Urban Chicken Wrangler

I go into the feed stores, and hear the peeping. It is so hard to resist the chicks. So cute running around pecking. Its hard for me to resist.

I think everyone should have a chicken or two, in their lives. When I lived in an urban center, I  decided that I just HAD to have some chickens. (We already had a duck that my daughter had talked me into, and, of course, you can’t just have one duck, so we had three.)

As I discovered…a lot of people have chickens. My UPS guy, the mailman,the clerk at the grocery store…a few teachers at my daughters school. I even joined an “urban chicken” club. I found people who showed chickens.  (I found this weird.) There is a lot more poultry around in cities that would seem “normal”. I had no idea until I had chickens. It was like being pregnant, you don’t notice anyone is pregnant until you are, then you see pregnant women EVERYWHERE.  In this case, I didn’t now that there was a very active underground poultry society until I had my own.

smaller chicken and laundry

White Crested Black Polish chicken under my clothesline.,

I learned by trial-and-error, and from other people. But, compared to a lot of pets, chickens are the least demanding of any pet I’ve ever owned. In the beginning, I had two full-sized birds, and two bantam “Silkies” (very odd little birds). Bantams are half-sized chickens…so chicken lite, and they lay these cute little eggs. (Great for a diet.) The challenge was in keeping them safe. So, we trained them to go into portable dog kennels (the airline type) every night, and then haul them in the house. (I say “train” this consisted of seeking them from wherever they had decided to roost in the yard, and snagging them, putting them INTO the kennel every night…until they figured out that the kennels were the safe spot to go. However, if you don’t put the kennels in the exact same spot every day, they get confused.  Then they’ll go back to plucking them from bushes and trees every night. (Which sucks.)  I started leaving the kennels where they were, from when I left them out.  The chickens got the clue, and sometimes would lay their eggs IN the kennels, which made me happy. But, sometimes I’d forget, or one of the kids would move the kennels, and that night, I was again, out after dark, with a flashlight searching for where the chickens were hiding. When you snatch a chicken in the dark, it makes a terrible, terrified noise. Poor things sound pitiful.  It did anchor me around their schedule, until I built a hen-house and yard with a covered top and sides. It was a constant worry and race to get home “before it was too dark” to put them inside.

On second thought, maybe they trained me.
In the day they’d go out in the yard and run around. Eat bugs, and we’d give them a little grain and leftovers in the morning, and a small amount of grain at night, about an hour before sunset. (I didn’t like to keep food out because I didn’t want rodents.)  Grain is chicken crack, by the way, they’ll eat that before they eat anything else.

I’ll admit, I was ready to throw in the towel, at first.  I mean, chicks are cute, but the teen chickens are just jerks. They are messy, loud, and smelly.  But, once we had the eggs — that was is IT! We were addicted. With only four layers (two small eggs and two large) we would wait with anticipation of “someone laying”. On average, two eggs a day, was more than a dozen a week. That was great. (Back then I wasn’t all that into eggs.)

Once I moved to a quasi-rural area, I ordered 25 from McMurray (big online/catalog hatchery). I cannot tell you that 25 are as easy as a few. They aren’t. Even with a big, “formal” hen-house, there is a lot more cleaning, more heartache. We’ve had problems with when raccoons discovered the easy pickings, eagles swooping down, large ravens taking a few out, a local dog had a blast one afternoon.  Chickens are prey. They’re not always smart enough to get out of harm’s way. And, then, the chicken breeds, themselves.  I wish I’d paid more attention to when the catalog said “calm bird” or “good foragers” “lively”, etc.   I’ve come to find out “alert” and the “good forager” are polite terms for crazy chickens!  And chickens that are “good mothers” also mean that they’ll go broody, all summer long. (A broody hen is one that stops laying, and starts gathering every egg they can find to put under her ample butt, so that she can hatch them. Often a broody hen will defend the eggs, with a vengeance, and will also go rogue in your yard somewhere – MIA.  The broody hen won’t eat or drink, either.)

The bigger heavier breeds are much easier to deal with. I am a huge fan of the Orpington breed (especially the Buff Orpington).

Two dozen chickens produced up to two dozen eggs a day.  On average, it was, at the very least, a dozen a day (and with the ducks, another half-dozen, and when the geese are laying another four. Eggs, eggs, eggs!) For a while, I tried to supply most of my neighbors with eggs, until they were politely saying “no thanks”.  I baked a pound cake each week. Made angel food cakes (hey! uses a dozen) and custards, and searched for more recipes.  I froze eggs (separated works best).  I even started (recycling?) cooking up the eggs to feed back to the hens . (Cook the eggs before giving them back to the hens so they don’t start eating their own eggs, and cut out the middle-man: YOU.)

Over the years my chicken population has dropped (from the aforementioned predators), to a more manageable number of chickens.  I think that two chickens for each person in the household is the right number of chickens.

Poultry is about the closest you’ll get to having dinosaurs in your yard. Chickens are amusing to watch.  And, can they eat! They are eating machines. The bugs in the yard get gobbled up and, most important: they eat leftovers.  No more guilt over tossing out a stale loaf of bread, or the rice that no one seems to want to eat as a leftover,  or that last bit of breakfast cereal at the bottom of the box…that the kids won’t eat because there isn’t enough for a full bowl. They also gobble up peanut butter and jelly sandwiches that come back from a packed school lunch all squished and miserable looking, vegetable trimmings, and wilted vegetables, bruised apples, and whatever else that would usually go into the trash can or garbage disposal.

I would recommend poultry for anyone. It’s hard to be depressed and feeling lonely when you have a flock of poultry that think you are a food god! You can’t be unhappy when all the chickens immediately stop whatever they are doing and  run over to see what you have for them. It adds a nice balance to life. They are always happy to see you.

The Yolk

Egg yolks are colored by xanthophylls, a yellow-orange pigment in green plants, yellow corn, and bugs. Yolk color is influenced by feed, exercise, and the lifestyle of the chicken.  Yolk color can be influenced by feed alone. In fact, a chicken running around in a yard, eating whatever it finds, is going to have varying yolk color intensity, depending on what is in season. Alfalfa creates a very light yellow yolk, whereas yellow corn can give a deeper yellow. More-intense-colored yolks are the result of feed with a heavy dosing of annatto or ample greens such as clover or kale; rye pasture; weeds such as mustard, pennycress, and shepherd’s purse; or feed that is high in beta-carotene vegetables such as carrots and beets. A quantity of red fruits can intensify the red-orange color of the yolk.

Exercise, pecking order, and bug eating contribute to the natural deep orange and/or red tones of a naturally colored yolk.

In the “modern world” we mess with mother nature.

Poultry raisers have long discussed influencing yolk color with various feed combinations to please their consumers. In 1919 a popular paper entitled “The influence of specific feeds and certain pigments on the color of the egg yolk and body fat of fowls,” by Leroy S. Palmer and Harry L. Kempster[1], was widely read. What the authors found was that “yellow corn is the best winter food for keeping up the coloring of adipose tissue during fattening” and that it was also what kept the egg yolks a nice sunny yellow color. Not too dark, not too light. People liked to purchase dressed chickens with a deep yellow skin color, and corn filled the bill. Corn, along with annatto (a derivative of the achiote tree, of tropical regions of the Americas, used in food dyes), is used heavily—to this day—in chicken feed to give a faux “healthy” yellow glow that normally could be found only in chickens raised in sunshiny fields.

A side note: Annatto has been linked with many cases of food-related allergies and is the only natural food coloring believed to cause as many allergic-type reactions as artificial food coloring. However, because it is not one of the “Big Eight” allergens (cow’s milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, soy, and wheat) responsible for more than 90 percent of allergic reactions to food, its use is not regulated nor is a consumer able to avoid it easily (it’s rarely listed in labeling as anything other than “natural coloring”). Many people who consider themselves allergic to chicken eggs may, in fact, be allergic to the annatto feed additives.

Artificial egg coloring is still a very hot topic in poultry farming. Articles appear frequently in trade and scientific journals regarding the use of artificial and natural coloring agents in feed to intensify the yolk color of eggs and the skin color of chickens. One such article, “Formulation of Annatto Feed Concentrate for Layers and the Evaluation of Egg Yolk Color Preference of Consumers,”[1] in the Journal of Food Biochemistry (January 13, 2010), lays out the trickery that is rampant in the poultry industry:

Visual appearance, especially color, is one of the most important characteristics of foods and determines the acceptance or rejection of the product by the consumer. This statement is also true for poultry products, in which the color of skin, meat and egg yolk plays a fundamental role to some ethnic and regional consumers (Chichester, 1981; Hencken, 1992; Williams, 1992; Macdougall, 1994). The preference for well-pigmented poultry products is still evident in some markets, and thus, poultry producers add colorants to broiler and layer diets as a means of improving the attractiveness of these products (Klaui and Bauernfeind 1981; Hencken 1992; Liufa et al., 1997).

The interesting thing about the authors’ analysis is their assertion that the average consumer in the United States prefers a yolk that is a lighter yellow than what European consumers favor. This is presumably because those consumers have never eaten an egg from a chicken that pecks, scratches, chases bugs, and eats greens and weeds in a natural setting. The flavor and quality of eggs from a backyard chicken are vastly superior to what you get with commercially laid eggs.

[1] I. Ofosu, E. Appiah-Nkansah, L. Owusu, F. Apea-Bah, I. Oduro, I., and W. Ellis, “Formulation Of Annatto Feed Concentrate for Layers and the Evaluation of Egg Yolk Color Preference of Consumers,” 2010. Journal of Food Biochemistry, 34: 66–77. doi: 10.1111/j.1745-4514.2009.00264.x

[1] The Dairy Chemistry Laboratory and Department of Poultry Husbandry, University of Missouri, Columbia)

Eggs are (Supposed to Be) Seasonal

I went to my favorite egg wrangler, today, and again, the honor box was empty.  So, after my drive all the way out to a country road 12 miles form my home, in the rain and cold, resulted in disappointment.  Again, I missed out.  Why?  Because this farmer lets his hens have natural light.  Chickens do not lay year-round, without artificial light.  Eggs are not really seasonal. His girls on on a darkness induced laying break. Production is cut by 80%, at least.  I will need to wait until the days, again, become longer before they will be plentiful again.

From hatch to egg laying is roughly six months, unless that six-month period happens when the days are getting shorter (mid- to late fall). In that case, without artificial light, the chicken will delay laying until the days begin to lengthen (late January to late March. It is later in the northern latitudes than those farther south). Chickens produce the most eggs in the first few months of laying and more in warm weather and on sunny days.

Some poultry, such as geese and turkeys, lay eggs only in the spring. Chickens lay more eggs in the spring than in the hot weather of summer. When the daylight hours and temperatures drop (late autumn, early winter), egg production declines. The energy is diverted to keeping the chickens warm and to molting (when they lose some feathers and increase new feather production for winter insulation).

Sunlight is the key in stimulating egg-laying hormones and in triggering molt. When the days are at the shortest, the chickens cease laying, completely.  When the days, again, begin to lengthen (early January) then they, again, begin to lay. By the time the day and night are equal lengths (daylight neutral) the egg production will be in full swing.

Molting is the process of feather loss and regrowth. In backyard chickens, it can happen once or twice a year. The birds lose their feathers and grow new ones, much as other animals shed fur or hair. It is a normal, natural, and beneficial process that takes place in the fall. A hen stops laying eggs (fall/winter is a bad time for chicks to hatch, anyway, as extremely low temperatures would cause a high mortality rate). Its body concentrates its energy on staying warm and growing new feathers. A chicken goes into a dormant phase in which it does not lay many eggs until the days begin to lengthen. (This is usually triggered by the naturally low light levels of fall/early winter.)

In the spring, when daylight lImageengthens and the temperatures warm, a chicken loses a fair amount of its downy under-feathers, and if the hen is a broody hen, she will pick her feathers to make a warm nest for any potential hatching chicks.  After a long winter’s respite from laying eggs, it resumes doing so. At this point, even older chickens lay approximately an egg a day (chickens never lay more than one egg a day. Young birds lay every day, or nearly so. Older chickens normally lay every few days.)

A broody bird is one that is predisposed to sit on eggs, not all are so inclined. Some chicken breeds are more likely to become broody, some breeds rarely do so. Even with a breed that is said to be a broody breed, only a few individual hens will decide to become broody.  However, a broody hen can stimulate other hens to also become broody.

When a hen is broody she turns into a chicken zombie.  She will sit motionless on a nest of eggs for days on end. She will refuse to leave the nest and forego food and water or scratching around the yard, like the other birds.  If she is moved from the nest she will run back. A broody hen will pull every egg laid by all the other chickens and push it under her. Then defend them with a fierce ferocity.  (A broody hen is a pain in the ass.)

Chickens left to molt naturally (with natural light) stop laying eggs for several weeks in the winter. Older birds have a longer resting period than younger ones. As the days start to lengthen, the chickens ramp up the production of eggs.