“Chickens – a way of life!”
Having chickens in your life is so hot right now. If you’re not obsessed yourself, you know someone who is.
Within a few years, keeping backyard chooks has gone from being something your nanna did, to the mainstream. Chickens are in inner-city backyards and comedy gigs, old people’s homes and poultry shows, prisons and weddings. Regional poultry clubs have been revitalised by the influx of tree-changers and hipsters intoxicated with exotic heritage breeds.Rescue chickens are the new black, and the perfect feel-good accompaniment to your rescue dog. Chickens are an essential component of the permaculture, locavore, sustainability, self-sufficiency and low food mile movements. Chickens are owning Instagram. Chickens are everywhere.
… meet Jareth Bullivant, an animal liberationist who takes his rescue broilers Twistie and Sephiroth to the beach. Nik Round, a Victorian advertising executive who is focused on saving a heritage breed. Summer Farrelly from Queensland, a twelve-year-old with autism who connects with the world through her chooks and has started a chicken therapy program. Shane Secombe, who rescues the unwanted roosters of Alice Springs and gives them a second life at the prison. …
Funny, joyful and moving, This Chicken Life unpacks an obsession and a love affair. Chickens and humans, heart to heart, face to beak. This is no fad, it’s a way of life.
Not hard to imagine a wild fling of hands and arms (try it, I did!), as accompaniment to the last couple of sentences of the book’s promo: “Chickens and humans, heart to heart, face to beak. This is no fad, it’s a way of life.”
“Chickens – a way of life!” Uttered, by us, with the same conviction as when we think about our other livestock: cows and dairy goats.
I came across, online, the passage I open with – searching for inspiration as to what to say about chickens in this week’s post. I thought I’d get the ball rolling by googling what I’d tentatively come up with – a title that asks a question: ‘Chicken Lover?’. Straight up, the urban dictionary said the slang phrase described a person who performs sexual acts with chickens! Scrolling down, a dictionary of sexual terms informed me that a ‘chicken lover’ was an adult male homosexual sexually attracted to underage males. I hastily pressed the delete button on that title!
My scrolling down not in vain, though – I came across the spiel for the book: This Chicken Life. As well as giving me a title idea and amusing me with its quirky anecdotes, it triggered some reflections on keeping chickens that I’ll share with you now.
I placed the question mark in the jettisoned title to reflect the fact that no matter how much June and I like chickens, they are not kept as pets. We keep chickens because they provide us with eggs.
In self-sufficiency’s thrall, we had dual purpose heritage breeds: sometimes Light Sussex, sometimes Australorps. A broody hen would sit on a clutch of up to a dozen eggs, and we’d keep the resulting hens and eat the cockerels as young birds. The pullets would lay well through spring and summer and tail off over autumn and winter.
There would be no eggs from a hen moulting in autumn, and a clucky would be off the lay for a couple of weeks despite my best efforts to (as humanely as possible), break the broody cycle. All in all, you could only rely on getting eggs for about six months of the year. And, as for so many of us, eggs are a staple food, so we’d also have to buy eggs, particularly over autumn and winter.
We loved having heritage chickens, and we loved watching the chicks through the various stages from newly hatched chicks to point of lay. And as nature had intended, also a rooster. Entertaining us with his cock-a-doodle-dooing and intriguing behaviours as he dedicated himself to the job of keeping the flock close by and protected from threats.
Then, almost five years ago, we retired from the workforce, and Old Man Time (personified as Father Time by the ancient Greeks), paid us a visit. In no uncertain terms, he told us it was time to cut back on our self-sufficiency workload to free up time to pursue other interests.
Our heritage hen enterprise one of several we bid a fond farewell. Now we are strict in limiting ourselves to three hens (no rooster) from one of the two commercial hybrids available in New Zealand: the Brown Shaver and the Hyline Brown. Hens that lay year-round, very rarely go broody, and don’t take long to moult.
Our most recent flock – three Brown Shaver hens – started laying eggs (after three years of churning out good eggs), with either paper-thin shells or no shell at all. When it came to culling the flock, I buried them, rather than eat birds yielding only a small amount of tough, stringy meat. All their energy would have gone into producing close to an egg a day. Buried, following June’s instructions, in three separate holes near our two establishing feijoa bushes: “Don’t bury them too deep, let the feijoa feeder roots get to them.”
Unable to get Brown Shavers this time, I collected three Hyline Brown point-of-lay pullets last week. We haven’t had them before and I’m looking forward to the change.
June and I have our separate areas of responsibility, and the hens are my department. I set aside time over the last week (this blog post part of it), to reflect on how attentive or otherwise I am towards the hens. For what would be a first, I’m going to strive, this time, to see the hybrids in as fond a light as the heritage breeds we had in the past.