Dorrie reads over Lauren's shoulder (from her website)
Now that it looks like we won't be blowing ourselves up (this week, anyway), let's talk chicken.
Or, rather let's let Lauren Scheuer do it.
The Upton resident is bringing “A Flock of their Own," her tales of fowl hijinks and learning experiences to Jacobs Edwards Library next Thursday.
“They live in the moment, chickens do. They know how to handle day today challenges,” she said. “Chicken personalities are extreme versions of people I know.”
Although her favorite is Lucy, a hen who got sick and became partly paralyzed after six months, but lived to squawk about it, Scheuer sees unique character in all of her hens (and the one rooster she had for a year). There are dozens of chicken types bred for particular traits – for example, barred rocks are known to be sociable and good egg-layers, while buff orpingtons generally like to be handled. But not all fit the mold.
Take Lil White, her orpington – “She's sociopathic and wants me dead,” Scheuer said. The chicken routinely pecks at her legs when she comes in to feed them and “has no friends, but she doesn't need them. … She's a jerk, but I adore her.”
Lucy, by contrast, brought both Scheuer and her dog into the flock. Because the hen is paralyzed from an illness that's normally fatal, Scheuer “built her a special-needs coop.” When Lucy went “broody” (that is, wanted to sit on a clutch of eggs), she got the hen a few fertile ones. One hatched, and “she needed me with her while she taught her baby how to be a chicken. It was beautiful, and I got to see it all because of Lucy.”
Scheuer is not alone in being a suburbanite who has or wants chickens. Like her, many owning fairly small plots (hers is an acre) and with no interest in commercial chicken farming get a few birds as pets or as a daily supply of protein widely described as having a color and taste better than store-bought eggs. They also tend not to have the chemicals found in eggs from the giant commercial chicken factories, where chickens routinely spend their lives in tiny wire crates on shelves and live on a diet of “food” that's often not really food, hormones and antibiotics to promote quantity of production rather than quality. In some cases, they're technically labeled as “free range” because they have a doorway to the outside even though they don't use it.
Small backyard flocks, by contrast, usually do really go outdoors, giving the birds a chance to eat what they evolved to eat: worms, insects, seeds and other things that pass their nutrients into the eggs (and, for those so inclined, meat). Although our region tends to have too many hazards of both the human (fast cars) and wild (fishers, coyotes, hawks) kind for it to be safe for small flocks to be truly free-roaming, they don't require a huge amount of fenced space to be safe and still have enough room to minimize the conflicts and the smell that are inherent to overcrowded conditions.
Not that it's possible to avoid ALL hen conflicts. Like any group animal, they have their social order and sometimes disgruntled hens hope to change it,especially if one dies or a new one joins. We did, after all, take the term “pecking order” from them.
Chickens run around at a Brookfield farm (my photo)
“They're living dinosaurs, and they're prey, so they behave differently from house pets,” Scheuer noted.
That shows up in their “language,” in which chickens – like other birds – have specific calls for various events. Over time, it's possible to distinguish their alarm calls that indicate an aerial threat from a ground-based one and one of those calls from the routine egg-laying squawks. Up close, people can also see they quietly talk to each other while pecking for bugs, although only chickens know what they're saying.
Like most non-human species, they're far more intelligent than we give them credit for. Although it doesn't hurt them to take their eggs -- they lay one almost every day in the warmer seasons, and a few times a weeks in winter, for several years – that doesn't mean chickens were put here to please or feed us. They evolved independently of humans, but our paths crossed at some point around 8,000 years ago in southeast Asia. Nobody's quite sure what happened, but someone realized the wild red jungle fowl living near them had a trait that's odd in the avian world: the hens didn't need roosters to lay eggs (although without one, the eggs aren't fertile) and began keeping the hens for that purpose. The genetics “suggest multiple origins of domestication,” with the earliest known archeological evidence dating from China around 5400 BCE, according to a short but well-referenced column at http://archaeology.about.com.
“I wanted some lawn ornaments, really,” Scheuer said of why she got the first of her hens about five and a half years ago by mail order. She initially tried raising them “in the living room, and realized their cuteness and tininess didn't last long.”
“I love the idea of people in suburbs and cities having chickens, but just like dog owners, there will be some people who don't do right by their chickens,” she said. Among other things, she believes there need to be “fair limits” on doing so, including limiting them to hens only (roosters cause most of the noise that riles neighbors) and ensuring the birds have enough space.