Remember a while back when I blamed last year’s turkeys for our chickens’ sudden bad behavior? I may have to take it back, even though the turkeys won’t have the luxury to gloat after my heartfelt apology. Sorry.
Our chickens used to be such good citizens. After at least twelve years minding their own business on the other side of the road, widespread delinquency persists. From the moment I unlatch the coop after their night’s safe rest (and hear not one “thank you,” BTW) they see it as the green flag of their race to the flower garden, vegetable garden, front porch, and anything that looks like a walkway (all of which chickens view as mining operations and/or toilets). Now that I’ve asked, answers are not so funny when the question isn’t so hypothetical. I need a strategy to make it stop, and I need it now.
When our dogs were young and less bulky, chickens learned fast that careless excursions to the people yard meant they were in for a laundry list of potential unpleasantries, not the least of which was a quick shuffle off this mortal coil. Because of that, we “coached” our puppies with yummy snacks to resist the urge to chomp our domestic fowl. And that is largely why we find ourselves in the present predicament of a yard full of eff you chickens and burping, lethargic canine chicken roosts.
We now face an ages-old sticky wicket—the very one that has led to the world’s current argument between conventional and cage-free poultry farming advocates. Here’s how it works: Chickens are curious, wonderful creatures. They are pretty cool-looking in a prehistoric kind of way, they are adorable when running, and they provide us with very, very good food (that is, whenever they decide to lay their eggs in the nest box instead of a hiding place deep in the shadows under the granary). Chickens are also pushy, stubborn, loud, destructive, MESSY, STINKY, and vulnerable; plus they speak very little English, so it’s difficult to reason with them.
One cannot separate the characteristics from the chicken. When you decide to keep a flock, it’s an all-in proposition; you get the good with the bad. Everyone wants the food and that’s the chicken’s iron bond to humanity (which would be a terrific thing to convey to the understanding of chickens themselves, because they obviously believe we like them for their companionship alone).
Since we can’t seem to wean our hundreds of millions of selves from eggs, we must choose how we want to keep chickens down on the farm. One way is to turn a blind eye to the charming side of these birds and simply inter them tightly in stacked cages in football-field-sized buildings, run conveyors underneath to gather the eggs, and barn-fan the stench out the other end. Another is to do much the same thing, but nix the cage stacks and allow the cluckers to mingle “freely” on the floor between bouts of egg-laying in under-conveyored compartments. Inhumane both, you might say, but I venture to say that these two methods are at the other end of more than 99% of the “eggs”* you purchase at your local grocery. The price is right, after all.
As partner in a genuinely free-range hobby chicken farm with a mere 35 alarmingly radicalized chickens (and two peacocks), I understand the motivations of the purveyors of method one and two above. If we had to put up enough chickens to produce enough eggs to feed the people of even the nearest tiny village, steps closer to their methods would have to be taken.
As it is, we will likely try the fence method to give the rest of our property a needed break. Not cheap or without it’s own maintenance headaches, but one way to have CHICKENS and eggs for our family & friends.
I have no idea what to do about the hunger of the millions of egg eaters out there. Maybe the modern surge of suburban chicken keepers is the way of the future, which would warm my heart, but it’s hard to see that movement making its way deep into the city where all the people are. Chickens have far too many movements of their own, which, as far as I can tell, is why and why not.
*If you’ve never had a fresh brown egg from a truly free-ranging, scratching, bug-eating, burrow-digging, silly-running chicken, you’ve never had an egg.