Sunday, March 28, 2010

Chick Order

This morning it’s 29 degrees in Birdland. I was hoping to plant the sedum that my friend, Gayle gave me—shared from her beautiful yard full of perennials. Instead, I’m thinking about starting a fire in the woodstove. Maybe by afternoon the crust of ground will have thawed enough for me to dig, warmed enough so that the roots won’t get frostbite when I set them into the soil. The daffodils have joined the crocuses to begin the parade of color that begins and ends in yellow in my yard.
When the daffodils announced that spring is here (they don’t even seem to be bothered by this morning’s slip back into winter chill) Ellis and I decided it was time to order chicks. We spent the winter mulling over the decision about what breed to get. We settled on Cochin Bantams because they are so gentle, and the hens make excellent brood mothers. We got the bargain mix, partly because we like the surprise of the variety of colors we get (these are just the leftovers from other people’s orders), partly because of the bargain, and partly to take up a tiny bit of the slack of the waste of cockerel chicks in the hatcheries. When you order chicks from a hatchery, you can choose (and pay extra for) pullets (girl chicks—they aren’t hens until they are a year old), cockerels (boy chicks—they’re cheaper) or “straight run” (both sexes—you’ll get about 50% of each). Most backyard flock keepers want pullets for the eggs. Fifty percent cockerels is not a good thing. You want to end up with only one or two roosters, if any, for a small flock. Too many cockerels grow into too many roosters, which means fighting, and it can get ugly. If you live in town, you may not want the noise of crowing (or your neighbors might not want it—some towns even have an ordinance against roosters in a backyard flock). If you order straight run chicks, you’ll need to harvest most of the cockerels when they begin to crow to keep the peace in the flock. If you’re not up for harvesting, you’ll want to order pullets only. It seems like a simple solution, but if a clutch of eggs hatch out roughly 50/50 of each sex (which they do), and if more people order pullets only, where do the rest of the cockerels go? According to Harvey Ussery’s article, “Moral Puzzles in the Backyard,” in the February/March issue of Backyard Poultry, large hatcheries do away with them. (Cue my fourth grade teacher reading Charlotte’s Web: “Do away with it?" shrieked Fern. "You mean kill it? Just because it's smaller than the others?”) Ussery shows how the hatcheries are making a business decision, and the industry couldn’t survive without some method of handling the surplus cockerels. He says it’s the most logical resolution, and he’d do the same thing were he running an industrial hatchery. He also describes graphically the different methods of “doing away with them,” and shows how consumers of day old chicks (and even supermarket eggs) have some responsibility for the carnage. Yes, I say “harvest” when I kill my chickens to eat, which I think is much different from wasting life. When you harvest an animal or a vegetable to eat, the life force has a continuity that is cut off when life is wasted. This is true whether we’re talking about day old chicks suffocating in a barrel or a dumpster of restaurant plate scrapings on the way to the landfill instead of the compost pile. At any rate, just when I was thinking it was worth the extra money to save myself some trouble and order all pullets, Ussery’s article convinced me that the straight run bargain mix was not only the most economical, but the most moral spring chick order I could make.

The temperature has climbed to 32. Time to go out and prepare the chick nursery in the aviary. They’ll arrive sometime next week. I’ll get an early morning call from the postmistress and pick up a box full of musical cheeping. We need to spread fresh bedding on the floor, mend the plastic windbreak, check for rat holes in the chicken wire, clean the brooder box, and make sure the lights work. The sun is shining brightly. When we’ve finished preparing the brooder, it may be warm enough to plant that Sedum after all.

Venture in Beauty; Harvest Peace; Blessed Be.

Mary Lucille Hays lives in Birdland, near White Heath. She is interested in the morality of even small choices.

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