On Saturday I did some cleaning in our crawl space, mainly to find a stuffed pumpkin T. decided she absolutely, positively must have at that very moment (we didn't find it, but found lots else). I was going to write today about relics--the things we drag along with us through the years. But then we left on Saturday to go to this, and spent a good couple hours touring chicken coops in the downtown area. I love, love, love the idea of a chicken coop tour. I also love the idea of urban farming, and how more and more people, it seems, are looking for ways to create even a tiny bit of sustainability in their own backyards. I love the idea of teaching our children the importance of using the resources we have; the joys of the symbiotic relationship we need to nurture between ourselves and the animal (and plant) world. I also love, as it turns out, chickens.
Last spring L. was obsessed with chickens. This was in large part due to a Powerpoint project on chickens he had to do at the end of second grade. He proceeded to track down poultry catalogs like this one, and for awhile there he had chickens on the top of his birthday wish list. Scott and I were worried. Chickens? How could we get him a chicken? Were chickens even allowed in this county (they are, but not roosters)? The interest faded, mercifully, although he still does have a pile of poultry catalogs in his precious catalog box in his room. And he was able, amazingly to us, to identify the breeds of chickens we saw in some of the coops on Saturday. What interested me the most was how the owners who were keeping chickens were also keeping marvelous organic gardens, and using the chicken droppings and egg shells to compost their gardens. No one we talked with was, thank goodness, eating the chickens (three of the families who owned coops we visited were vegetarians).
We found out some interesting and scary things along the way:
It takes very little space and money to own a chicken or two. One coop we visited belonged to a man who had almost no yard at all to his home--just a strip of concrete. His chickens were kept in a narrow strip of ground surrounded by bamboo in the back of his house. The hens happily scratched around the leaves and wove in and out of the bamboo.
You can leave your chickens and go on vacation if you provide them with an automatic feeder. You do need to find someone to retrieve the eggs, though, because if you leave the unfertilized eggs with the hens for too long they will go into "brooding mode" and sit on the eggs, in a trance-like state. It can take weeks to snap them out of that state, during which time they won't produce eggs.
Chickens cost very little to keep. You can visit this site for the scoop; however, I was taken aback to see that the same page contains a link to a few barbecue chicken recipes--seemed in poor taste, I think.
Even if you don't want to take on backyard chicken-keeping, try and visit some local coops if you can, and talk with your kids about where their food comes from. I feel very strongly that as parents we need to promote in our kids an awareness of what they eat, where it comes from, and why they are eating it. If we continue to perpetuate the vast disconnect that exists in our processed-food-loving society between what goes into our bodies and where it came from, we will continue to raise unhealthy, ecologically-unaware children.
If you do eat chicken, beware what THEY eat. Commercial chicken feed often contains roxarsone, a common arsenic-based additive. Yes, arsenic. In fact, although many companies like Tyson have stopped using arsenic-containing chicken feed, there are still way more arsenic-fed chickens out there than arsenic-free ones. According to this site, about 70 percent of the 9 billion broiler chickens produced annually in the U.S. are fed a diet containing roxarsone. Since we've been vegetarians for 13 years now, I had no idea about this issue at all. But reading stories like this one, and this one, certainly gave me chills.
All in all, the outing was super-educational for both the kids, and for us grown-up people as well. And judging from the large numbers of families participating in the tour, backyard chicken-keeping is certainly becoming popular. I think any time your children get to see just how much animals give us--that they are capable of being so much more to us than just appearing as mysterious nuggets in a Happy Meal, we are taking a huge step in educating our kids to be good citizens of the Earth.
**When I told Scott I was going to write about chickens today he asked if I was going to make it a preachy post. I don't think I did, but I also think everyone could benefit on working a little less meat and a little more environmental awareness into their diets!