The Chickens

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Gail’s beautiful chickens have international roots — representing breeds originally developed in countries as far flung as Japan, France, Chile, Romania, and England. The breeds go by exotic names like “Transylvanian Naked-Necks,” “Mottled Houdans,” “Speckled Sussex,” “Buff Orpingtons,” “Black Australorpes,” “White Cochins,” and “Araucanas” … just to name a few. These are special, old breeds – “heritage breeds” as they are rightly known. Besides their variations in plumage and size, color and personalities, the different breeds produce eggs in varying colors, from pale green, blue and pink, to speckled beige and chocolate brown. And thanks to their healthy lifestyle and food, at Gail’s farm the heritage hens produce eggs that are truly organic, and free-range. Because Gail raises about 20 different breeds and their egg production varies by breed and season, egg supply is limited at times at Deauville.

Gail with chickensRather than worrying only about her bottom line in egg sales, Gail sees this variation as “the spice of life” on her farm. Gail knows that families marvel at the amazing – and amusing – variety that exists among chickens. And she loves to explain that we humans bred it into them much like we bred astonishing variety into dogs, taking them far from their origins as wolves. Domestic chickens all evolved – we think – starting some 8000 years ago when early humans forged a relationship with a creature that is still alive today in some parts of Asia, Gallus gallus, the Red Jungle Fowl. The behavior of this ancient species still informs all chickens, even the ones at Deauville. Then, through the ages, starting with this basic “chicken model,” we humans developed variations on the chicken theme. We encouraged birds to breed that laid bigger eggs, or that laid more colorful eggs, or that had heavier bodies and provided us with more meat, or that exhibited pleasant behavior, or that had simply had prettier feathers. All the surprising physical and behavioral variation of chickens has come about thanks to the diligent work of humans over the ages.

So Gail, like many other farmers who believe in the value of the diversity we helped nature create, feels it is very sad that the commercial chicken industry has narrowed the chickens we raise for food down to a few select breeds. It’s an effort to turn living creatures into widgets to make our food easier to produce and less expensive to buy. Unfortunately the chicken’s health and ours suffers as a result of mass production.

white hen snowThat’s the point of the heritage chicken. Seeing value, and health, and richness in variation.

Gail’s chickens live the way farm chickens are meant to live – in a large fenced yard with sun and shade, plenty of (expensive) organic feed, a daily supply of “scratch,” fresh water, and black earth for dust baths. They have a cozy house they retreat to at night or in foul weather, with straw on the floor, natural wood perches for roosting, and nesting boxes for laying eggs. They also have “sunrooms” at Gail’s farm, and often enjoy spending time in these glassed-in “porches,” where they can sunbathe even on a chilly winter day.

Recently, Gail’s friend Jerry added a special “satellite” sunroom that is actually the trailer-top cover of a half-ton truck bed. It’s propped on bricks to be just the perfect height for chickens, and full of windows that allow sun in and concentrate heat. Last week, I watched as some hens retreated here during a rainstorm, and took note that they also enjoyed hanging out in here when the rest of the yard was covered in snow.

free range chickensOn days the farm is closed to the public, Gail’s large flock ranges freely at Deauville, scratching in the soil for worms and helping to clear the garden of harmful insects. They also forage for favorite weeds and grasses, and will raid the tomato garden or other veggies if gates are left open by accident! The insects and fresh forage fills out their diet of organic chicken feed.

At Deauville farm, Gail’s chickens are organized currently in two flocks and two different yards and hen houses. Each flock has its resident rooster. The large flock (directly in front of the parking area as you arrive on the farm) has “Lil Buddy” as their rooster. He’s a special bird to Gail since he had a twisted beak condition as a chick, and she needed to tend to him frequently, clipping his beak so he could feed. As a result, Gail has a soft spot in her heart for this handsome bird, and she believes he’s much better around adults and children because he has been handled so much.

ABOUT ROOSTERS…

Roosters can sometimes be dangerous because their role in the flock is as much for protection as anything else. Lil’Buddy warns his hens of danger (like a hawk over head), with special calls. If there were a serious threat at hand, his signals would send the girls running for cover and save their lives. Besides warning of predators, roosters can be dangerous also because of competition within their ranks. If there were competing roosters amid his flock of hens, Buddy would have to be aggressive and to fight them for dominance. That is built into his genes. And that’s why most farmers like Gail have just one rooster with each flock of hens – Buddy can relax and be more docile because he doesn’t have to worry about other roosters stealing his girls.

As with any species of animal –even domesticated ones – you can’t remove all the wild instincts from their behavior. If you approach a group of hens and the rooster doesn’t like the way you behave around them, he might perceive you either as competition or a threat and come at you, wielding his very sharp spurs. I saw this happen once on another farm, to the 6 year-old daughter of a friend of mine. She was wearing jeans, but the rooster slashed right through them and scratched her legs quite badly. It happened in the blink of an eye because I didn’t know enough about roosters to recognize the bad situation we’d stumbled into. Unlike at Gail’s farm, this farm had many roosters, all roaming around freely, and these guys were pumped up like young men outside a bar, just looking for a fight.

So Gail keeps a watchful eye on both of her roosters to be sure they don’t develop aggressive tendencies. It’s this vigilance that makes her chickens safer for children than most flocks. Like any animals, it is important to always keep an eye out when you are around them, and to realize they still have wild animal behavior in their genes and that every one of them is an individual, capable of surprising and unexpected behaviors.

As a filmmaker, this fine line I can see in farm animals – the line between tameness and wildness – fascinates me. It is emerging as one of the deeper themes in my film on Deauville.

running hensBut wildness in roosters has more graceful expressions, too. Like most roosters, Buddy is a “gentleman,” always allowing his hens to eat first. I’ve tested this by throwing even a coveted, tasty worm right at his feet. He’d love to eat it, but instead he recognizes its value as a prize, but doesn’t touch it himself. Instead, he calls out another special signal – encouraging hens to come get it. And they do – it’s one of the funniest things I witnessed early on at Gail’s farm – a hen come running across the yard, beckoned by Buddy. They look like frantic little T-Rex’s, with heavy thighs and giant claws pounding the dirt when they run, and beady reptilian eyes laser -focused on their prey.

For Buddy, offering up a delicious treat increases his “currency” with the girls. Which is useful since his other primary role in nature, would be to mate with them. But, as Gail often says, “there’s too many women, too little time” for the poor fellow in this large flock. Still, he does the best he can. Which means that among the eggs Gail collects each day some are fertilized. But without a devoted “broody” hen sitting on them from the moment they are laid, these fertilized eggs won’t ever hatch.

An interesting fact: It isn’t necessary to have a rooster in a flock to encourage egg production. Hens produce eggs regularly, even without a rooster around. But it doesn’t mean they like it this way. One source I’ve found says that if there isn’t a rooster, sometimes a hen will assume the role, stop laying, and start crowing. These are highly adaptable birds!!! So if this is the case, why does Gail even need a rooster? Well, it’s just the more natural way to raise chickens. And Gail confirms to me that she really likes the sound of a rooster’s crow on her farm.

ABOUT SOME SPECIAL HENS…

The large flock at Deauville has the vast majority of Gail’s exotic heritage breeds. And many of these girls are getting on in years, ranging in age from 4 to over 10 years old. Amid the throng of fancy feathered heads, and strikingly different colorations, it took me a quite some time to start really recognizing particular hens – and seeing them for the individuals they are.

BlueberryThat is with one exception. Blueberry. She’s a speckled Sussex hen, about 8 years old, and very feisty. She is the infamous bird that has everyone working for her on the farm. I don’t mean other chickens – she’s got Gail, Ray, Jerry and Adam, me, my boys, and many other customers on her pay roll.

Bluberry got her name some years ago when Gail had put in about 100 blueberry bushes on the farm. Fencing kept the succulent berries safe from foraging chickens, but nothing Gail did could keep one bird from getting inside and gorging on her berry crop. Eventually, when husband Alex fell ill and Gail had her hands full caring for him, she was forced to sell the blueberry bushes. But this hen’s name stuck.

Since then, Blueberry specializes in following humans around, clucking insistently at them until they bend down and lift something up – a mat, a food can, a big rock – anything that might expose worms and sow bugs in the moist soil underneath. My boys even started digging the grubs up for her – which made Blueberry one very happy hen.

Now besides Blueberry (who is very hard to ignore), I’ve gotten to know many other birds individually. There’s an old hen I call “Grandma.” When I first came to the farm, she was housed in a special small yard Gail calls her “retirement home.” There were two hens here, both of them over 10 years of age, and each with signs of aging.

Gail explained she felt these two hens deserved their own quiet place because they had worked so hard for her over the years and she didn’t have the heart to do away with them just because they weren’t contributing much to egg production. But if left with the large flock, the younger hens might see their weaknesses and abuse them. So Gail gave them a safe, separate little home with a doghouse for their nighttime refuge.

Sadly, over the winter, the older of the two hens became very ill and Gail had to put her down. Rather than keeping the other hen on her own, she put her back with the main flock and hoped for the best. It’s amazing to see that this old gal, Grandma, is holding up quite well in the flock. At first I wondered if it was humane – she struggles to walk since one of the first things that goes is a hen’s legs. She sort of drags her backside around, looking more like a duck than a chicken. But the more I watched her, I realized she seemed to be very active, fully involved and enjoying life with the other hens – and standing up for herself with the younger hens. And Gail reported to me last week that she is even still producing eggs! Amazing.

polish chicken (1)Another bird I like to watch is a Polish hen we call “Phyllis.” This is because of her resemblance to Phyllis Diller, in a “chicken” sort of way. Phyllis, like all Polish hens, has a spectacular crest of feathers on her head that does look a bit like one of Phyllis Diller’s hairdos. Gail likes to note – because she’s also Polish and feels she can – that Polish jokes are not the result of stupid people. She’s certain they have come about because of chickens. “Polish hens are not the sharpest tacks on the board,” she often comments. This usually means that they get pushed down the ranks of the pecking order, quite literally occupying lower perches in the hen house. And as a consequence, they often have badly pecked heads, since – with nothing better to do — the girls higher up will sit and pull out the head feathers of those perching directly below them. Somehow, Phyllis has avoided this cruel fate and prances around the yard with a stunning array of head feathers worthy of a Paris runway model.Big Red

Gail’s second flock (in the yard next to the deer) is a collection of birds that are about two years old. They are mostly Speckled Sussex, Buff Orpingtons, and Brown Leghorns (a flighty breed that likes to roost up high on a ledge near the roof in their hen house). Their rooster is another devoted fellow we’ve come to call “Big Red” for his striking naked red neck. I wanted to call him “Red Neck” but Gail thought that wouldn’t be appreciated in these parts. I apologize to anyone I would have offended. Actually I think he’s quite handsome.

ABOUT THE NEW BABIES…

In February, 2011, Gail welcomed 80 new, tiny heritage chicks to the farm. They arrived at the post office in Mt. Jackson on President’s Day, much to our great surprise. They were anticipated a bit later but the US Postal Service did an incredible job, getting them from the Murray McMurray Hatchery in Iowa, to Virginia, in record time.

I asked Gail early on why she doesn’t just raise her own chicks, and she explained the obvious – if she did that, at least 50% of the chicks she produced would be males – roosters – that wouldn’t contribute to her egg production and would become dangerous and fight each other after maturing. The only option is to harvest all the roosters but one. “I’m not in the business of chicken meat production so I really don’t want so many roosters,” Gail explained. Plus, I would have to feed those little male birds for quite a while to grow them to a size that justified their existence before harvesting them for meat. And that’s very expensive with the organic feed these birds consume. And while they’re attaining a good size, they are dangerous birds to manage – all roosters have long spikes on their legs, called “spurs,” that they use for defense. Because Gail has always wanted children to be able to visit the farm and walk among her birds, she is very careful to make sure her roosters are gentle birds, so no child will ever be attacked by a rooster defending his flock.

Gail needechicken and eggd new chicks this year because her large, adult flock is mostly older females that are past their prime and their egg production is on a slippery downward slope. Her second, much smaller flock of two year old birds help, but their egg production won’t be enough to sustain the growing demand for eggs from Gail’s customers. So the chicks are intended to reinvigorate her total numbers with young birds. But I happen to think that in addition to all these reasons, Gail just likes to have babies join the farm every couple of years.

The new chicks are mostly Araucanas – the green-legged, fluffy-cheeked, blue-green egg-layers. But there are a few other favorites – some “Naked Necks,” (yes, with their very naked red necks and patch of feathers on top of their heads like a little toupe), some “French Mottled Houdans” (with their five toes and fancy crests; as chicks these crests look like little pompoms), some Chinese Cochins (with their lovely feathered legs), and some “Crevecouers,” (another crested, French breed, with little black pompoms on their baby heads.)

Gail warned me that these babies would be seriously cute, and I was not disappointed. She said that I’d be able to tell some of the breeds apart, since the more dramatic breeds have some of their dominant physical traits from birth – like the naked necks’ bare necks, or the feathers on the cochins’ legs. It was no easy task to photograph the babies well, but I have put up some pictures of them when they were less than a week old.

baby chicksXFor about the next 4 weeks, the chicks will occupy a makeshift “brooder,” that Gail built on one of her enclosed porches, with a lot of help from her friend and volunteer, Jerry. They piled old bedsprings on top of each other to make a waist-high table, single bed-size, topped it with a layer of shiny, padded insulation fabric, and surrounded it with a wall of cardboard. Jerry insulated all the windows with plastic and covered any drafty spots in the room. He then rigged a long stick on a pulley system, from which he hung three heat lamps. Gail can raise or lower the level of the lamps by adjusting the pulley system – it’s simple, and makeshift, but totally practical and ingenious and the whole thing is completely recycled! I think they deserve a medal for ingenuity. The chicks are completely happy and thriving in their new home, growing noticeably different, bigger and more rambunctious every day.