Sunday, September 30, 2007

Truly Free Range Chickens...Part One

This year, we are in the process of building up our flock of laying hens, one brood of chicks at a time. Right now, we have 15 hens, way too many roosters and 15 4-wk old chicks, whose sex has yet to be determined. Three of our mature hens have been our brooders this year. We are allowing the hens to set on their eggs and raising their chicks to maturity this year, so that we can hopefully have on-farm organic eggs for 2008. The roosters will soon be culled out of the flock, so that we don't have to feed them all winter long. Their basic function is to crow at odd times, thereby annoying the neighbors and creating lots of really good manure under the Tree of Life's branches. Laying flocks only need a couple of roosters to keep them happy, so we will only keep 2-3 around the Farm.

Our chickens are a very interesting breed. Exactly what kind of chickens they are is a bit of a mystery, however. They came to me designated as full sized Old English Game chickens, which appear to be fairly uncommon in this area. I have tried to find some for sale and have had no luck finding any locally....closest I found was several states away and they were quite expensive, which suprised me. I got the original few we had from someone who raises rare and unusual breeds of chickens, by way of a friend who procured them for me. I never actually met the fellow who hatched these birds. Since I used to work at the Lazy 5 Ranch, which is an exotic animal park, I asked someone I worked with at the ranch to see if he could get me some guinea fowl keets and I ended up with several of these chicks mixed in with them. I asked about them and was told they were most likely Old English Games but nobody was sure. I assumed that was what they were until I was researching some information about the origins of the domestic chicken and was amazed to see a picture of a chicken almost identical to several of mine...the Red Jungle Fowl of Thailand. I have posted a gallery of pictures on a separate post after this
one, so you can see what I am talking about.

On further investigation, I found the following article on a site about the DNA of chickens:

"Every breed of domestic chicken that ever lived can be traced to a single subspecies of red junglefowl native to Thailand, according to mitochondrial DNA evidence discovered by Japanese researchers. Using these techniques, the research team was able to eliminate all but a single subspecies of red junglefowl (Gallus gallus gallus) native to Thailand as the ancestor to all subsequent breeds of the domesticated chicken.

Because the domestication of the chicken is a relatively recent event in human history, studies of nuclear genes would not provide much useful data because of their low mutation rate. The mitochondrial genome, on the other hand, has a high and constant mutation rate, as it is impervious to generation time differences between species. Biologists have pondered the origins of the domestic chicken for many decades. Paleontologists first fixed the original date of chicken domestication some 4,000 years ago at a site in Pakistan. However, subsequent discoveries of chicken bones at Neolithic sites at the mouth of the Yellow River in China push the date back to about 7,500 years ago. However, the red junglefowl was not native to that arid region of China, suggesting an older heritage in a more tropical area.

The new findings by the Japanese researchers suggest that domestication took place more than 8,000 years ago in what is now Thailand and Vietnam, the region in which this red junglefowl is found today. Moreover, this data indicates that the chicken is a notable exception to the general rule that the domestication of a species results in the extinction of its wild ancestor, the researchers note. "

Both our hens and roosters are almost identical to these wild birds and display a lot of characteristics that the jungle birds do. These characteristics make them perfect homestead birds for us because they don't require a lot of care and are wary enough to survive predation as opposed to the more domesticated birds we have considered. We feed them to keep them from roaming too much around the Farm and they are fairly tame. They are also acutely aware of their environment, so much so that if a plane flies over within their sight range, they will duck and run for cover. We have a neighbor who keeps a large flock of Buff Orphington's and she says they act like they are on Quaaludes and routinely succumb to coyotes (yes they are all over this area), raccoons, hawks and owls and the occasional stray dog because they are not very aware of their surroundings most of the time. While having a gentle, biddable hen or really calm rooster is a good idea if they are in a pen or coop, they don't do as well as a truly free ranging bird, which is what we are seeking and what we have happily ended up with, even though it started as a fluke.
Now we are actively seeking to increase our flock of this breed and have no other chickens here so as not to dilute the gene pool.

These birds also lay fairly good sized eggs, albeit whereever they can find a spot, usually in a removed corner of one of the sheds, under the barn or even 15 feet up high in a tree(see picture posts for more about this). Since we are trying to build up this flock, we have kept an eye on the hens this summer and watched for their nest locations. These girls like to make it know when they have laid a new egg or come off setting to eat and drink and will cackle and flap their wings, so it can be pretty easy to locate their nest site once you start paying attention. These chickens lay good sized clutches of eggs--8-14 is common-- and are excellent mothers. Not all of the eggs they lay are fertile, so there are usually a few left that don't hatch. Occasionally, they all do, though.

If you thought all chickens were stupid, guess again. For example, I had some small watermelons that were way overripe a while back, so I cut them up and fed them to the hens and chicks. Alpha Red pulled off small chunks of her melon's tasty flesh and gently laid it on the ground in front of her little ones. She then lowered her head and touched the pieces with her beak, until the peeps started to eat the pieces but she never ate any of what she placed on the ground. She continued to pull off pieces ever so often, as she was eating melon herself and after a while the chicks hopped up on the melon and started eating with gusto! I have also seen our older, mature rooster scratch up the ground and lower his head in the same fashion until the chicks come over to investigate and eat what ever seeds or bugs he has rustled up for them. He never eats when he does this, so I know that he has to be trying to teach the little ones how to look for food. Some pretty amazing interaction goes on between the adult chickens and the chicks.

Our girls are really protective of their chicks, almost to the extreme which would be necessary for a wild bird, which is another behavior I attribute to their heritage. I have several tough barn cats who won't go within 4 feet of these mommas with their broods. We usually keep the little ones and their mommas in a pen at night until they are big enough to roost up in the Tree of Life with the rest of the flock and that is usually by around 10-12 days of age. After being out foraging all day, the hens show up with their chicks around dusk, ready to get back into the safety of the pen until the babies are strong enough to fly up to the tree branches. One of these hens hatched out 12 chicks this last go 'round and they are now almost 4 weeks old and all are still surviving. That first night I left them out on their own, I went out with a flashlight, right before our bedtime, to check on them and there they were, huddled under their mother's protective wingspread, sleeping peacefully while balanced on their chosen branch. Considering the many possible predators we have here at the Farm, foxes, skunks, owls, hawks, snakes, etc., this is a testament to her ability as a mother. I have even suffered the wrath of mama when I got too close while feeding or changing the water and trust me, that beak is a great deterrent to messin' with those babies.