Saturday, August 22, 2009

A Cluck By Any Other Name

One of my duties for the Morro Bay Winter Bird Festival is to go along on field trips to photograph birdwatchers and the birds they are watching. A couple of the outings went to working vineyards where we sipped wine and kept our eyes searching for birds.

Up at Halter Ranch in Adelaida we got to bird the area near the old Mac Gillivray Victorian house and the winery tasting room. We had our binoculars handy to catch sight of acorn woodpeckers in the oaks, goldfinches and juncos flitting around, and white-breasted nuthatches strolling upside down on a tree limb. So it was a great spot for me to get lots of photos that really fit for my bird festival portfolio.

On our walk up through the area where the grape vines grow, we encountered a species relative to our wild friends. I noticed them first at the side of the dirt road near one of the winery sheds. They stood there trying to decide, should they cross the road or not? It's a big decision for a bird that has existed for decades with the unanswered question, why does the chicken cross the road? I can tell you. To get to the vineyard of course!

After hesitating a few minutes they made the dash right in front of me, scattering pell-mell into the grassy lanes between the vines, pecking away as they went. I raised my camera and began shooting. Why not? They are birds, after all, and this was a bird festival.

Raising chickens is fun, relatively easy, and gives you the dividend of fresh eggs. Not all communities allow livestock raising, but in many of our county areas, keeping a small flock of chickens is okay.

So how do you start? You can begin with day old chicks and have the hens ready in 22 weeks to begin laying. This method requires an outlay for feed with no substantial return until you start getting eggs. Another method is to purchase ready-to-lay pullets or get mature hens that are already laying.

You'll have to build a chicken coop for their protection at night and in bad weather. The coop will contain the nests in which the hens will lay and most coops also have feeding stations in them. Many people are reverting to free-range birds combined with supplemental feeding. But chickens will still need a place of refuge even if they are allowed to roam your property.

A chicken's bones, like all birds, are hollow and they are connected to the respiratory system. Chickens cannot sweat and have to control their body temperatures in other ways. Evaporation of water from the respiratory tract is one way they do this and a lot of heat loss occurs from the head.

A chicken's skin is fairly thin and can vary in color depending on their diet. Feathers, of course, keep the birds warm and are essential for flight. They molt and renew their feathers yearly.

It's the digestive system that is interesting and it starts with the beak and the mouth where food then passes to the esophagus and into the crop. The crop acts as a temporary storage department. Food then moves along to the stomach and meets up with the gizzard, an organ that is capable of grinding and crushing food. The gizzard is assisted in this job with gravel and grit that the chickens eat while foraging. It's the gizzard that enables the chicken to adequately digest whole grains.

Chickens are pretty well known for being somewhat dim witted and this is due to the fact that they have a rather small cerebral cortex, the part of the brain that signifies intelligence. Hens may not be too smart but they do have a special social structure called the pecking order. In this system the top bird can peck any other bird, but lower birds can only peck birds that are below them. The poor lowest bird can be pecked by everyone and cannot peck back! Somehow this system keeps order in the chicken coop.

As a hen matures, so does her reproductive system. Hormones stimulate the development of the ovary (only one, by the way) and it matures to produce everything needed for that all too important element, the egg. Yolks are produced first followed by albumen (egg white) that is deposited around the yolk. An outer and inner membrane forms and eventually the process is completed by the formation of the shell. The whole process takes about 27 hours.

Some chickens lay white eggs; some chickens lay brown eggs. In South America the Araucana chicken lays blue eggs. No matter the color, egg laying activity will take place without the aid or presence of a rooster. Roosters are actually a deterrent to good egg production as their presence encourages the hens to get broody.

So what makes a hen get busy laying if it's not the rooster? The answer is light. When pullets reach sexual maturity the increasing length of day releases the factors that initiate egg laying. In some commercial hen houses, the lights are turned on all the time to keep production going.

Small farms and hobby farmers are returning to raising many historic breeds that have all but disappeared from commercial production. Javas, Delawares, Buckeyes, Hollands, Chanticlers, are just some of these breeds now being raised and shown at county fairs across the country. Some of these breeds are dual purpose birds supplying both eggs and meat.

There is a lot more to know about raising chickens and information is available from your county extension office and the American Poultry Association,; My Pet Chicken Guide to Chicken Care,, or from books such as Raising Your Own Livestock by Claudia