The latest issue of the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy News (Vol 23:3, May-June, 2006) focuses on poultry, primarily chickens, but also ducks, geese, and turkeys. The ALBC watches some 6500 breeds of farm birds world-wide that are (or were) threatened with extinction, including 15 chicken breeds unique to America. One strategy to promote recovery of threatened breeds is to reintroduce them to production. With this view, the society sponsored a dinner in March in North Carolina where diners were served cooked meats of four chicken breeds no longer in farm production (Buckeye, Barred Plymouth Rock, Dark Cornish, and Commercial Cornish-Rock). In contrast to the mild, clear flavors of industrial chickens most consumers obtain in supermarkets, the Barred Plymouth Rock (for instance) tasted, according to diners, "robust", "smoky and complex", and "rubbery yet succulent".
In addition to production reasons, chickens are being revived on farms for their role in organic and sustainable farming. Some organic beef farmers, for instance, move portable coops of chickens into the pastures from which they have just rotated out cattle. The chickens, set loose to free range, eat parasites and excrete nitrogen-rich droppings into the soil.
My wife and I have discussed raising chickens on our farm. My wife opposes the idea. She grew up with chickens on her childhood farm and has little respect for stupid animals who score low on the cuteness and pet scale. On the other hand, I'm intrigued.
Several years ago, we kept several hens and roosters free range in our back yard. This episode started when a large, handsome rooster flew into the yard. We never knew where he came from, but chickens and roosters are not unusual in our suburban neighborhood with many Latino and Black families. We guessed, however, that the rooster was being surreptitiously raised for cockfighting. We bought a Black English Hen for company for it and fed them both. My wife named the hen "Aretha Franklin". The rooster and hen soon became quite domesticated, following me around, pecking at the windows when they wanted feed, and clucking and crowing at all hours of the night. My wife later bought a Polish Hen, because it made her laugh. It looked like it was upside down, with what should have been its bright, dense, plumage of tail feathers plumped instead on its head (so my wife named her "Tina Turner"). I know Polish jokes, but this is true. The Polish Hen turned out to be a Polish Rooster. He revealed to us the secret of how roosters know when to crow for the sunrise. They crow all the time. He drove our neighbors to distraction (God bless them for their patience) by crowing under their windows at 1 AM, 2 AM, 3 AM, 4 AM, and at 5 AM just before sunrise!
I became quite fond of the birds, but our suburban chicken phase lasted less than a year. Not kept in a coop, the birds fell prey to the coyotes. The birds were actually good fliers, sometimes flying to the roof of the house (where they stared in at my wife in her second-storey home office) and up into trees. Coyotes will climb trees, however. We have had several coyote dens in our backyard over the years, dens to which the coyotes came despite having to get over or around a seven-foot chain link fence with barbed wire on the top (maintained by the golf course at the boundary of which our house is situated). Trees were no challenge to coyotes capable of scaling such obstacles.
I haven't put up much of a fight to have chickens on our West Virginia farm; I'm just getting my wife used to the idea of goats sharing our land with a thundering herd of Percheron horses. Still, I think the notion of keeping some endangered, historic, American breed might intrigue her. Alas, coyotes recently entered the county in which our farm is located. Their arrival sparked fierce, local newspaper and on-line forum debates. As a Californian, my wife chirped in with a word on the benefits of coyotes (but admitting they should keep their cats indoors at night). So if we would raise chickens, even of a flavorful, big of dark meat, heritage breed, we would have to train our dog to chase coyotes away. After all, our birds should be free-range. Well, okay, Bear wouldn't chase anything away; we would have to buy a special chicken-shepherding dog to protect our heritage flock. Has anyone ever heard of such a dog breed? Let us know. Use the comments.