I started this post almost two weeks ago. Panda, our mother hen, had gone broody. Again. I’m a sucker for a broody hen. Or at least this one. She’s one of the original six chicks we adopted four springs ago and this will be the third year I have gone through the debate of whether to let her have her stubborn way. Usually she waits until late July, just before we leave for an annual family reunion, and so I have not been around to think through the consequences of my decision. But almost a month ago, I heard the unmistakeable guttural kruk! of a mother hen, distinct in its relentless, anxious (to me) call: ATTENTION CHICKS!
Listen to me! Stay near me for safety or the other hens will peck you. Good food here. This is how to scratch. Did I not tell you to stay near? You deserved that peck. This is how to drink water. Here’s a delightful blade of grass. Get over here. You aren’t listening. Good food here. Now scratch. A tiny stone just for you to swallow for your gizzard. Etc..
I looked to the coop and sure enough there was Panda fluffing and stalking about, creating a DO NOT CROSS ME zone around her that rebuffed any sign of amorousness from Big Red, and kept the other hens—particularly her daughters Beatrice, from her first year’s clutch, and Brownie, Clownie and Downie from her second—in their places, too: away. Adding to the kerfuffle of the pecking order, Panda planted herself in the most popular nesting box, leaving the other hens to cackle and race about, trying to figure out where to lay their eggs because clearly it would not be in their favorite nesting box ever! where Panda sat on one real egg and two wooden ones. Her dewy eyes. Her quietude. Her active resistance to being moved; when I attempted to take HER eggs, she hissed and pecked. Trust me: she pecks very hard.
In short, she had entered into broodiness and thereby suggested the inevitableness of pending chicks, and the persistence of life against all odds.
Which brings us to this hot seat of yet another moral dilemma here at Darwin’s View: to let her hatch a clutch or not.
I tend to extrapolate my personal choices to the big picture, something I wish more people would do. It would make for a better world because 97% of people believe animals shouldn’t have to suffer and yet every day too many of us choose to eat meat, cheese and eggs, and/or drink milk raised and processed in factory farm conditions. Like it or not, we perpetuate the suffering and torture of billions of farm animals. Each and every one of us. This makes for some very bad karma.
Instead of turning a blind eye, I have gone the rose-colored glasses route. I have tried to eat according to my values. For example, last year, I learned, while reading Jonathan Safran Foer’s book Eating Animals, that fish are sentient creatures with social relationships; and that, when killed, they all, without exception, suffocate a.k.a. suffer. Thus, I don’t eat fish anymore. I still eat cheese and drink milk but Carl and I are privileged to be able to buy the more expensive and locally grown varieties. And, of course, our very own happy eggs keep me in the octo- category of “vegetarian”, though I still don’t categorize myself as such because I have been known to indulge in an oyster on occasion, in an entirely codependent hope not to leave Carl too far behind in my eating choices; he is an omnivore, though becoming increasingly concerned by the “from whence comes this?” aspect of his choices.
That is a significant change—and really does have relevance to our broody hen. If everyone, when they go out to dinner or went grocery shopping, knew to make and did make choices that were in parallel to the 97% of us who don’t think animals should suffer, there would be a marked change in our purchases and thus the marketplace would change. If we all “refined” “replaced” and “reduced’ our choices, (see: http://www.mspca.org/programs/animal-protection-legislation/animal-welfare/farm-animal-welfare/factory-farming/chicken/chickens-on-the-factory-farm.html) demanded that our food be bred and grown in happy, healthy conditions, according to Gene Baur’s book Living the Farm Sanctuary Life . . . there wouldn’t be enough room for all the animals. The numbers raised—billions—are not sustainable.
Dang. How is it that all our choices—iPhones. Leaf electric cars. Regular ol’ gas cars. “Natural” gas (FRACKING) or coal (CLEAN? Cough, cough)—are not sustainable? Even the “good” ones. The “green” ones.
The ugly truth is that there are too many of us. That’s the real problem, easily solvable by educating women around the world. All women. No exceptions. When women are educated, they have fewer children, later. Why that would be a problem, I don’t know but apparently it is. Even though we could half the human population in one generation just by educating women, and allowing them their unalienable Rights of Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
But I digress from my digression from my broody hen. To let her hatch chicks or not.
Option one: Break her of her broody habit by sticking her in a wire cage. Drive her around for an hour on bumpy roads. Take away the eggs. But I have heard stories of hens removed from their eggs flying against barbed wire fencing to get back to them. Wandering forlornly looking for them. Dying from lack of water and food because they are meant to hatch eggs. Do I really think I can endure the withdrawal?
Option two: Hatch home grown eggs. But–as some people might remember–we already had a nightmare result when we did the Big-Red-as-Dad route: three cockerels and one pullet. For all my hopes of live and let live . . . Well. I won’t go through another slaughter.
Option three: Mail order. Last year’s decision to order sex-linked chicks from a hatchery was, in theory, the easiest route but really? I became part of the system that results in the hatching of millions of boy chicks that are disposed of in all manner of ways, none of them nice.
Option four: Order endangered and/or heritage breeds of chicks.
Why is this justifiable? Because chicken breeds follow the same rule as seeds. And books. By narrowing our choices of chickens/seeds/books, by not vigorously supporting and encouraging a wide diversity of chickens/seeds/books, we risk death.
Let me explain.
Books: As written about during my Cross-country, Whistle Stop Book Tour with Flash Readings, by supporting a monopoly—Amazon, for example—I believe we lose diversity. Amazon’s profit margin doesn’t allow for the support and survival of smaller presses, lesser known authors, and, thereby, a wider scope of knowledge. Perhaps forever. And with less information our thinking becomes more narrow and milquetoast. Everyone thinking the same in what they perceive is their difference. I’m a free ‘Merican who stares into my media controlled iPhone. I am free! to choose from the narrowing choices. Just like everyone around me, staying in my comfort zone ‘cuz I want to. ‘Cuz it’s more comfortable and safe. I’ll die protecting that freedom. So long as it doesn’t interfere with my favorite sports event.
I know. That’s typecasting and making unsupported, gross generalizations. So here’s another example:
Monsanto is buying up ownership of/patenting the genome of seeds, and suing farmers who “steal” the essence. Monsanto is trying to make it illegal for farmers to save seeds, an integral part of agriculture since agriculture was begun. Saving the seeds of the strongest and most viable plants allows for those plants to adapt, evolve, become stronger and more viable. Practically darwinian! (See Open Sesame: The Story of Seeds documentary; very important.) What happens if we aren’t allowed to own our own seeds, that most basic of food stuffs? Why! It’s remarkably like books and supporting our local bookstores. If we can’t own our own seeds, there will be (is, as I type, being a) downward plunge into monoculture. The vast variety of seeds will die off, go extinct. Gone. And when a disease comes along, the entire crop—corn?—dies, leaving us with no food. Kind of like Ireland and its potato blight. Or French vineyards back when phylloxera first hit. When a monoculture exists, Darwin’s rules don’t kick in. Survival of the fittest. Natural selection. Evolution. All splat up against the reality that we need diversity of seeds, and thinking, to evolve, to grow, to survive.
Corn. Wheat. Beans. We are narrowing our choices. Many of the food seeds being bred today might grow plants that produce more food but . . . well, in fact, they don’t grow more food. But to follow that tangent would take me off into a rant about pesticides and the murder of our soils, far afield from my unforgotten broody hen in her nesting box. Who just wants to hatch a chick or two. Like seeds. They just want to perpetuate life but can’t because so many seeds sold by Monsanto are hybrids. Hybirds can’t make baby seeds. Farmers must, every year, go back to Monsanto for their seeds. Our farmers, thus, are owned by Monsanto, dependent, not free.
All to say, diversity in life is vital. Without it, life is boring. Think the fifties and Communism. Middle class mundanity. And the web. We stay in our comfort zone. Dangerous zones because it closes us down to change, which is inevitable. Diversity of species, and diversity within species, too.
Which brings us back to chickens and why it is important to maintain heritage breeds: for the variety. Most chickens raised and slaughtered today are of two (hybridized) breeds. One for high egg yield. One for big breasts and thighs a.k.a. meat. And, as with any monoculture, if a disease comes along, they could all be wiped out. Thus, the grotesque amount of antibiotics that are fed to chickens, (and cows and pigs. . . oh, what the heck, all factory farmed animals). That result in antibiotic resistant bacteria. That might kill us all one day.
How do I manage to be so negative when I am thinking about a happy, broody hen wanting to hatch chicks? C’est moi! I read in Living the Farm Sanctuary Life that animals naturally lower stress and anxiety. I beg to differ. Big Red, Panda and their coterie—along with our cats, Nick and Nora—have taken years off my life. Frostbite in winter. Beatrice’s bumblefoot and, most currently, her diaper rash (as described by the vet)? The sneezing (allergies or flu?) of CooLot’s and Downie? Nora with her heart murmur? Nicky with his recent Houdini-like escapes from his veritable imprisonment in the house, which one day might result in his disappearing in the mouth of a bobcat, or the claws of a hawk?
And Panda, our broody hen. I, like my hen, imagine chicks. It makes all the sense in the world. Panda would be content, and I wouldn’t have to figure out a way to break her of her broodiness. But–as pointed out above–I won’t risk more “natural” chicks because we would inevitably end up with boys, and Big Red has already proven he has more than enough testosterone for this hill. And ordering sex-linked or auto-linked chicks from hatcheries might guarantee me pullets but would perpetuate the killing of hundreds of thousands of male chicks, and factory bred hens.
Heritage breeds? A noble excuse but there, too, is the male issue. Thus my trapezius muscles are pumped.
In the past two weeks, I have taken to removing the eggs from under Panda. She sits on her nest with nothing under her but hay, and no sign of moving. She hasn’t been out and about in almost a month.
From the abundance of eggs last month, when I resorted to freezing them, now we are lucky to get one a day; none of the hens are laying eggs because Panda is the Queen and when she isn’t happy, no one is.
This morning, I left the nesting box open. Air wafting through, and light leaves Panda miffed by the disruption but unmoved. Beatrice is nearby, whose diaper rash hasn’t improved, even though we had her isolated and on antibiotics for a week. The other hens are industrious in their search for food and occasional race to get the hoppy bug. Big Red overseeing them all, crowing his maleness to the world.
I wonder why I ever got chickens. Maybe it is time to re-home them.
But wouldn’t that be a failure of responsibility?
All to say, it’s not just a broody hen I face each morning. She only epitomizes the daily and hourly choices we each and all make in our lives, and the ramifications of those choices. Thus I am trapped in a moral vortex of Q&A, and what do I do?
Option five: (provided to me by a vegetarian) kill Panda.
Option six: (provided by pretty much every one around me) kill Big Red.
And move back to Providence.
But then what of our garden here, my seedlings, Carl’s budding orchard?
No right or wrong answer. Just an acceptance of things as they are, and this post so like the book I am attempting to write: no end, and where to begin? With the chicken or the egg.
Maybe we should get her a duck. Or a puppy. Or a Cream Legbar chick or two.