Tuesday, August 3, 2010

For the Love of a Chicken



My daughter never ceases to amaze me. The other day, I found Briana on our tree swing with "Anastasia," her Polish chick, the petite, white hen nestled safely on her lap, while she swung to and fro. Brie plays and cuddles with the chicks every day, treating them like treasured pets, and I am coming to the conclusion that they are - pets - in a more formal sense of the word than I originally intended.

When I started this little venture into hen keeping, I was committed to teaching my family three simple lessons: one, kids should know where their food comes from, two: urban farming is both accessible (and easy!), and three: eating eggs made the same day from "super chickens" that are truly free ranged, cared for with affection, and raised on a diverse, organic diet can be an enlightening experience, gastronomically speaking. If that last one seems too lofty a goal, please allow me to explain...

It's all about freshness. Growing our own veggies, herbs, and having eggs go from farm-to-fork in less than 24 hours, rather than consuming the ancient store-bought relics (fact: the ones you get from the grocery store are 45 days old before you even bring them home) should elevate our home made culinary creations to new levels of excellence. Eggs are a mainstay in our family's diet, from omelets to quiche to Spaghetti Carbonara, we love our eggs, so to pluck fresh eggs from our hens' bottoms each day and whip those golden yolks into something yummy seemed like an admirable project.

And on a bright, summer day in mid June, in the interest of scrumptious eggs and sustainable agriculture, we brought home six baby chicks, and raised them in our guest room-turned-chick nursery. They scuttled around in a makeshift brood box for five weeks, cozy and warm under the amber glow of a heat lamp, pecking softly at bits of corn, and each other. As they grew, so did the stench of bird poo, and I couldn't wait to move the smelly, little buggers outdoors. Fast forward, now the fluffy hens roost in the back yard, taking up residence in a modest, chocolate-colored wooden coop, a bit cramped for lack of space, but dining on the gourmet delights of leftover pasta, over ripened nectarines and bananas, in addition to their daily grub.

I've been reading about how to best feed these fast-growing omnivores, so that they will eventually produce the tastiest eggs on the planet. Chickens, I've discovered, will eat everything... and I mean everything. I've fed them tomatoes, apples, cottage cheese, carrots (they love the carrot tops more than the carrots themselves), frozen peas, corn on the cob, you name it. But, what they covet most, above all else, is pasta. Maybe it's the long, skinny, cylindrical shape they appreciate, or maybe they crave the taste of olive oil and Parmesan cheese, but the hens fight over it, and devour platefuls as though each serving were the Last Supper.

Which brings me to today. I'm out of baby chick food, and so I must journey forth to Agway, our local livestock supply store, to pick up something called "developer feed" now that they are older. They'll dine on this until they are ready to lay eggs in November, at which point I'll have to switch their feed again to "layer feed," which is adult fare, ensuring they are getting proper nutrition for each stage of their burgeoning life.

What strikes me as funny about today's trip to the feed store is the prospect of buying worms... mealworms, to be exact, in addition to their feed. I read somewhere that the best way to say, "I love you," to a chicken is to feed it mealworms. Upon learning this fact, I predict that my daughter will overcome her aversion to squiggly, wet things, and cheerfully bestow to each hen this edible gift of live protein. As for me, this is a leap forward in my relationship with the hens. Once just a means to an end (raise healthy chickens = eat fresh eggs), now, it seems, I am investing in their happiness.

And so here I am, off to buy mealworms, something I never imagined including in my checklist of otherwise normal suburban housewife errands. The treat will give Brie yet another way to express her unconditional love for her feathered friends. Being a die-hard dog lover, (I'm not a "cat person" and certainly not a "bird person," for that matter) I am surprised that these quirky creatures could work their way into my heart also, but through all the fussing, the feeding, and the caregiving, I've grown quite attached to our little flock. Gazing back at those pictures of Brie on her tree swing, I realize my daughter taught me a lesson as well. Chickens can be pets too, worthy of our devotion.