Friday, April 27, 2012

Knitting for Hens

Ex-battery hens modeling their knitwear.
I knit. Usually, I've got a pair of socks on needles, but sometimes I work on hats or mittens. It hasn't occurred to me to knit for my hens until someone (knowing my love for both knitting and hens) sent me this link:

Knitting for Battery Hens

If you're not familiar with what a "battery hen" is, I should warn you that there's a reason battery hens need sweaters: They have scanty feathers. A battery hen has been kept in what's called a "battery cage" (in the US, these are called factory cages, in the UK, battery cages) in commercial laying operations. Battery cages have a footprint about the size of a piece of 8 1/2x11 paper. There's no room for the hen to do anything besides lay eggs and eat or drink. (Thankfully, in January of this year, the European Union Council basically banned battery cages.)

That link led me to some YouTube videos showing ex-battery hens enjoying their new free-range life, wandering a bit pensively at first, scratching a little, and seeming a bit bewildered. But then videos showed the hens several months later, fully feathered and happily running around doing what hens do. Which made me happy. I know how much our hens love to be out, foraging around, looking for bugs and seeds and weeds. They are industrious, sociable, curious souls.

Knowing about some commercial practices led us to buy free range eggs, and eventually to have hens ourselves. But those were decisions I made before I got to know what chickens are like... before I had hens with names like Violet and Mabel roaming around in my backyard.

After smiling my way through a few "liberated battery hen" videos, I found this story about a chicken farm with about 12,000 hens happily ranging around Mulloon Creek Natural Farms in Canberra, Australia. Ranging with them are dogs that guard them from foxes, and they are rotated regularly to different foraging ground, along with their moveable coops. Their eggs are much better for you than the average commercial egg, with higher Omega-3s and Omega-6s.


 I enjoyed watching the video (I clicked on the link to Mulloon Creek Natural Farms. There's a dog there you need to meet if you click on the Flash version...) I can't begin to imagine managing that many chickens. But seeing them roaming and scratching and socializing, behaving just as my hens behave, made me wish there were far more operations just like this one. The farm owner says that they have a far greater demand for eggs than they can keep up with.

With a last glance at the healthy, full-feathered hens ambling through the Australian countryside, I returned to the "knitting for hens" site to print out the knitting pattern for sweaters for ex-battery hens. I've got plenty of yarn that will work nicely to keep some slightly naked hens warm during their explorations and adventures as newly-released hens. It's the least I can do for all the eggs they've produced.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Chickens as Teachers

L strikes a pose with Clover.
When you think of the perfect pet for a kid, you might first think of a hamster, or a dog or cat. A chicken doesn't usually come to mind. But there is something about chickens that fits with kids so wonderfully--and teaches them so much. I try to tell people about the dimension that our hens have added to our lives, but it's hard to explain. "Nice to have those eggs," they say. I agree, but can't help wishing I could explain that it's more than that.

On Tuesday, L and I head to a 4H poultry class. Most of the kids attending say it's their first year with poultry projects. Some are raising meat birds, some are doing an egg production project. All of them have questions. The first part of the class is about record keeping. L will need to keep track of how many eggs her flock produces; how much food they eat; how much she spends on feed, equipment, and birds; what her inventory was at the beginning of her project; and what it was at the end. If she had meat birds, she'd need to keep weight records. She'll have to record income and expenses, and put together photos and write a 2-page story about her chickens before fair.

The presentation is peppered with questions, as small arms shoot into the air. Parents have just as many questions.

"What about grasshoppers?" asks one little girl. "Should we write down when they eat grasshoppers and bugs?"

"How do we know how much they eat if we just keep their feeders full?"

"What if we don't know what breed our chicken is?"

"Do we get to pick the color of leg band they wear for fair?" This is L's question. She has her eye on a blue band that she thought would compliment Pearl, but the leg bands are colored according to size, and it'll depend what will fit on Pearl. Disappointing news.

The topic of leg bands stirs more questions. The kids want to know why they need them, what the numbers mean, if it hurts their chickens to wear them, and if they should write their names on the leg bands. The number on the band will match the number on their cage card. Their chickens will arrive at the fair building on Friday, and will stay until Tuesday. It's a big poultry sleepover.

The presenter tells the story of the time at fair when a boisterous calf pulled down a wall, simultaneously popping open the cage doors for 26 turkeys, who scattered like BBs. It was a turkey trot in the truest sense, and volunteers were running to catch loose birds. They finally rounded them all up, and with the help of numbers on leg bands were able to put the right turkey in the right cage. No easy feat when the majority of the turkeys were white and looked the same.

We work our way through the record book pages and the kids are engaged--moreso than I expected for this part of the class.

But when someone enters the room with a large dog crate, and they hear purring clucks and grumbles coming from the inhabitant, their attention skips from the presenter to the newcomer.

He's introduced as Mr. Dill, a poultry judge and breeder, and he'll be teaching the kids about showmanship--the class at fair where they get a chance to show just how much they know, and must know all the parts of the chicken, need to know the facts about their breed, what kind of comb their chicken has and what faults they have, what they eat...

Mr. Dill lifts the dog crate onto a table, and kids jockey for better seats so they can be close to the bird he pulls out.

Like a magician pulling a rabbit from a hat, he suddenly produces a large, black, Cochin bantam rooster who looks only mildly surprised by the crowd in front of him.

Hands shoot up in the air almost before he gets the bird settled. The rooster peers around at everyone calmly, cocking his head and settling his wings. He's beautiful and showy with plumage that spills over his body like black ribbons. Mr. Dill holds him a little like a football, stroking the rooster's feathers.

The kids all want to talk about their chickens. They want to know the rooster's name ("He doesn't have a name," Mr. Dill answers kindly. "I only have names for my bad chickens," he says with a laugh.) This appears to take the kids by surprise. No name?! He's a bit apologetic and explains that the rooster has a brother named Bruce. That news is received with smiles.

L asks about what to do if her chickens are moulting at fair time, how to prevent sun scald, what kind of tag will work on a booted bird (Pearl is booted, with feathers on her feet), how much bluing to use on a white bird (just a few drops or you'll be showing a blue bird), whether baby oil is better than Vaseline for their comb...  I think her arm is up most of the time.

I look around the room, seeing the rapt attention of kids that are growing up in the iPod-Wii-Internet age. These kids are learning accounting, business, science, veterinary care, economics, public speaking, and responsibility. They are gaining a personal understanding of where their food comes from, and how much time and money goes into meat and egg production. Some will learn the hard lessons of predation, if a neighbor's dog or a fox takes their chickens.

On the way home, L sits in the back with her friend LA, who also has backyard chickens. They chatter away about the virtues of specific chicken breeds, antics of their own hens, which chickens they want to take to fair, and ideas for coop improvements. I listen to them as I drive home through the darkness and navigate traffic. It's hard to explain chicken benefits to people, but the chickens that we got for eggs have given us so much more than omelets.

Monday, April 9, 2012

When a Pearl is a Gem

Rabbits and hens are Easter fixtures, right? So we decided to take a picture of our hen and our rabbit together. Just because. Here they are, Wilson and Pearl:

I'm not sure why this photo makes me laugh. It could be that you can't see Wilson's eyes, or it could be Pearl's somewhat "Uh, ok" expression. But they both posed dutifully together on the porch swing. Pearl cocked her head and looked at Wilson a few times. I think she wonders what he is. Of course, Pearl is not one to cast stones, as it's hard to tell if she's a chicken or a pigeon. Wilson just sat still, nonplussed by his pairing with a chicken, enduring it stoically.

Pearl has been introduced to quite a few kids lately. One neighbor's granddaughters were visiting, and Pearl was offered up as the representative chicken--she was petted and held and passed around. Then yesterday, there was an 8-year-old and 5-year-old visiting our other neighbor, and when invited to come over and see the hens close up they ran through the flock like coyotes, until L had them sit on the bench and said she'd bring them a hen to visit (Pearl). I think if they'd had baby doll clothes at hand, Pearl would have been walking around in a dress, but lucky for her, there were no opportunities for chicken clothing.

She has not laid an egg in weeks, and her eggs are tiny. And as K pointed out, it's not like she'd make a roaster, either. So as chickens go, she's got a tenuous hold on the whole food production part of chickenhood. In fact, if we were serious chicken folk, she'd have been culled as a non-productive hen.

But as ambassadors go, Pearl is, well, a gem. She sits patiently, is content being held, never panics, pecks, or scratches. She lets L carry her around. She doesn't pick on the younger chickens, but no one in the flock pushes her around since she stands her ground.

And so when we wanted a chicken to sit next to a rabbit on the porch swing, Pearl was the obvious choice. She might not look big and fluffy like the big matronly hens, but she makes up for all of that with her big chicken spirit.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Dying Eggs with Onion Skins

Today, with the girls home on spring break, we spent a little time dying eggs. Most of our hens lay brown eggs, and some are a little dark for dying. We'll be using them in Sunday's breakfast. But we went ahead and used all of the light-colored brown eggs for dying, along with some (gasp) store-bought white eggs.

We used two different methods for dying. The first one is one of my favorite ways to dye eggs -- using leaves and onion skins. The process is fairly simple and not nearly as messy as using dye -- your fingers stay clean!

Here's what you'll need: 
  • Green leaves, grass, and flower petals set aside in bowls (we experimented with herbal tea leaves, beet skin, and beet leaves, but found that the leaves and petals from the garden worked best).
  • Brown onion skins (purple will work too, but they give more of a brown color, while the brown skins are more golden)
  • Scraps of cloth
  • Rubber bands or twine
  • RAW white eggs
  • Large pot for boiling eggs, and water to fill as needed

Layer grass and flower petals over the bare egg.  Wrap in onion skins (they may be easier to manage if you soak them in water first).

Wrap the entire egg in a piece of cloth and tie it snugly.  Place in pot and fill with cool water so that the water is about an inch above the tops of the eggs.

Cover and bring to a boil. Boil about 10-12 minutes. Drain, fill pan with cool water so that you can handle the eggs more easily, or allow eggs to cool before unwrapping.

Here's what they look like when they are finished... very subtle, soft shades, depending on what you use.

Method Two:

The girls wanted to use traditional PAAS dyes and try something they saw online. They wrapped boiled eggs in lace, then dipped them in dye to create lace patterns on the eggs. We found some lace scraps at our local Habitat ReStore, and cut them up. In some cases, they dyed the egg, then wrapped the lace on and dyed it again, and in other cases they used more than one color. Here are their finished eggs: