Thursday, January 26, 2012

Eggshell Violation

Our two chickens have been laying about an egg a day. We got them as pullets from the feed store Callahan's: a Barred Plymouth Rock named Sal and a golden girl--maybe an Orpington?--we call Mango. Lately Sal runs around with two roosters and a rogue black hen who appeared in the spring and has taken to laying her eggs in our coop. Sal and Mango lay brown eggs, but this hen's are a beautiful blue. Mango got broody on her nest all day. Those six eggs must be fertile. I mark them with pencil so I can harvest the newly laid ones.

We spoil the hens and ourselves with organic feed, about three times more expensive than conventional, but the eggs taste three times better, their luminous amber yolk so bright.  The hens leave craters in the gravel scratching for seeds and insects like earthworms and fleas with their microscope eyes. They help themselves to whatever garden greens they can peck through the fence, hopping up to pluck snow peas. Lamb's quarters and other seedlings that volunteer around the yard in spring become wild sprout salad. Penned chickens are lawnmowers, decimating groundcover like goats.

For years we've put our cracked eggshells in the garden by the sidewalk as an interesting pattern among the pansies, snapdragons, and bamboo shoots. People say the shells make earthworms happy. They take a year to decompose. One morning right after the first Austin Art Yard Tour I'm up front watering and a Code Enforcement truck pulls up. The officer snaps some pictures of our yard and asks about the eggshells. He is inspecting some of the art yards for potential violations, and he's very friendly and smiling. Scott Stevens, who organizes the annual tour with Robert Mace, said they got a call from Code the day before tour weekend asking if they had a permit for the event. No, it is very informal and many of the sites are just drive by. The officer asks me, "Is this all there is--just the front yard?" Yes, just hundreds of egg shells in the garden and thousands of bottle caps strung up as garlands, stars, moons, and chains on the front of the house. (Never mind the museum inside.)

City councils work with code departments to set up ordinances that regulate whether or not having chickens is permissible in your city. Austin has lax laws about urban livestock. There's even an annual Funky Chicken Coop Tour. "Are you interested in raising chickens? Do you need coop design ideas? Do you enjoy talkin' chicken w/folks? Do you want to show your kiddo's where eggs actually come from? Do you own chickens now and need a few new ideas to spruce up their coop?" Chicken coops are unpermitted structures improvised out of chicken wire and often resused wood. Some are mobile and you can mow your yard by moving them about once a week. Coops must be fortified against predators like racoons, possums, and dogs, making them one part prison, one part fortress.

The main arguments against backyard chickens are noise and poop. Neighbors driven insane by 3AM rooster crows. Allegations that chicken poop runoff is eutrophying urban creeks with phosphorous. These kinds of complaints are also leveled against dogs, but imagine if your city said "No more dogs allowed--you will be ticketed if you have one, and the dog will be euthanized." More annoying to me is when the neighbor's chicks scratch in our food patch, its fence mesh just big enough for them to squeeze through. Now a layer of expensive chicken wire keeps them out. An inch gap at ground level lets gulf coast toads slip beneath the screen when the hens try to eat them.

Backyard eggs are food security, easy high protein, sustainable food so local you step in chicken poop. Chickens are at the center of new markets in chicken stuff (prefab coops, feed, even chicken diapers for indoor fowl), and all kinds of little communities of chicken people gather around them to enjoy the birds, trade tips, or mobilize for a common cause like revising city code. Every few months the New York Times runs an article on the "backyard chicken trend [sweeping] the country," sometimes chalking it up to the 2009 recession and desires for Depression-era self-reliance.

The eggs/unborn lives are part of an omnivourous whirlwind of consumption going on in the landscape patch. Like the compost pile, the chickens eat pretty much every living thing, but prefer scraps from our plates. As vegetarians, we eat their eggs and poop (via compost pile via garden bed via vegetables), but not them. But everybody else wants to eat them. We have lost five hens to animals and only one to sickness. A little massacre--a dog or something broke into the back of the first coop I built and tore apart all three hens. Then the neighbor's dog caught Aya, a golden rogue hen we adopted and tamed, and she died on a little bed of hay from a punctured lung or broken neck. Sometimes I forget to coop the hens and one morning find just feathers around the yard and our second hen in the fig tree--probably a raccoon. She never got over the shock, caught some kind of virus, and withered away.

Our neighboors across the alley don't coop their chickens, and we're never quite sure which of the free roaming hens and roosters belong to them, and which are rogue. At dusk the birds gather in the hackberry branches clucking to each other in a rural refrain. The roosters crows day and night, with their glossy regalia of white, umber, and iridescent blue-black intensities. In Miami, free roaming and feral chicken populations become so large--"numbering in the thousands"--that Code Enforcement officers and firefighters dedicate time each month to rounding them up. "Captured chickens are sold to farms in Homestead and the proceeds go to charities in the City (including the Mayor’s Holiday Celebration)." So far they've raised over ten thousand dollars.

In February all six eggs hatch. The chicks hide under Mango's hot, fluffy body. One is blonde with two brown stripes down its back, and the others are black with white spots. Like magic our two hens trippled themselves. In a few months we'll know if the babies are hens or roosters.

Sometimes in the backyard I lapse into a naive state where I'm struck by the oddity of chicken money--buying and selling life itself. You can order chicks online for around $3 each. Then the market logic settles on me again. Of course you can buy chicks--you can buy chicken meat raw or cooked. The chicken factories chug away with their industrial egg and broiler machines all across the southern US. Seeking more flexible low-wage labor to supplement a largely African American workforce,  they now hire migrant laborers from Central and South America.* The broilers with burned off beaks are commodity life forms bred and engineered into being. So different from raising chickens yourself, the chores of provisioning them and cleaning out the coop, the responsibility for your food/pet, killing and plucking and eating the birds, or burying them when they die--the living commodity organizes parts of your life's textures and feelings in a complex relationship, adding to your qualia of life.

I crack our hens' unfertilized chicks into a bowl and whip with a fork to make breakfast tacos in the skillet. The shells go in an old plastic yoghurt container so we can later put them in the garden.


*Angela C. Stuesse, "Poultry Processing, People's Politics: Industrial Restructuring and Organizing across Difference in a Transnational Mississippi," In Mexican Immigration to the U.S. Southeast: Impact and Challenges. Mary E. Odem & Elaine Cantrell Lacy, eds. Atlanta: Instituto de México, 2005.

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