Friday, December 9, 2011


WE GOT OUR FIRST SNOW IN BIRDLAND THIS MORNING, just a gentle sifting that had stopped by the time a blue light crept into my bedroom to tell me I'd better get out of bed. I let Ursa out and she stopped at the front step for a moment to sniff curiously. My dog is no longer a puppy, even though I call her that most of the time. This will be her third winter, so snow is not new to her, though it must be a deeply buried memory.
My spring chickens, so tiny when they arrived in June, have begun to lay. Usually that happens when we put the lights in the hen house for warmth, but lately it's been warm enough without lights. That will soon change, and we'll find time this weekend to put up plastic and plug in the Christmas lights that do the double duty of warming and decorating the aviary. Most days I find 4 eggs, two white ones and two a deep brown. It's so nice to have my own hens' eggs to eat again. The yolks are so golden, not like the pale yellow yolks from a grocery store egg. I love the flavor, but even more, I love knowing that that flavor comes from the varied diet my chickens have—scratching all day in the yard, eating grass, dandelions, curly dock, Shepard’s purse, thistle, any bugs or grubs they can still find, and even the kitchen scraps I put out for them. Soon the snow will cover this smorgasbord, and the greens will go dormant and brown, but for now the yard is still a fresh green. I love the connection to the land my chickens give me—direct from the yard to my table. The bowl of fresh eggs on my counter reminds me of the Hobbit's riddle: “A box without hinges, key, or lid, yet golden treasure inside is hid.”  My bowl has both brown and white eggs, and I like the combination. The mail-order chicks we shared with Abby and Daniel so long ago were the “Rainbow Layers Mix.” This summer the predators took half of our share, and we have about a dozen left. Only two colors so far, but I hope some of the others will come into lay and give us more variety, especially of browns.
The brown eggs are beautiful, but I know the color of the shell says nothing about the value of the “golden treasure” inside. The nutritional composition of the eggs has everything to do with what the hens ate and nothing to do with the outer covering. Still, the grocery stores demand a higher price for the cartons of brown eggs. You can also pay a premium for “cage free,” “free range,” “natural,” or “organic” eggs or meat. Here, let the buyer beware. You only need to google a string of words, “cage free range egg debate” to see that this discussion is very complex. Factory farms might do the bare minimum to get away with the “cage free” label (sometimes even achieving the rich, yellow color—and perhaps flavor—through the use of feed supplements. It is the carotene that occurs naturally in the grazing diet that gives that color, nutrition and flavor to my chickens' eggs, and you can add that to the feed.). According to the USDA web page, the definition of “Free Range” or “Free Roaming” is this: “Producers must demonstrate to the Agency that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside.” Note that they don't specify how long. All day? Five minutes? And what does “allowed” mean? That there is a tiny door to a yard that a hen might wander into? Are these assurances enough to warrant the pricier “Free Range” label? The USDA doesn't give a legal definition of “Cage Free” but the technical name for this is “high density confinement.” A google image or video search of this term is interesting, but it might put you off your dinner.

In Birdland, “free range” means my chickens have the protection of the coop from dusk to dawn (or at least my interpretation of “dawn,” which is admitedly loose). During the day, they wander all over the yard, tails up, beaks to the ground, as they graze nearsightedly for their dinner. The best assurance you can get for good quality, humane poultry production is to buy your eggs and meat from a local farm or CSA that you could go visit if you wanted to see where your dinner comes from. Check to find your sources of locally grown food.

No comments:

Post a Comment