don’t even wash the eggs before we use them. Obviously, we’re alive, healthy, and happily writing this post.

So please, head on over to GardenRant and do your part to save our chickens. Let’s not put another self-sufficient freedom in the hands of Big Government.

A chicken question. January 31, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in chickens, gardening, homesteading.
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No, our friend Ben does not want to know which came first, the chicken or the egg. (Hint: It was the egg.) What I would like to know is this: Backyard chicken keepers everywhere, what are your setups like? How many chickens do you have, and what breed(s) are they? Do you also keep a rooster? Do your chickens have an enclosed yard, or do you let them run free? What sort of coop do you have? And how well do you (and your chickens) like your setup?

Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood are quite happy with our kennel-fence enclosed chicken yard and coop, and our six heritage-breed chickens enjoy it, too. But over the years, I’ve read about many an interesting and ingenious setup, and last night, it occurred to me that I’d never really heard about them firsthand. Our friends Delilah and Chaz keep a tiny flock of three chickens in a churchlike coop with a heated floor (!), and a gardener I know keeps his fancy bantam flock in a one-of-a-kind designer coop, but they’re the only other backyard chicken keepers I know.

So how about it? Please tell all! Who knows, you may inspire other readers to get their own little backyard flock. (If they could just taste our flock’s rich, apricot-yolked eggs, I know they’d all get a few hens of their own. Chickens are easy-care, personable, and fun, a perfect complement to a backyard food garden.) Let us hear from you!