The Homestead Flock:
Pets or Partners?
This article was published in the December 2008/January 2009 issue of Backyard Poultry Magazine.
It was posted to the site December 28, 2008.
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I once gave seven four-week-old chicks to a family with several children. When I next saw the father, he told me the chicks had become a major focus for his children, who pampered them, gave them imaginative names, and wrote stories about their escapades. And when one of the chicks died, they organized an elaborate funeral, complete with candles, songs, and recitations.
I love that story. We modern humans have become increasingly lonely, increasingly isolated from the natural world in the tight cocoon of a man-made environment. Those children found a powerful antidote to that alienation, a reconnection with the living world, through a close and intimate relationship with another species. By taking responsibility for their care, they began to learn about the essential interconnectedness of their ecological surroundings, and by extension, that they have a responsibility to it as well.
But let’s reflect a little on the nature of that relationship. For the children, the relationship was essentially with cherished pets. For many of the adult keepers of poultry—and perhaps a substantial proportion of the readers of Backyard Poultry—that remains the nature of the relationship. While I have known—and respect—many keepers of “pet chickens,” I hope that we can all find our way to a broader, more useful relationship with our flocks. In the attempt to become more food independent in our back yards, poultry have far more to offer as partners than as pets.
In my experience, folks who relate to their birds essentially as pets tend to have small flocks (in which each bird is known as a unique individual, often named), and tend not to do any of their own breeding of stock. Their perspective on the nature of the enterprise differs from my more utilitarian one in three ways: dealing with illness, culling for the table, and using the flock’s services for benefits beyond the production of eggs.
I am always troubled by the requests I get from local acquaintances and visitors to my website to diagnose illness among their birds and suggest a remedy. I know they don’t want to hear—might even be shocked to hear—that I routinely cull a bird in my flock who is ill. (The difference is partly one of scale, I’m sure: It’s not surprising there should be more interest in treating an ill bird in a smaller flock, in which the loss of a single individual is a relatively greater loss than in a larger flock.)
In my own flock, if a bird is injured, I isolate and care for it individually as long as it takes—the recuperative powers of fowl following injury are remarkable. But when a bird exhibits symptoms of disease, I am more likely to do two things: Cull the affected bird immediately, and review my environmental factors and management practices. Am I overlooking something that is undermining the birds’ natural good health? If I am doing all I can to make sure the flock has the conditions to thrive, a bird who fails to do so is not a case for heroic interventions to rescue it, but of demonstrated genetic weakness. Why should future members of the flock be saddled with such genetics? As an acquaintance of mine says, “The best medicine kit is the hatchet.” This sounds cruel, but one could argue that a concern for the future well-being of the flock as an ongoing entity is just as compassionate as a tender-hearted determination to save a sick individual.
Perhaps no issue is more likely to divide the owners of pet fowl from the poultry husbandman than the question of slaughtering birds for the table. I have known a number of owners of small flocks who keep their hens long past their productive period, delighting in their contented presence about the homestead until they die of old age, indifferent to the scant return on investment of money and effort. Often they are puzzled or even offended by my acceptance of culling the flock for food as an inherent part of the process. Perhaps some reflections on the history and nature of domestication itself can help clarify the issues.
Probably most of us assume that domestication began when humans “way back when” adopted young animals from the wild; concluded there were obvious benefits (meat, milk, hides, feathers, etc.) from animals they didn’t have to hunt; and began caging or fencing them and thus increasing their value as a resource. Such a scenario fits comfortably with our habitual human hubris—an assumption that of course we would have initiated the process and been in control of it from the beginning.
A fascinating book by Stephen Budiansky, based on recent advances in scientific thinking about the origins of domestication, gives another point of view, arguing that domestication was an evolutionary process not initiated by humans or, at first, much under their control. It is titled The Covenant of the Wild: Why Animals Chose Domestication. The title implies the book’s thesis: that domestication was a co-evolutionary event, a compact with humans into which certain animal species entered for compelling reasons of their own.
Simplifying Budiansky’s argument greatly here: When Homo sapiens started practicing agriculture, certain opportunist species moved into the new ecological niches—cultivated grain and other crops. The more aggressive individuals among them would have been killed outright by the humans, introducing an unplanned selection toward more docile animals willing to accept the benefits of living in close association with people. Among these were the obvious benefits of enhanced and easier access to food, and protection by the humans from their natural predators. But remember that the urge to reproduce is equally as powerful as the urge for nourishment and escape from predation. In their “bargain” with humans, domesticated species achieved spectacular reproductive success, far beyond that of their wild cousins.
Gradually humans concluded that fencing or caging the opportunists in was more efficient than fencing them out of crop areas. The obvious next step would have been the control of matings—based on the common sense observation that superior individuals produce superior offspring—and the rapid development of domesticated species as we know them was underway.
We do not know in detail about the domestication of fowl species. It is easy to imagine, however, that their wild ancestors were drawn to agricultural settlements to make the same sorts of “bargains” as other domesticated species: easier access to food, protection from predators, and reproductive success far beyond that of their wild relatives—grouse, quail, mallards, Graylag geese, etc.
Slaughtering birds we have taken a personal obligation to nurture is often debated as a moral issue. Certainly any individual is free to purchase her birds from a hatchery, care for them throughout a good life that ends in natural death from old age, and never slaughter a bird in her care. That’s fine as a personal preference, of course, but it does not change the moral equations involved. Participation in domestication necessarily involves us in the slaughter of animals. Maintenance of excess males not needed for breeding (fowl, like other domesticated species—and humans—reproduce roughly half-and-half male and female), and of old females no longer in production—simply is not sustainable as an economic enterprise (in the broadest sense of managing resource use). Because we cannot expect or imagine that those breeding our stock will not cull their flocks as an essential part of the enterprise, we are in a moral sense entirely complicit in the deaths of those animals. Such is the essential dynamic of domestication.
All of which seems a bit gloomy. We bring a redeeming brightness to this “bargain” we’ve made with our feathered friends by fulfilling our (moral) obligation to give them the best care, the most natural and contented life, that is in our power to provide. Recognizing our relationship to our flocks as an alliance for mutual benefit introduces a respect and gratitude that goes far beyond simple joy in them as cherished pets. We become partners in a mutually supportive task of maximizing the homestead as a resource—in which we are as dependent on the flock’s good work as they are on our care.
If you have kept your flock basically as pets, I invite you to broaden the scope of your relationship with them. There is nothing to be lost, and much to be gained. Though my goals for my flock are utilitarian, that doesn’t mean I cannot know all the joys—the sheer fun—of keeping them as well. We get enormous pleasure from watching the antics of our birds as they forage and get excited and squabble. Our fascination with mother hens caring for their chicks is endless. And when we encounter one of our birds again at the table, we feel a sense of profound respect and gratitude—of personal indebtedness—that those eating mass-produced foods from supermarket or fast-food joint are not privileged to know.
As I write, the world has collectively held its breath, staggered by the speed with which our national and now global economy has entered profound crisis, and deeply uneasy about the prospects for the future. Whatever ups and downs have intervened by the time you read these words, most analyses I read predict that it will be years before we return to normal. Indeed, most expect an entirely new and different “normal” to emerge. My own gut feeling is that the new norm will mean a change from the era of easy prosperity most of us grew up assuming almost as a natural right, into a time of greater economic constriction. I expect we will see a greatly accelerated movement toward home production for our needs, as opposed to consumption of goods and services generated by a centralized mass market.
Against this unsettling background, we might well have a new appreciation of the home flock as partners in an effort toward a more productive backyard—toward greater food self-sufficiency. Their contribution of eggs to our tables is of course something poultry owners have always valued. But those who have been reluctant to slaughter their cherished birds for the table may re-think this potential gift as they plan for a more productive flock at the heart of the homestead enterprise. Our grandmothers knew how wholesome and health-giving is good broth, which can become a foundation of our families’ health. (See “Chicken Broth: A Way of Life,” by Ellen Ussery, Feb/Mar 2008 issue.) And don’t forget the value of the nutritious, high-quality cooking fats to be rendered from our chickens, geese, and ducks. Many of us may even come to value the feathers of our slaughtered fowl, especially the waterfowl, for home-made alternatives to purchased quilts and winter clothing.
But the flock has so many other contributions to make as we try to ramp up home production. Fowl able to forage convert resources—insects, earthworms, green plants, wild seeds—we cannot directly utilize for food ourselves. Geese are primarily grazers, and can utilize pasture—or even our lawns—as effectively as ruminants. Don’t forget Muscovies as well—more efficient grazers than domesticated ducks descended from the wild mallard. Waterfowl and chickens can clean up dropped fruit in the orchard, helping to break disease cycles. Turkeys are great gleaners of free feed resources such as acorns and beech nuts, and dropped fruit such as mulberries and persimmons.
The flock’s droppings help fertilize the pasture or orchard over which they range; or, if captured in a deep litter, convert to quality compost to boost the garden’s fertility.
Why is it that our great-grandparents managed to produce an abundance of garden vegetables and orchard fruits without the “weapons” of Monsanto and other pesticide makers for a toxic war on insects? A good deal of the answer has to do with their busy, free-ranging chickens and other fowl, who helped control crop-damaging insects. With planning and care, guineas can even be used right in parts of the garden itself for control of really tough insect competitors like squash bugs.
A time of greater economic constriction may mean that a power tiller is not within the budget of many families. Isn’t it wonderful that by confining chickens where we need them and allowing them to do what they love most to do—scratching, all day, non-stop—these hard-working partners can take over the chore instead?
In all these and other ways, the home poultry flock can help diversify and balance the homestead ecology, making it more of a closed circle, and bringing greater food security in this time of rapid and unpredictable economic changes.