Feral Chickens

For the first few years we would buy new chicks via mail order. The date was chosen for their arrival, we’d set up a brooder, a plastic baby pool filled with wood shavings and a task light above for heat. The post office would call when they arrived and we’d make the drive into town to pick them up, opening the box to check on them as soon as they passed it over the countertop. The soft balls of yellow down would be cheeping up a storm, ready for some sustenance after their journey from the hatchery. Every year we’d choose at least two varieties to test for suitability and to make it easier to differentiate between last years brood and the newest models. We also prefer both brown and white eggs as this mix offers visual diversity at the table when we go to the farmer’s market. In terms of flavor there is no difference of course, but the sight of a wooden bowl filled with dozens of chalky ovoids in varying hues is an eye catcher no matter how often you see it. We have tried a multitude of breeds in the past six years; Barnvelders and Barred Rocks, Houdans, Australorps, Leghorns, New Hampshire reds, Wyandottes, Cochins and Orpingtons. Certain varieties have proven themselves to be perfect for our climate and methods, like the Leghorns with their prolific production of large, white shelled eggs. Their failing is that they possess flamboyant red combs that are prone to frostbite a condition that doesn’t seem to affect their laying, but leaves me feeling deeply sympathetic for their appearance, red tips gone gray from the bitter cold. Others haven’t fared as well, like the Polish with their insane head feathers who never seem to see the circling hawks before they stoop for the kill. The Ameracauna produce a beautiful aqua colored egg, but only twice a week making their feed to egg ratio too low to be of service to the family despite what they add aesthetically to the filled carton. Despite the fact that when we get the birds they are only a day old and both breeds arrive together and grow to adulthood as a single flock, they always lay their eggs as a breed, one nesting box filled with white eggs, another with brown. They do this without prompting, their segregation a part of a natural process that they understand on a fundamental level, unaffected by any form of poultry legislation. The blue eggs, like their Easter-like counterparts, must be searched for up in the rafters or buried in the litter on the chickenhouse floor.

Care for chicks is fairly simple provided that there is a space where they can be safely kept until they shed their down and develop feathers. We add a little maple syrup and vinegar to their water for energy and to stimulate digestive health, make sure they always have a good supply of feed and change the shaving regularly. They entertain themselves as chickens are wont to do by making excited sounds and furtive moves continuously and for no apparent reason. Their biggest threat is their tendency to jam themselves into knots for warmth, making suffocation an occupational hazard. The round shape of the baby pool makes it harder to find a spot that even the weakest can’t get out of if hard pressed. We wind up wrapping it with cardboard after a couple of days to prevent jump outs and to keep mature hens from jumping in should they wind up in their enclosure. It takes only a few weeks for the chicks to develop into pullets and at this stage we usually separate the cockerels from the future layers to fatten them up for meat. We’ll hang on to the largest most aggressive so that we always have a dominant rooster to look over and fertilize the eggs of our new flock. Within four months, more or less, they will begin to lay eggs, small ones without yolks at first, but increasingly larger and more frequently as they reach maturity.

We free range our birds and give them access to a mobile henhouse during the warmer months. The chicken tractor is a modified hay wagon with an enclosure mounted on top secure against predators and lined with nesting boxes for collection of eggs and roosts for nightime accomodations. The rest of their time is spent living in the open under the supervision of their rooster and the guardian dogs. They feed on insects and grasses, seeds and larvae left behind in cow patties on pasture. Their constant pecking, dispersal of wastes, dropping of manure and scratching at the soil reduce the load of insects without need for chemicals, fertilize the soil without the addition of oil based NPK and add flavor and nutrition to their eggs and flesh. A range free egg, when you crack it open, features a yolk almost orange from beta carotene that stands up in the pan like a golf ball, surrounded by a tight, well defined albumen rather than the watery ooze that is found in commercially produced CAFO eggs. The flavor is hard to describe, but buttery and rich fit the bill as well as anything else. The yolks make terrific mayonnaise and whipped with lemon juice and butter a hollandaise sauce that you’ll never forget. A the end of the season before the leaves are completely off the trees we introduce them to their winter quarters behind the house, a three stall chicken house with lights to offset the growing darkness and solid walls to keep out both the cold as well as predators. Most of the chickens will take to the coop without much trouble because it is filled with nesting boxes and we feed them inside, but every year a few of the chickens will resist and take every opportunity to get back outdoors and rejoin the cattle or sheep. No matter how often we round them up and bring them back to the coop they soon find themselves back outside, roosting inside the hay barn at night, picking through the wastes left behind the pig’s trough, or feeding on bits of silage or hay where the cows feed. We do not care for these chickens since they no longer leave eggs for us, but accomodate ourselves to a sort of mutual indifference to each other’s presence. How they survive the coldest nights was a mystery to me until I spent one night in the barn awaiting a calf. The chickens wait until the cattle are bedded down for the night and then look for a spot between them, capitalizing on the body heat of mammals at rest. Twice I have caught them perched on the back of a sleeping bull, eyes closed in sleep.

We have two feral hens this year, a New Hampshire Red and a Welsummer. They have made it through the hardest New England winter in recent memory without benefit of a henhouse or regular feed and look none the worse for it. They keep a wary distance from me whenever I am out doing chores and I have an exceptionally high level of admiration for them and their independence. I can see in those two chickens a reverse order of the domestication process, an animal that slowly circles the human sphere because of the elements of safety and providence, in turn offering up its output in eggs and eventually in meat. Chickens are easy in a way that larger domesticated animals are not and rarely, if ever, leave the farm for any reason that doesn’t involve being eaten by a wild animal. This morning I watched those two chickens for a while making their way between the hooves of the herd looking for dropped seed from the bales, a part of our farm, but aloof and I thought of how good they will taste when I make a coq au vin next Sunday. Membership, as they say, has its privilege.

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