Friday, March 28, 2008

Playing Chicken

In the Night Farm's chicken coop consists of two sections. The first and largest is known as Harlem's Harem.

Harlem is our rooster.

A Non-Bearded White Crested Black Polish (we think), Harlem showed up in a friend's urban backyard last summer. Why yes, of course we have room for another animal.

The second section of our chicken coop is known as the Broody Bay. When a hen decides to set a clutch of eggs, she is said to be "broody." A broody hen stops laying and eats and drinks little until her hormones get out of the way -- typically by raising a brood.

Last fall, my lovely Sooty hen, a small Black Australorp, turned broody. We let her set, and four of the eggs hatched.

Three of Sooty's chicks grew into beautiful cockerels. I am sad to say will also be tasty cockerels. But, if I'm going to eat a little meat now and then, I want it to come from critters that haven't been stuffed full of chemicals.

Note: For an entertaining, intelligent, and enlightening read about the origins of most American meals, pick up a copy of Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma.

Anyway, when you live on a farm, you learn not to name some of the animals.

Sooty's only pullet (young female hen) did get a name. Henrietta, who sports a small crest like her daddy's, now lives in Harlem's Harem. Her eggs are easy to identify by size and shape, so if she gets broody, we won't accidentally let her raise any inbred chicks.

Right now, Penny is the broody one.

Penny was Travis' prize in the Great Chicken Caper of 2007. This was an unpublicized event in which we responded to a Craigslist ad for free chickens -- as many as you can catch. Let me tell you how many that is: Not Many.

Anyway, we'll let Penny set a clutch of Aracauna eggs soon. Though relatively non-descript in appearance and unenthusiastic winter layers, heritage Aracaunas are a favorite of mine for their beautiful, blue-green eggs.

Seeing as we knew almost nothing about chickens when we bought (or, in Penny's case, caught) them last year, we were lucky to get some that go broody. Many chickens, including some strains of Rhode Island Reds and Sex-Links, have had their brooding instinct bred out of them in the name of increased production.

Vegetables aren't the only things losing ground to hybridization for factory farming. Heirloom chickens, also known as heritage chickens, are getting harder to find. Smarter, hardier, more disease-resistant, and longer-lived than their modern brethern that are often incapable of reproduction without artificial insemination, heritage chickens are trying to make a comeback with the help of dedicated farmers and the American Livestock Breeds Conservency.

Don't worry -- I'm not an alarmist, nor even a standard-issue liberal. I'm just another small-time farmer observing that our national obsession with hybridized plants and animals incapable of procreation puts us on a crash course with Fate. Perhaps the sustainable, local, and organic farming movements help us swerve in time.

All the more reason to let Penny raise Aracaunas.

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