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The eggs from Burford Brown hens in Hampshire, UK are other-worldly — in a good way. They are available only in the UK and have dark brown shells, with huge deep yellow yolks. Locally, I love the eggs from Waterpenny Farm and will happily purchase the ones from Valentines Bakery, which sometimes come in different natural colors, depending on the hen. But deep in my unrealistic heart, I think about having my very own layers, as I’ve confessed before. This is not possible when the only space you have is a third floor roof deck of compact dimension. Luckily for us, two couples who are part of the KD team have taken the poultry plunge, so we get to share in their tales of raising chickens in an urban environment. Even though the CDC has issued this warning about backyard chickens, I am more concerned about warnings on onions and salad greens. So I’m still a teensy bit jealous of my friends and their livestock.
Nils and Sonia have just started their chicken adventure, and we are all waiting for the initial egg laying ceremony. When they decided to plunge in, they drove to the local Tractor Supply franchise, which sells poultry along with farming equipment and is not as far away as you might expect. On that day, the chickens that were available were ISA Browns.
ISA Brown is a hybrid chicken developed in France with extensive cross-breeding to produce a docile chicken that is an egg-laying machine.The breed has its own copyright. In other words, your brown look-alike can’t be legally sold as an ISA Brown unless you can show an ISA Brown copyright affidavit. These girls have papers! This is not the case with Burford Browns. As there is no copyright, hens with the appearance of Burford Browns are sold here but their eggs give them away as imposters. An ISA Brown will shoot out on average 300 eggs a year. And you are forewarned that due to their egg-producing prowess, their lives will be short, so while the children have named their chicks Tigress and Chewing Gum, their parents named theirs, Grilled and Roasted. (Editor’s note: or “Died Peacefully Of Natural Causes”)
Mike, Susie, and their daughter are seasoned chicken warriors. They bought an adult Lohmann Brown from a farm and named her Donna. Mike described her as “tough as nails ” but docile and sweet with the family. With that first success, they returned and bought two more adult Lohmann Browns, one of which they named Camilla. While the other chicken was content with whatever station in life was bequeathed to her by Donna, Camilla took exception to any and all competition. Huge squawking fights ensued between Donna and Camilla, including aerial attacks by both. Eventually Camilla gave in and Donna remained Queen Of The Flock. The two hens even became close girlfriends, crying out for each other when they were separated. Having learned from the bitter loss of his garden, Mike had purchased a chicken tractor and learned that Donna and Camilla had to be together. When Donna passed away (and the chickens were very reverential, according to Mike, when he removed her from the coop), Camilla tried very hard to be the head of the flock but lost the battle. She also lost her desire to live and wouldn’t eat. One night she did not return to the coop and Mike and Susie never found her body. Most likely she had died and a predator had eaten her remains.
Always Shut The Door
A coop door must always be securely shut. In our Florida division, when this cardinal rule was forgotten, the family staggered into the bathroom one morning to find chickens waiting for them. Another time, the flock came pecking and squawking at the sleeping Whittenbergers insisting it was time to be fed. But more seriously, raccoons, weasels, and other predators have ingenious ways of opening doors or wiggling through even the slimmest open space, with dire results. The first time, the family was wakened by an ungodly sound and Mike ran out with flashlight in hand to see an oppossum stealing away with a passed out chicken in his mouth. What followed could only happen with Mike: “The possum tried to run, but I cornered it and asked Suse to bring me my ninja sword. I then had the chance to execute the possum, but as I looked into its eyes, I couldn’t bring myself to do it (plus I thought the clean-up would be gross). I gave the possum a sound beating with the sword and sent it on its way.”
Not having quite learned the closed coop door lesson, Mike later found the severed head of one of his chickens on his porch. He was unable to find the body, but their daughter of course discovered its remains. Claudia was predictably traumatized but she recovered eventually. After that incident (and the disgusting clean-up Mike had to perform), they never forgot to secure the coop door at night again.
Nils and Sonia right now open the coop door in the morning into the enclosed run. The ISA Brown quartet is always at the coop door waiting for someone to let them out. When the Bertrand family come home at night, they let them out into the backyard (everyone knows to wear shoes now), and they have found that if they want to have food and drinks outside, someone has to guard the table.
You’re The Chicken Doctor
Since the Bertrand family has only just started on their chicken adventure, they have had only one mishap when one of the chickens broke her leg in an accident with the children. Sonia promptly called a friend who was chicken savvy and bound up the leg and it healed. Mike and Susie have had to deal with more intimate poultry medical issues.
“Donna always had problems with her egg shooter, and one time it protruded from her body. This can quickly lead to chicky death, and as she was beloved by the whole family, I did some research. I ended up having to rub yeast infection cream (for humans) in and around her egg shooter and then try to gently push it back in. I had to do that and give her a warm bath (that I had to hold her in manually) every day for two weeks before the problem went away.” What we do for love!
Chickens will try to explore with low flight over your fence and into your neighbor’s yard or beyond. Nils was advised by his neighbor that clipping the ends of their wing feathers on one side helps to curtail some of that. Mike lost a chicken for three days until a Caribbean Islander, who knew how to catch chickens, captured and returned her. He loved the chicken so much, he even offered $50 for her, but Mike refused and took her home.
Clucks To The Wise
Giving dried hornworm to a chicken is like giving a piece of bacon to a dog, says Mike. One of the Bertrand children was so fascinated with this weird dried treat that it was personally taste-tested on a dare. All survived. Even though adult layers are available for sale, Mike, whose first flock had been purchased as adults, advises against it. The birds may have already learned behaviors that you might not like. For example, if they aren’t used to living in a coop, you might have to manually put them inside at nighttime for weeks until they learn the new behavior. If they have spent their chickhood roaming around a barnyard, it is difficult to train them to a coop. And adult chickens with bad screeching behavior will train the newer chickens to behave the same way. Mike and Susie had to give away their first flock because it was impossible to retrain them. Of course, I had fantasized about having rooster so I could treat everyone to a real Coq Au Vin, but Mike again intervened.
“People always think that without roosters, you don’t get eggs. But that is incorrect. Hens of laying age have to lay an egg every day (or every couple of days depending on breed) or they get sick and eventually die. Roosters are only needed if you want to breed new chickens. Breeding is pretty hard, and we are only now attempting it. Roosters crow loudly all day long (not just in the morning) and they are generally mean to hens and their owners. In fact, if you have less than 5-6 hens per rooster, your girls will be quite beat up and end up with open sores and missing feathers, as roosters are very violent when making chicken whoopie.”
Conosco I Miei Polli
It seems fitting to end this two-part post with this charming Italian proverb, Conosco i miei polli (I know my chickens). It means I know what I’m talking about and is a phrase used today. How felicitous it is that two brilliant photographers from Milan, who clearly know their chickens, should create an art book Chic!ken. Of course it is a book for a coffee table, preferably one designed in Milan. Their photos inspired Mike and Susie to purchase more exotic chickens for their next flock. They had a Kickstarter campaign to produce the book. (American Ingenuity working in tandem with Italian Style). Obviously the photographers have raised a few chickens and are seduced by their strange and almost prehistoric beauty. The book is a huge success internationally and the two have started a second Kickstarter campaign for a volume about chickens and love. I plan to purchase the first book and have Moreno Monti and Matteo Tranchellini sign it in memory of Cocktail.
After owning one of the best cooking stores in the US for 47 years, Nancy Pollard writes a blog about food in all its aspects – recipes, film, books, travel, superior sources and food related issues.