Saturday, March 31, 2012

Chicken lost and found

The New York Times notes a chicken story with a happy ending:

By Elizabeth Giddens

THE chickens of New York City, for the most part, live fairly sheltered lives, securely tucked into private backyards and padlocked community gardens. Our chickens, by contrast, are public figures — their yard faces 20 feet of busy Bedford-Stuyvesant sidewalk. The chickens themselves chose this bustling thoroughfare, decamping there even when they could have settled in our spacious, semiprivate back garden. They wanted to see and be seen — like so many New York transplants, they seemed to feed on the energy of the street.

The admirers came in droves. The neighborhood immortalized by Biggie Smalls and Billy Joel has undergone widespread gentrification, and between the trend-conscious newcomers from suburbia and the nostalgic migrants from the Caribbean and rural South, there’s an awful lot of chicken love in Bed-Stuy these days.

And what’s not to love? There’s something intrinsically happy about a chicken. The name: a little hiccup in the mouth. The shape: a jaunty upswing of feathers, a grin. The ceaseless bobbing, scratching, pecking. It’s nearly impossible to feel melancholy in the company of chickens. They are a balm for the weary urban soul.

The spirit of the chicken regularly infects the sidewalk parade down Franklin Avenue. People break out in chicken dances. They cluck. They coo. They cock-a-doodle-doo. (One toddler ventured a tentative “oink, oink” before her mother gently corrected her.) Chickens make people loose, and they make them gregarious. In fair weather, scarcely an hour passes without a motley assortment of gawkers at our gate — dog-walkers, corner guys, stroller pushers — eager to inform, or misinform, one another on the finer points of chickendom. We’ve considered posting an F.A.Q. sheet — yes, they’re hens; no, they don’t need a rooster to make eggs — but that would spoil the fun. People like working it out among themselves.

In a neighborhood fraught with the tensions of gentrification, making people talk to one another, and talk about something other than themselves, is not an insignificant accomplishment. What I’m saying is that these chickens are important in a way that chickens aren’t usually important. They are Bed-Stuy’s very own peace doves.

Imagine our dismay last June, then, when Gertrude, a Rhode Island Red and our prize layer, was stolen.

The chicken yard was a classic crime scene: Coop open. Hatch lying on the ground. T-Rex, Gertrude’s long-suffering subordinate, standing dumbfounded.

After much deliberation, we called the police, so we’d at least be alerted if her corpse turned up within their purview. They came, laughed, snapped pictures of T-Rex with their cellphones, and texted them to friends.

We decided to appeal to Gertrude’s public. We posted a big sign on the gate, letting people know what had happened, and pleading for her return, no questions asked.

As with any theft, the worst part is the blow it deals to one’s faith in humanity. The chickens were in danger of being demoted from goodwill ambassadors to harbingers of doom, canaries in the neighborhood coal mine.

The sidewalk confabs reached a fever pitch. People were devastated.

A man with a neck tattoo shook his head and tut-tutted, “What kind of person would do something like this?” A woman in a church hat encouraged us to turn to God. Neighbors posted another sign: “439 Franklin misses Gertrude!” People scribbled commiseration. (“My son is sad! Find Gertrude!”) The crime was taken as proof of the decline and fall of civilization, and we found ourselves assuming the role of the comforter far more than the comforted.

Again, this is Bed-Stuy. Not Mayberry. Yet the response was more suited to a town with less in the way of a police blotter. Such dramatic emotional outpourings for a lost chicken seemed frankly disproportionate, since you can hardly walk a block in this town without being offered some tantalizing version of dead chicken. And since your average American consumes more than 80 pounds of poultry a year, the odds were good that most of the mourners had eaten a chicken in the last few days, if not hours.

But I digress. Back to the crime scene.

Everyone had a theory. Gertrude’s theft became a blank slate onto which people projected their assumptions about the neighborhood, the city and humankind. Not all the theories reflected well on their proponents — there was a raft of confused ideas about the cultural practices of Caribbeans, and the dietary predilections of crack addicts.

Sidewalk symposiums are one of the great pleasures of urban living, and New Yorkers are masters of the art, ready to hold forth on the most abstract or esoteric musings without so much as a how-de-do. Where I come from, you’d be obliged to at least mention the weather, if not disclose your actual name and provenance, before delving into something so intimate.

Was it hunger? Religion? Envy?

No information was forthcoming. Either no one knew or no one was talking. But one of the corner guys promised to “put the word out” and, if he found out who did it, to “put the hurt on him.” Which was comforting. Kind of.

About a week after Gertrude’s disappearance, after we’d all but given up hope, a young man stood at the gate and shouted that he had “information about the chicken.” We went downstairs, opened the front door, and whom should we find but our beloved Gertrude, very much alive and full of her signature √©lan, tucked under the young man’s arm.

He was in his late 20s, remarkably handsome and stylishly dressed. He sheepishly related a story of a drunken dare that led a friend of his to steal the chicken, for the promise of $100.

Maybe there was a friend. Or maybe there wasn’t. Either way, the young man said he felt compelled to return Gertrude when he saw how much the neighborhood missed her. He apologized at least 15 times. And we forgave him — we were so surprised and delighted by Gertrude’s improbable return that we hugged him warmly and thanked him profusely. Then he went on his way, apologizing again and again over his shoulder, and we never saw him again.

We put up a new sign to explain Gertrude’s sudden reappearance, and, in our jubilation, we allowed ourselves some license with the truth: “We’re not sure where she’s been, but now she speaks Russian, has a few tattoos, and insists that we call her Kiki.”

Her return rocked the neighborhood. Crowds gathered outside the gate to marvel at her resurrection. More than two dozen people wrote their congratulations on the new sign — surely one of the only comment boards in the city that didn’t garner a single negative remark, or even a vulgar one. They wrote in Spanish, in Twi (a Ghanaian language) and, of course, in Russian, in honor of Kiki. They signed “D’s Daycare,” “the Italian guys from Monroe,” “Puerto Rican from Monroe,” “Ladies of 439 Franklin,” “House of Channy” and “Snake.” Among a profusion of exclamation points, smiley faces and hearts, the good citizens of Bedford-Stuyvesant saluted the Lazarus chicken: Holla! 2 good 2 be 4 gotten. Awesome! Peace. Akwaba. Welcome Home.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Easter Goose

Andy Schneider asked me to talk about Roast Goose on his blogtalkradio program Tuesday March 27. Goose is a good choice as the centerpiece of the dinner table for family celebrations.

During our chat, he asked for helpful waterfowl breeders. Metzer Farms here in California is very active in ducks and geese. John Metzer has been blogging and has his posts organized by subject.

Dave Holderreand's Waterfowl Farm and Preservation Center in Corvallis, Oregon is a wonderful resource. Dave is the author of many books and articles about waterfolw, including, Storey's Guide to Raising Ducks, The Book of Geese, Managing Ducks For Top Egg Production and Wing Disorders In Waterfowl and How to Prevent Them.

I described the process two years ago, in the March 20 blog post, when I served roast goose to guests. They were unfamiliar with goose, but goose is usually available from the supermarket. Ask the butcher if you don't find one in the freezer. If they don't have one, they can order it for you. An Internet search finds Schlitz Foods in South Dakota has frozen goose on sale. The site says that the geese they sell are their own, Schlitz Line 306, rather than a recognized breed, such a this drawing of a Pomeranian goose.

While I'd prefer a traditional breed goose, I'm glad that this family business continues to supply goose to the consumer market. Goose is not well appreciated. Putting it on more dinner tables would encourage other farmers to raise them.

They also sell goose eggs for crafts. This is a good example of the variety of products poultry can provide. Geese also produce the best down and feathers, products that are always in demand.

Tune in Tuesday to our discussion of roasting goose for the holidays.

The goose is one of the oldest domesticated poultry. The ancient Egyptians took advantage of their location as a wild goose flyway. Geese are also a spiritual inspiration. Mary Oliver wrote her poem about them, Wild Geese, that includes these lines:

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting --
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

Friday, March 23, 2012

More farm animals = more pollution

Friday, March 23, 2012

Worldwatch Institute emphasizes need for regulation and sustainable growth in animal agriculture industry.

Washington, D.C.—The global population of farm animals increased 23 percent between 1980 and 2010, from 3.5 billion to 4.3 billion, according to research by the Worldwatch Institute for its Vital Signs Online publication. These figures continue a trend of rising farm animal populations, with harmful effects on the environment, public health, and global development.

Both production and consumption of animal products are increasingly concentrated in developing countries. In contrast, due in part to a growing awareness of the health consequences of high meat consumption, the appetite for animal products is stagnating or declining in many industrial countries.

“The demand for meat, eggs, and dairy products in developing countries has increased at a staggering rate in recent decades,” says report co-author Danielle Nierenberg, director of Worldwatch’s Nourishing the Planet project. “While industrialized countries still consume the most animal products, urbanization and rising incomes in developing countries are spurring shifts to more meat-heavy diets.”

“Farm-animal production provides a safety net for millions of the world’s most vulnerable people,” says Nierenberg. “But given the industry’s rapid and often poorly regulated growth, the biggest challenge in the coming decades will be to produce meat and other animal products in environmentally and socially sustainable ways.”

Concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), or factory farms, are the most rapidly growing system of farm animal production. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that 80 percent of growth in the livestock sector now comes from these industrial production systems. CAFOs now account for 72 percent of poultry production, 43 percent of egg production, and 55 percent of pork production worldwide.

But CAFOs produce high levels of waste, use huge amounts of water and land for feed production, contribute to the spread of human and animal diseases, and play a role in biodiversity loss. Farm animal production also contributes to climate change: the industry accounts for an estimated 18 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, including 9 percent of the carbon dioxide, nearly 40 percent of the methane (a greenhouse gas 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide), and 65 percent of the nitrous oxide (300 times more potent as carbon dioxide).

The environment is not all that is at stake with this rapidly shifting means of food production; factory farms pose a serious threat to public health as well.Diets high in animal fat and meat—particularly red meat and processed meats, such as hot dogs, bacon, and sausage—have been linked to obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and certain types of cancer.

Although CAFOs originated in Europe and North America, they are becoming increasingly prevalent in developing regions like East and Southeast Asia, where environmental, animal-welfare, public health, and labor standards are often not as well-established as in industrialized regions. The report stresses that to prevent serious human and environmental costs, policymakers will need to strengthen production regulations around the world.

Further highlights from the report:

  • Between 1980 and 2005, per capita milk consumption in developing countries almost doubled, meat consumption more than tripled, and egg consumption increased fivefold.
  • Approximately75 percent of the new diseases that affected humans from 1999 to 2009 originated in animals or animal products.
  • Because CAFOs rely on a narrow range of commercial breeds selected for their high productivity and low input needs, less-popular indigenous livestock breeds are rapidly falling out of use: in 2010, the FAO reported that at least 21 percent of the world’s livestock breeds are at risk of extinction.
  • Livestock production is a major driver of deforestation: cattle enterprises have been responsible for 65–80 percent of the deforestation of the Amazon, and countries in South America are clearing large swaths of forest and other land to grow animal feed crops like maize and soybean.

Purchase the full report here.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Annual Pullet Sale

Central Coat Feather Fanciers will hold its annual fund-raiser pullet sale March 24, starting at 9 am in the Templeton Feed parking lot. Find a map linked on the site.

Three-month-old Ameraucana, Barred Rock, Black Australorp, New Hampshire Red, and Blue Laced Red Wyandotte, shown here, pullets will be available. What a great selection! $15 each.

CCFF members will also bring their own chickens to the sale, so other ages and breeds will be available, including bantams.

If you just can't wait, call Larry Stallings, CCFF president, at (805) 237-7987. He'll sell you some before the sale.

At three months old, these girls will be laying within a month or two. Unless you are eager for spending time with chicks, this is the way to go. The birds are young enough to be settled down as companion birds and will give years of lovely eggs.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Chicken Lovers, Unite!

Over 200 eager chicken people turned out Saturday for Farm Supply's Spring Chicken Workshop. It was standing room only -- they'd set up 175 chairs but the crowd overflowed.

Barbara Bullock did a great job, using several of her own chickens to demonstrate various points she explained to the audience. Everyone there either already had chickens or was planning to get them -- soon -- so they were eager to ask questions.

She also removed spurs from a rooster -- quickly and efficiently. They were huge! Her expert hands showed the importance of good technique and confidence. Definitely a skill that improves with practice. Get an experienced person to guide you. Mentors are very important in learning about chickens.

People were eager for chicken books. One enthusiastic mother explained that her son is eager to get involved, so she has been recruited as the 4-H chicken leader. She will learn fast! Her son wants to start with Belgian Bearded d'Uccles, a good choice. Small bantams, good disposition, attractive. What's not to like? I predict a good experience for these newbies.

Another woman hasn't gotten her husband's support on getting chickens -- yet. She had promised him she wouldn't come home with any chicks, but she brought home a book. I hope it helps her convince him to add chickens to their garden.

The weather was pleasant and crisp. We all had a good time. Thanks, Farm Supply, for sponsoring this event. I expect they sold a lot of their Rhode Island Red and Barred Rock chicks that day.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Farm Supply

Barbara Bullock and I will present a workshop on chickens at the San Luis Obispo Farm Supply store Saturday March 10, 10 am - noon. Barbara is a chicken breeder of local repute and a colleague in Central Coast Feather Fanciers. She gave me the lovely Sicilian Buttercup who lays such lovely eggs for me. She doesn't cluck, she croons. I'm crazy about her. Thanks, Barbara!

Barbara has also been loaning chicks to people who want to keep chickens but aren't able to have them permanently for legal reasons -- they don't live in the right zoning, or some other limitation. She gives them chicks to raise, and when they get too big, Barbara takes them back.

Of course, by that time, they are completely beloved pets. They sit on her shoulders and enjoy her company. It's a great way for people to have some contact with raising chickens even though their circumstances don;t permit them to have a backyard flock.

Farm Supply stocks lots of traditional breed chicks every year. They are reliable supporters of the local chicken community. Thanks, Farm Supply, for having us in to help spread the word about backyard chickens.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Chicken Sweaters

Chickens are well-feathered and withstand the cold well. However, for those that have been subjected to poor living conditions that have tattered their feathers, kind people have come up with sewing and knitting patterns to create sweaters to keep them warm until their new feathers grow in.

This photo was posted on a blog to accompany the writer's musings on whether to get started with chickens in her backyard. Her readers were overwhelmingly supportive.

These sweaters are a delightful combination of useful and stylish. No doubt they raise the spirits of hens who have been abused as well as keeping them warm.