The Rise of the Urban Chicken
The stately chicken as a farm animal has been around for thousands of years. The modern chicken is a descendent of the Red Jungle Fowl (Gallus gallus) and probably a cross with the Grey Junglefowl. There are still wild types skittering around southern Asia. The first knowledge we have of chickens being produced for food comes from India. Since those very early years, various cultures have produced many types of domestic chickens. There are large sizes weighing as much as 10 lbs. and smaller birds merely a little over 1 lb. Chickens are part of a group of birds called the Gallinaceous, of which turkeys and peacocks are also family members.
I spent my childhood looking forward to visiting my grandmother’s 40 acre farm in northern Wisconsin. For a kid that grew up playing whiffleball in the alleys of Chicago this was indeed a treat. My grandmother was tough as nails and she milked her six cows, raised two steers and 100 egg-laying hens with one rooster that I, of course, named Foghorn. She wanted fertilized eggs and so did the people in town to whom she sold the eggs. I used to collect the eggs from under the hens then clean and weigh them so they would be sold according to the proper size. She would keep her hens for two laying cycles and then the Queen of Hearts would arrive and we had stewing chickens and chicken and dumplings. Those tough ol’ birds got the pressure cooker. It just seems like no one uses the pressure cooker anymore. Such a useful cooking method!
She would let her chickens out of the coop to forage in the garden to hunt bugs. There would be a dent in the cabbage now and then, but she never used herbicides or pesticides. She hand hoed the garden, and when wet, worms would come up and the chickens would find them. Since she hoed almost every day they knew there would be goodies to pick up. Chickens indeed have the ability to learn. As a child of 7 to 12, I didn’t realize what I was learning about animals and the reverence farmers of old had for their farm animals. I actually didn’t understand what I’d experienced until I was in college. My grandmother’s influence had drawn me to animal husbandry as a profession 50 years ago and I’ve been there ever since.
One night in August there was a ruckus in the hen house and we found a lynx trying to get in the coop. I couldn’t believe it. The lynx and its tufted ears glaring back at our flashlight. Until that night I didn’t know my grandmother could shoot a rifle. If you’ve never met a lynx, they are all business. Fortunately the lynx didn’t make it inside the coop. On other occasions mink had found ways inside and when they did it was very bad news. Mink can kill an entire hen house in one night. Thus at the age of seven, I certainly had an early grasp of the relationship between predator and prey. My grandmother told me a story from when she was a girl on her parents’ farm in northern Wisconsin. There were only a few people in the area at this time. She woke up one winter morning to see a bear chasing one of the family horses. What a spectacle that must have been for a young girl. Farming at this time in northern Wisconsin was certainly only for the hardy and the people were tough. And through all the toughness, there was a care and a reverence for the animals in their care not entirely dissimilar to the ways in which the Native Americans revered animals.
At all times on her farm there were chickens. It was like that almost everywhere in the world during the dawn of the industrial revolution. Today as urbanites, we are so far removed from our food sources that we have no idea how anything is produced. City dwellers have become oblivious. Kids think that chicken comes from the grocery store. Fortunately, we still have many breeders of the ornamental chickens of the past because 4-H and hobbyists can’t stand to see the many breeds go by the wayside because of the proliferation of factory birds. There are many different breeds of chickens. Big, little, heavy, upright, some with small combs and some with big combs. I have a coffee-table book called, Extra Extraordinary Chickens by Stephen Green-Armytage (Hardcover - Nov 1, 2005). It illustrates, in gorgeous photography, some of the various breeds of chickens found around the world.
THE RESURGENCE OF CHICKENS IN URBAN ENVIRONMENTS
Since the days when chickens ran all over farm country and rural towns, we have seen them disappear from the countryside. Now they are raised in high-density factory farms. I feel sorry for chickens in these conditions, but as some say, “What we don’t know or experience cannot be missed.” The hobby of keeping chickens (hens for the most part) in city situations has become very common. Since I know a fair amount about chickens I thought it would be appropriate to reintroduce them to our customers. You start with young peeps. Many people are raising fancy chickens throughout the country and the hobby is on the rise. The hatcheries send them to us for sale as soon as they hatch. They have three days of yolk sack to absorb after hatching so shipping is not a problem. Just today I got an announcement for an organized group of dedicated hobbyists who are are having a function called “CHICKS IN THE HOOD.” They visit chicken coops around the Pittsburgh area and some of these are even right downtown.
You don’t have to live in the prairies to raise chickens. In Michelle Obama’s White House gardens, she raises 3 or 4 chickens, and these chickens will give most, if not all, of the eggs a family would need. It is called sustainable urban farming and it gives us a sense of accomplishment and teaches us about our food. Great for adults and teaching kids. For more on how gardens can reconnect families and improve the quality of our food read Michelle Obama’s excellent book American Grown: The Story of the White House Kitchen Garden and Gardens Across America.
In order to serve our customers better and introduce them to the ornamental chicken hobby, I brought chicks into our McIntyre and Bridgeville stores. Soon all of our stores will have them and we will be carrying all the necessary equipment and food for them. If people would like to special order certain breeds, we can help facilitate that but the hatcheries only ship until July 9 when they close until January. I will develop a care sheet for the birds to give people a good start. We will have brooders in the stores and will raise them to a size that won’t need a brooder. Periodically we will bring in various breeds so people can see and appreciate them in our stores even if they are not necessarily interested in keeping chickens.
Also, as a note, many municipalities in western PA require a permit to keep chickens and some require a minimum of 2000 sq. ft. for three birds.
More on the physiology and care needed for chickens in the next newsletter. Until next time, I encourage you to stop in and visit with our chickens. They’re amazing little birds with gregarious personalities.