Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Chickens on the Loose!

One of the stranger stories reported recently is this one from Iowa City, Iowa. Around fifty chickens were turned loose around town earlier this week. The report says they were found in the vicinity of city council members' homes, so the police sergeant thinks it may have been a prank connected to the council's consideration of a chicken ordinance.

Read the rest of the story here:

Thus far no one has come forth with any photos of the birds, although a couple of pictures of eggs laid in shrubbery are posted. No reports that any of the chickens were injured. They were all captured and taken to the Iowa City Animal Care and Adoption Center. I'm sure they will all find good homes. If they are unusual breeds, it shouldn't be too difficult to figure out where they came from.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Chicken Story

This story came from a local chicken lover here in California. The hen involved was a Gold Laced Sebright bantam like the ones at top right, from Lewis Wright's Illustrated Book of Poultry, reprinted by Dr. J. Batty in 1983. The lower ones are Silver Laced Sebrights.

When we bought our current home seven years ago, one rooster, seven hens, and a medium sized coop came with it. I had no idea then how much I would come to enjoy raising chickens.

A couple of years after moving in, we decided to remodel. It was time to move the chickens from just outside the back door to a spot down by the barn. Up until that time, all that had been required of me was to make sure there was plenty of feed and water when I opened the coop door each morning, and collect the eggs when I closed it up at night. The chickens did the rest.

One bright morning, I let them out as usual, but then started disassembling the coop for the move. As I carried the pieces down to the barn and started reassembling their home, the always curious chickens seemed very interested, but also pretty confused. Whenever they followed me down the hill, they seemed to recognize the coop itself, but seemed quite taken aback upon they're return to the now empty coop site. The newly uncovered bugs would distract them for a time, but they'd always return to their futile search for what had been so familiar.

At one point that afternoon, I noticed one of the hens inside the new coop up on a roost that was about six feet high. It was odd that she was up there so early in the day, but the poor birds were exhibiting many odd behaviors that afternoon. What really caught my attention was movement -- on her backside! More accurately, the movement I saw was her backside. It was so strange to my eyes that it took me several moments to realize what I was seeing. There were these strange concentric circles that kept appearing and disappearing, alternatively growing in size and then shrinking.

I was baffled and mesmerized for what seemed like minutes, but couldn't have been more than a very few seconds. I was just starting to turn back to my work when the realization hit me. Luckily, the coop door was propped open because I suddenly dove through the doorway with my hand held open, my arm extended like a centerfielder about to make the game-saving catch, my eyes focused on nothing but the ball -- the ball? The ball turned out to be an egg.

Yes, the poor, confused girl had laid an egg six feet up. And this poor, startled boy had caught it about halfway down its decent to destruction. I was so proud of myself as I stood up and dusted myself off, but all that was nothing compared to the joy that overtook me as I realized that I'd actually witnessed an egg being laid!

Not only had I watched the hen push the egg out, but my own eyes had seen that final protective membrane wrap itself around the egg as it exited. I felt and still feel extremely privileged to have been bestowed such an honor.

As dusk disappeared the daylight, it was time to put the poultry to bed, but I had one more lesson to learn that day -- chickens, determined creatures of habit, do not herd well and neither do I!
Thanks, Louie. Sara raised the question as to that final protective wrap. Louie sent additional information as follows:
As you know, a chicken egg is a potential embryo with several layers of protection and nutrition surrounding it. There is abundant information available about the structure of eggs and about each of the layers -- almost. There is one layer that is just about impossible to find information about. It is the very last one, the layer that surrounds the shell itself.
This relates to the ongoing debate among backyarders about the importance of washing eggs soon after they are gathered. The egg factories, of course, insist that eggs must be washed and sanitized. But there are those that believe this is a mistake, that nature can do a better job than we.
I tended toward this latter group, but remained unsure -- until that day when the hen laid an egg in the air. As the egg exited the vent, I watched as it was wrapped in a moist film of the hen's making. The extremely clean egg got that final wrapping just a moment before it dropped. I expected the egg to then be wet in my hand, but it wasn't. It was as if the shell instantly absorbed the moisture.
Since that experience, I strongly believe it is very important to keep nests clean, collect eggs often, and then not so important to wash eggs before storage. It seems to me that washing probably removes that outermost layer and helps bacteria move through the shell into the egg. If an egg obviously needs to be cleaned, I will scrape dirt off as I collect it, but then wash it only immediately before use.

Friday, September 25, 2009

USDA/Department of Justice workshops

The USDA will partner with the Justice Department in a series of workshops in 2010 to explore competition issues in the agriculture industry, This directly addresses the issues of monopoly control exercised by mega-corporations such as Archer Daniels Midland, Tyson, Monsanto and others.

"They will examine legal doctrines and jurisprudence and current economic learning, and will provide an opportunity for farmers, ranchers, consumer groups, processors, the agribusinesses, and other interested parties to provide examples of potentially anticompetitive conduct. The workshops will also provide an opportunity for discussion for any concerns about the application of the antitrust laws to the agricultural industry," according to the release.

This is an invitation to influence policies, extended to all of us out here who raise, buy and eat food. Some of the workshops are planned for Washington, DC, but some will be held around the country.

They also want to know what other issues need to be examined: "The Department and USDA are also inviting input on additional topics that might be discussed at the workshops, including the impact of agriculture concentration on food costs, the effect of agricultural regulatory statutes or other applicable laws and programs on competition, issues relating to patent and intellectual property affecting agricultural marketing or production, and market practices such as price spreads, forward contracts, packer ownership of livestock before slaughter, market transparency, and increasing retailer concentration. "

USDA responded when small producers spoke out at NAIS Listening Sessions. NAIS may not have gone away, but it has receded from view, and is unlikely to be imposed as a mandatory system as a result of the impassioned statements presented at those meetings. This administration is willing to hear from those of us who were not at the table before.

They ask that suggestions be made in both paper and electronic form to the Department of Justice by Dec. 31, 2009. All comments received will be publicly posted. Two paper copies should be addressed to the Legal Policy Section, Antitrust Division, U.S. Department of Justice, 450 5th Street, N.W., Suite 11700, Washington, D.C. 20001. The Department's Antitrust Division is requesting that the paper copies of each comment be sent by courier or overnight service, if possible. The electronic version of each comment should be submitted to

Detailed agendas and schedules for the workshops will be made available on the Antitrust Division's web site at

I'm excited about the possibilities this partnership represents. The lobbyists for Big Ag have not packed their bags, but this is an administration that sees that Corporate Farming is not the best path to feeding America. We can be part of the change we hope to see.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The New Yorker

Susan Orlean writes about the joys of owning chickens in the September 28 issue, now on newsstands, The delightful illustration is by Ralph Steadman, It's available online only to subscribers, but those who are not already subscribers can sign up for a free trial subscription. Or purchase this issue at your local bookseller or newsstand.
I was honored when she contacted me back in July for information about chickens. My colleague and mentor Ruth Ann Harnisch encouraged Ms. Orlean to contact me for information.
When Hannah Goldfield, the New Yorker's fact checker, contacted me to research some of the historical and husbandry details for the story, I was delighted. To be considered an expert by the staff of the New Yorker is high praise indeed.
Ms. Orlean mentions my book, How to Raise Chickens, which she told me she enjoyed. Hannah liked it, too. I'm so glad to have my book reach such distinguished chambers.
It's a plus that she quoted from the White House Chickens proposal, too. I feel confident that being in the New Yorker will take the proposal direct to Michelle Obama's desk. We are ready to send the chickens whenever the White House Garden is ready!

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Joel Salatin and Cornish Rock Crosses

Congratulations to Joel Salatin on being honored with a Heinz Award,! It is well deserved. This pictures of me and Joel was taken last year at the Society of Environmentalists tour of his Polyface Farm,

One change that I see in the future for Joel’s operation is to raise traditional dual purpose breeds rather than the industrial Cornish/Rock crosses he now raises for meat. Although they convert feed to meat far faster than traditional breeds, they do not contribute to a sustainable, humane farm.

Audrey E. Kali, Ph.D., who teaches in the Communication Arts Department at Framingham State College in Massachusetts, is making a documentary on the subject, exploring whether the Cornish/Rock cross is innately inhumane.

Joseph Marquette of Yellow House Farm in New Hampshire,, says “We are a heritage poultry farm, which would therefore be the polar opposite of the Cornish X. I should say, to orient you to my point of view, that I have little or nothing positive to say about Cornish X. Of course, from a rather compartmentalized point of view, I can recognize the scientific achievement represented in the breeding. However, as a food source, they go against everything I feel should be the nature of good farming.

“Indeed, in our classes on poultry homesteading, they are what I offer as the clearest example of industrial poultry cruelty, in conjunction, of course, with broad-brested white turkeys and factory layers.”

Harvey Ussery has written on alternatives to Cornish Rock crosses,,

The central issue is that Cornish/Rock crosses can barely walk, because of the rapid muscle development and poor bone growth, they are unable to forage for themselves, and their immune status is unclear but unlikely to be very vigorous. They are pathetic living creatures, suited really only to sit by the food dish and eat until they die.
"The Cornish Cross is often an unhappy bird indeed," reads the caption on this photo, taken by Pamela Marshall, posted on "This one shows the fast-growing, hefty body conformation for which this hybrid was bred. But it also reveals the too-common crippling leg problems, lethargy, and filth on the undercarriage that results from sitting on its belly by the feed trough most of the day."

I didn't have any experience with them until my daughter was in high school. We'd always had traditional breed chickens, but the school had done some kind of experiment with chicks and when it was done allowed the students to take the chicks home. One of my daughter's friends wanted to keep some, but she lived in an apartment and didn't have a place for them. So we invited her to keep them at our house, in with our chickens.

I was astonished to watch them. They literally hobbled over to the food dish, ate all day, got very large and died within months. I'd never seen a chicken do that.

[It occurs to me that the problems we humans face, of being sedentary and eating to excess parallel the animals we raise for food.]

Traditional breeds take longer to reach table size -- four to six months -- but are able to forage, are sprightly and active, take an interest in their environment and generally are more well-rounded as livestock animals. Many chefs and consumers prefer them for their flavor and the texture of the meat.

Three Cheers for Joel! Now, about those chickens…

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Egg Revelation!

My colleague in the Society of Environmental Journalists, Elizabeth Grossman, author of High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health,, Watershed: The Undamming of America,, and other books recently had her first experience with truly fresh eggs from chickens who forage for food. It was revelatory for her. Eating those eggs inspired her to write a blog post for Earth Island Institute's blog, Earth Island Journal,

"Who knew that a dozen eggs could bring such delight," she writes. She discovers that other people she knows in her adopted city of Portland, Oregon have chickens, allowing her to meet and admire them.

Expanding the experience of the many ways chickens contribute to our lives is as delightful to me as those eggs are to Lizzie.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Sebastopol Geese

Sebastopol Geese look like imaginary dream geese. Their long curling feathers may touch the ground. The first time I saw them at a show, I thought they must be some kind of strange modern development.

They aren’t. They are a historic breed, tracing their heritage back to the area around the Danube River and the Black Sea in Eastern Europe. They were selectively bred for their lovely feathers, so warm for quilts and clothing. Their soft feathers lack the barbules that make other feathers adhere. They fall between Silkie feathers and Frizzles. These geese are photographed by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy,

They are medium sized, adults weighing 12 to 14 pounds. Their feathers do not permit them to fly, but they develop their breast, thighs and legs by running. They make good table birds, but their lovely feathers are so attractive that they are usually kept as ornamental birds. They are also known for their mild and pleasant disposition, highly desirable in geese.

White is the most common variety, although gray and buff are known. Back in 1905, when Harrison Weir edited The Poultry Book, grays were more common. He writes, “The white are those most fancied, and certainly on a lake or pond with varied verdant surroundings, and in the meadows or tangled bush environments, they thus present a most pleasurable appearance.”

Although geese don't necessarily need water, Sebastopols benefit from having water to bathe and keep their feathers clean. They will also appreciate more shelter in harsh weather than their cousins with harder feathers need.

A beautiful breed for a small flock, and you will be the envy of all who see them!

Monday, September 7, 2009

Poultry Art delay

Carolyn Guske, who is working on poultry and other livestock art, was a victim of the Station Fire burning through Southern California.

"Our home burned to the ground," she wrote in an email. "We had a very short notice of the firestorm, but were able to get our animals and us out. I grabbed the computers, my six animal paintings, brushes paint and palette. Robert got three guitars (out of seven) and we got a change of clothes and our vehicles out. We were lucky to get out with our lives."

"We drove through fire, but we're OK. We're staying with my folks for now. This is what's left of our home."

Fortunately, she saved the six animal originals. However, all her prints and other original art were lost.

"I had 3,000 notecards and 100 Giclees lost. Robert lost about 200 paintings and 25 years of Medical Illustration work. I also lost all the original art I had at home and our extensive art library. We know it's just 'things,' and we will be fine, but it's sad and devastating."

My condolences, Carolyn. Keep me posted.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Applewood Books Poultry

In their Pictorial America series,, Applewood Books reproduces 26 of the paintings done by J.W. Ludlow, most of them for Wright's Illustrated Book of Poultry, which first appeared in 1873. Most are in color, but several are black and white, what appear to be originally engravings.

Ludlow used prize-winning birds as models, but painted them as if they were perfect, so that the illustrations could be used to guide fanciers in breeding their birds. Remember, the first Standard of Excellence was published in 1874, so breeding and exhibition standards were only beginning to take hold. The first edition illustrations were replaced in later editions.

Dr. J. Batty reproduced 80 Lewis Wright illustrations in 1983, in Lewis Wright's Poultry, with notes updating the standards of the breeds. So far as I can tell, this book is no longer in print, but copies of it are available through used book sellers.

These historic illustrations are invaluable in documenting the past and tracing changes into the present day. I am grateful to Applewood Books for re-publishing them so that a wider audience can study them and have them available as they consider their flocks.

Unfortunately, much of the detail has disappeared as successive generations of reproduction have copied and re-copied these illustrations. The green sheen of the Black Frizzled Fowls, which belonged to Mr. Ludlow himself and won third place in the 'Any Variety' class in Oxford in 1872, is gone from the Applewood version. The color has shifted on all of them, some more than others. The Toulouse Geese painting is much darker and yellower than the original.

I find myself fortunate to have the original books available, in the SPPA Collection of antique poultry books, to compare with this modern reproduction. My hope is that modern technology will help Applewood improve future reproductions. A book of Rooster pictures is due in time for Christmas.

This book, priced at $19.95, will be joyously received by any poultry fancier on your Christmas list. It would also make a good gift for anyone involved in exhibiting birds. I look forward to more and better from Applewood. Available soon, but not yet listed on the web site.