As confirmed omnivores, my wife Rebekah and I consume a fair amount of poultry and eggs. Probably a dozen eggs a week and a chicken every two weeks I’d guess . She raised chickens for the eggs for six years in New Mexico as “magical gifts to her children.” They brought in the eggs. Years before that she had to slay one for an animal science class at N.C. State but declined.
My chicken connection is not quite as close. Now instead of composting, I collect our food waste and walk down to the neighbor’s to feed his birds and commune a while in their big pen. He thinks he’s got about a hundred birds now but it’s awfully hard to count when they’re moving around so. Sometimes I’ll go in the coop and harvest a few eggs for which I pay his going rate of $4 a dozen in winter or $3 a dozen when they’re more plentiful in warmer weather. If none are in the nests, I harvest from the nearby farmstand refrigerator. Once I tried surreptitiously reaching under a hen to get her egg; that was a mistake.
The farmer, Spence Dickinson, keeps a motley variety now including ameraucana, araucana, australorp, Buff orpington, Polish (the ones with the poofy crests, barred rock, cochin (the ones with feathery feet). It varies according to whim, season, what’s in stock at the Southern States or the feed supply in Burlington and the unwanted roosters that are dropped off. He sells eggs and figures he probably breaks even. He doesn’t kill any birds after they quit laying typically after a year or two. His daughter, a vegetarian from childhood, used to slaughter them for the rest of the family to eat when she was younger but never ate them. He composts them when they die.
After learning about Spence’s birds from whom we get about half our eggs, I meandered over to another neighbor to learn about his more modest flock of 15 birds. Robert Long and his wife Anne raise chickens to enjoy the eggs and also because they operate a pre-school and want small children to have that direct connection to food and animals that produce it.
Being at the woods’ edge, his chickens have been subject to all manner of predation from air borne hawks and owls to the egg-sucking snakes, blood thirsty weasels, foxes, coyotes, racoons, and dogs including my late lab mix Bonnie. After several years Robert finally won the battle and his “girls” are now safe in their home made coop, under the grape arbor that Robert grew over their run and even as they roam the yard during daylight taking dust baths, sunning and gathering under the house they seem at ease.
He and Anne no longer name their birds but he is still happy to harvest the eggs from the convenient flap door he created right behind their nesting boxes. He slaughtered one once but now leaves the task to one of his daughters whom he says has no problem turning them gently upside down, putting their heads through the cone and dispatching them quickly, following up with the whole process of scalding off the feathers, cleaning and butchering them. He just enjoys the meat.
As we are outside town, animal -raising is the norm, but I was also curious about what had happened to the urban chicken raising craze that took off a few years ago particularly after the towns lifted the restrictions on backyard hen raising, due in part to the effort of Greg and Boykin Bell. So I checked in with Greg at his Chapel Hill home and he was happily in his seventh year of legal chicken rearing, With the death of Thor his dominant and “awesome” hen, he and Boykin stopped naming the birds. The early fascination that led them and friends to sit in lawn chairs with a glass wine, watching the birds is gone;the chickens are now just a routine part of life. They feed the birds, collect the fresh eggs and enjoy that symbiotic relationship.
A full local tour de coop would not be complete without a visit to a chicken house in Carrboro. The scene I found there is a bit more free- form as the 17 birds owned by Edward and his wife Leah and 4-year-old daughter Zora fan out over the neighbors’ property or peck and scratch continually in their oak leaf covered yard. He reports having to feed them very little commercial feed. Over the several years of raising hens on High Street it seems that the birds have conquered the tick and chigger problems that have become ubiquitous for most of us. No more ticks on him his wife or daughter. His birds seem to know where home is. Despite their free ranging they roost each night in the coop he’s crafted of salvaged lumber wrapped around the sturdy elm tree in the center of the backyard.
Edward told me he’d been a “4-H kid” raising animals from a young age. Now his own family’s kitchen waste goes right on to the compost pile and the birds in their zest to get at it also reward him with a steady supply of highly nitrogenous fertilizer. Unlike some of his counterparts, Edward and his family routinely slaughter non-productive birds in early fall and enjoy the meat. While this hyperlocal brand of locavorism won’t save the world it is providing healthy and tasty food while managing food waste and giving back good fertilizer, that’s a fair trade any day.
Blair Pollock can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org