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Photo by: B.A. Nilsson

The Egg and I
It doesn’t take a village to raise a chicken

By B.A. Nilsson

Which came first? The chick-en. A flock of them, in fact, that now provide more eggs than my family can use, despite the appearance of quiches, soufflés, frittatas and flan on the dinner table. The motivation: fresh eggs, untainted by the salmonella threat that hovers over chicken-farm products, where the hens are raised in horrific conditions.

Because we live on a former dairy farm, we have the yard space and wouldn’t run afoul of local ordinances. And with chickens a renewable resource, we could kill and dress our own antibiotic-free birds.

All I’d have to do is build a coop, and that’s easy. My neighbor Dave, who lives in a house that’s enviably off the NiMo grid, showed me the portable coop in which his chickens roost: a simple affair that required no carpentry degree, complete with a flap that allowed access to the nests from the outside.

To force my hand, Dave met me at a local Agway last spring, in time to choose from the chicks peeping away under the heat lamps. “I’ll lend you my incubator,” Dave said. The critters were kittenishly cute, roly-poly balls of fluff bumping into one another as they hopped around with no seeming sense of direction. As I would learn, this is as intelligent as they ever will get. My 6-year-old daughter, going on the theory that you can’t dine on an animal you’ve named, named one of them “Fern.”

The incubator was a stout metal cage with a thermostatically controlled heat lamp at one end. A meshwork floor allowed the poop to pile on a removable tray. My eagerness to begin this project overcame the nascent realization that somebody frequently would have to clean this, and if that somebody weren’t me, it would be a grumpy wife.

Still, it was exciting to have a cellar full of chicks. And impressive to learn how far the squawks of 18 of them carried through the house. And daunting to realize that, from the day we brought them home, they grew. Which meant I’d have to get that coop built soon.

Dave dropped off some books that offered guides. All I needed was an enclosed structure with room enough for nest boxes, which the hens would share. I needed egg-collecting access. Most importantly, I needed to protect the birds from predators. “Chicken seems to be the favorite dish of the carnivore kingdom,” Dave told me. “I once saw where a raccoon got hold of chicken right through the wire of the cage and dragged it, piece by piece, through the holes in that wire.”

My yard teems with wildlife. Raccoons, of course, but also coyote, foxes, skunks, owls—suddenly it seemed exceedingly hostile out there. Only something safe and sturdy would do, and I found plans for it on an agricultural college’s website. What was supposed to have been a weekend project built from found material blossomed into much more. We hauled in two-by-fours and plywood. An experienced friend helped me frame the structure, an 8-by-8-foot floor built on skids, rising to 8 feet at its peak. I found some windows and a door and framed the openings accordingly. We ran electricity to the coop. Dave stopped by and viewed the structure with dismay. “What’s next?” he asked. “A jacuzzi?”

Free-range chickens are ideal; pen them and they quickly exfoliate the ground. But added to the list of nocturnal predators are the day-roaming neighborhood dogs, untrained curs that would regard the appearance of loose chickens as adding a drive-through window to what’s already their favorite bathroom. So I built a pen alongside the coop.

By the end of April, the stench from the cellar wafted through the entire house. The birds had long since stopped being cute, and stumbled like hunchbacks in the incubator. I hurried the coop to an almost-finished state and moved them.

We were worried they might not survive the still-chilly nights; we needn’t have worried. And they seemed to grow even more quickly with all the room they now enjoyed. We had nine Rhode Island Reds, considered a dual-use (eggs and meat) bird, and nine White Leghorns, specially bred to be fat. Although chicken sexing is something of a science, whoever signed off on our chicks let a rooster get through. One of the Reds developed the fancy coxcomb and the nasty disposition.

According to the books, chickens tend to keel over and die for no apparent reason, and one of the Leghorns did just that. “That wasn’t Fern,” my daughter declared. “Fern is a red one.”

We buried it with the kind of ceremony dead pets typically get when there are kids involved, although, by the time the next one died, the burial thing seemed tiresome. Without alerting my daughter, I tossed the carcass into the woods for the coyotes to feast on—and feast they did. Nothing was left the following day.

In September the first eggs appeared—little pullet eggs, slightly larger than what quail produce. But within days there were more and they were growing larger. By the following month, we were averaging eight eggs a day, enough to start a small side business selling them to friends.

The birds were eating a commercial mash from a local feed store, but Dave pointed out that you can’t have organic eggs coming out without organic stuff going in. A farmer near Cobleskill produces organic mash, so Dave formed a consortium of area chicken hobbyists to buy the stuff by the pallet. Although it still meant paying $11 per 50 pounds, as opposed to the $7 for the same amount of commercial stuff, we figured it was worth the expense, which we (somewhat) defray through egg sales.

At least that was the plan, but it was scuttled last winter when the first of those frigid nights hit in January. I put a heat lamp in the coop and the birds huddled near it; what few eggs they produced usually were frozen by the time I got to them. But the birds also ate far less during that period.

Not until mid-February did eggs begin to appear with regularity, reaching the usual level of eight to 10 per day by April. Each hen is supposed to produce about an egg per day during summer, which means that a few of our birds don’t fully understand the schedule. Egg-laying is tied in with daylight, and decreases as the winter draws on. Some chicken farmers use artificial light to fool the hens into increased production. We tried it last fall, and it seemed to work, but the timer froze to death in January.

Maintenance, now that the weather is reasonable, is fairly easy. I top off their food and water, and every week or so change the straw in the coop. We’ve got some pretty hot compost brewing in a back field. And it’s worth sticking around when the hens get back into the coop to inspect their newly thatched nests. They act as if they’ve never seen the place before.

Compared to commercial birds, they’re living the life of Riley. They have sunlight and plenty of space, and they even get field trips outside their pen when I’m around to keep an eye on them. Which is another bonus: They’re amusing to watch. “Chicken television,” Dave calls it, and it’s got more intelligence behind it than any broadcast reality show.

Each hen is a factory, and can lay up to 10 times her body weight in eggs each year. You’re supposed to get about two good years out of a bird, possibly up to four or five. With our rooster busily doing his roosterly stuff, we’re looking to isolate some eggs to hatch for inexpensive hen replacement. Meanwhile, none of our hens has yet met the dinner plate.

It’s surprising to discover what visitors don’t know about hen husbandry. Do you need a rooster to get eggs? No, you only need the guy if you want fertilized eggs and a noisy backyard. How does he fertilize the eggs? He doesn’t. He’s not a fish. He fertilizes the hen, an amusing sight to behold.

And, as he matured, he decided I was an enemy and took to attacking me whenever I’d enter the coop, forcing me to rig special doors that I can operate from outside. I lure the flock into their pen by tossing in the day’s table scraps, then drop the doors, enter the coop and grab the eggs. And still the rooster charges me when I get near the wire.

Because of my grumblings about him, my daughter feared for his safety and took the only logical course: She named him. “He’s called Cock,” she declared with a mixture of righteousness and innocence. “So nobody around here is going to eat Cock.”

At least we have plenty of eggs.

Click here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.

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What you're saying...

I very much enjoyed eating dinner at Daniel's at Ogdens. You review described my dining experience perfectly. This wasn't the case with Pancho's. I much prefer Garcia's or Lake View Tavern for Mexican fare. I agree that a restaurant can have an off night so I'll give the second unit on Central Avenue a try.

Mary Kurtz
Castleton

First, yes I miss the star ratings, bring it back. Second, I haven't had a chance to visit Poncho's yet, but I especially like reading the reviews.

Pat Russo
East Greenbush

I would travel to Amsterdam to this restaurant - it's not that far away. People traveled from all over to eat at Ferrandi's in Amsterdam. From his background, I'm sure the chef's sauce is excellent and that is the most important aspect of an Italian restaurant. Sometimes your reviewer wastes words on the negative aspects of a restaurant. I'm looking forward to trying this restaurant - I look forward to Metroland every Thursday especially for the restaurant review. And by the way Ferrandi's closed its Amsterdam location and is opening a new bistro on Saratoga Lake - Should be up and running in May. It will be called Saratoga Lake Bistro. It should be great!

Peggy Van Deloo
Schenectady

So happy to see you finally made out!! Our experiences have always been wonderful, the staff is extremely professional, the food subperb, and the atmosphere very warm and comfortable. Let us not forget to mention "Maria" the pianist on Friday and Saturday nights.

Charlie and Marie
Michaels Restaurant

I have been to Michael's several times and each time I have enjoyed it very much. The food is delicious and the staff is great. Also, Maria Riccio Bryce plays piano there every Friday and Saturday evening, a nice touch to add to the already wonderful atmosphere. It is also easy to find, exit 27 off the thruway to 30 north for about 5 miles.

N. Moore
Albany

Wonderful!

Elaine Snowdon
Albany

We loved it and will definitely go back.

Rosemarie Rafferty

Absolutely excellent. The quality and the flavor far surpasses that of other Indian restaurants in the area. I was a die-hard Shalimar fan and Tandoor Palace won my heart. It blows Ghandi out of the water. FInally a decent place in Albany where you can get a good dinner for less than $10 and not have tacos. The outdoor seating is also festive.

Brady G'sell

Indian is my favorite cuisine available in the area--I loved Tandoor Palace. We all agreed that the tandoori chicken was superior to other local restaraunts, and we also tried the ka-chori based on that intriguing description-delicious.

Kizzi Casale
Albany

Your comments about the Indian / Pakistani restaurants being as "standardized as McDonald's" shows either that you have eaten at only a few Indian / Pakistani restaurants or that you have some prejudices to work out. That the physical appearances are not what you would consider fancy dancy has no bearing on the food. And after all, that is what the main focus of the reviews should be. Not the physical appearances, which is what most of your reviews concentrate on.
A restaurant like The Shalimar, down on Central Avenue, may not look the greatest, but the food is excellent there. And the menu has lots of variety - beef, lamb, vegetarian, chicken, and more..

Barry Uznitsky
Guilderland



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