Anna Leslie shows off her chicken coop at last year's Tour de Cluck. Wayne Tilcock/Enterprise file photo

Anna Leslie shows off her chicken coop at last year's Tour de Cluck. Wayne Tilcock/Enterprise file photo

Food & Drink

From the ground up: Backyard chicken tales

By From page B3 | April 03, 2013

Fourth annual Tour de Cluck
What: The favorite fowl-fashioned bike tour offers the chicken lovers and chicken curious the opportunity to tour a variety of Davis backyard chicken coops. The event is a fundraiser for Yolo Farm to Fork and the Davis Art Center.
When: Saturday, May 25
Where: Begins at the Davis Farmers Market in Central Park, winds all over Davis
Info: www.tourdecluck.org

I like to tell stories about my chickens. Some say urban chicken-raising is a trend, others call it a bogus trend. It’s true these ancient birds, the surviving descendants of once-mighty dinosaurs — some say even T Rex — can be cruel and messy. No matter, I’m happy raising chickens.

No one knows for sure how many people are keeping backyard chickens. The number of feed stores with provisions for city chickens is up, at least in Yolo County. Chicken tours like Davis’ annual Tour de Cluck are on the rise. The New York Times’ story on last year’s Tour de Cluck (Dining and Wine Section, July 23, 2012), reported chicken coop tours in Seattle; Madison, Wis.; Santa Fe, N.M.; and Austin, Texas.

What is it about chickens? Apart from the obvious — eggs and manure for garden fertility — perhaps it’s the inner lives of chickens people find intriguing. Maybe this is because the avian brain, so similar to the human brain, processes information in much the same way. Sometimes, my chickens seem to mirror human social behavior.

Research confirms that chickens, which have traditionally been viewed as unintelligent, are capable of complex thought, even bravery, and can tell people apart, according to “The Inner World of Farm Animals” by Amy Hatkoff (2009, Steward, Tabori & Chang). As an observer of chicken behavior in my back yard for the past 10 years, my empirical evidence leads me to agree.

Chickens are birds with a complex social order, not as sophisticated as bees, but still. Chickens like to hang out together. They are organized hierarchically — there’s always a head chicken — and a strictly enforced pecking order. They have a useful life to humans, about four to five years of egg-laying with the first two the most productive, and then, well — that’s the question every backyard chicken owner faces.

As my chickens grow older, they continue to surprise me. Take Henrietta, the hen that crowed. This Rhode Island Red was postmenopausal and my flock’s head chicken. One day, my dear neighbor reported that she’d heard crowing coming from my back yard, and hoped I didn’t have a rooster.

I said yes, she had heard crowing, but that no, I didn’t have roosters.

I had heard it, too, but seeing is believing. On about the second day of crowing at first light, I jumped out of bed. There was Henrietta, in the run on the top rung of the outdoor roost, crowing — five times. “You go, girl!” I cried out with a grin from ear to ear. “You go!” Thankfully, she had the good sense to stop soon thereafter.

Fortunately, along with 100,000 others, I subscribe to Backyard Poultry magazine and could provide my good neighbor with the science. In the August/September 2010 edition, Gail Damerow — author of the bestseller “Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens” — answers a reader’s question about chickens that crow. She says, though it’s rare, such a chicken is called a “longcrower.” They are considered especially valuable as breeders.

Damerow explains, “Hens have two ovaries, but only the left one produces eggs, while the right one remains undeveloped. If the left ovary becomes inactive due to atrophy or disease, the testicular tissue of the right ovary is stimulated into functional activity, resulting in the hen getting a dose of male hormone responsible for crowing.”

Chickens have highly developed communication skills and a wide range of sounds. There’s the confident boc boc boc of “I just laid an egg.” My friends, however, had a screamer, a young layer who was a Sicilian Buttercup named Spice. She screamed, it seemed, for two hours a day. It got so bad that I agreed to take the chicken.

Spice has not screamed since, nor has she laid her beautiful little white eggs again. Such is life at the bottom of the pecking order. She lives by day on the corrugated tin roof over the hen house, jumping down when the big girls aren’t nearby to get her food and water. (Well, I admit, we hand-feed her — but we’re empty nesters.) At least by night she sleeps on the bottom roost in the hen house, safe from predators of another species.

Robert and Hanna Litt, in their primer, “A Chicken in Every Yard,” say a hen should never be introduced on her own to an existing flock. I should have taken Spice’s twin sister, Sugar, too. We all need companionship. As my wise chicken adviser Anna Leslie says, if they haven’t drawn blood, Spice will survive.

Perhaps backyard chickens will go the way of Hula Hoops and Chia Pets. Trend or not, like 700 other people, I will buy a ticket and go on this year’s Tour de Cluck. Hope to see you there, and share a chicken story with you.

— Ann M. Evans and Georgeanne Brennan are co-authors of “The Davis Farmers Market Cookbook, Tasting California’s Small Farms,” (2012.) They have a food and agricultural consultancy, Evans & Brennan, LLC, specializing in farm-fresh food in school lunch, about which they write a blog, Who’s Cooking School Lunch (www.whoscookingschoolunch). Reach them at [email protected].

The recipe
Old-Fashioned Southern Coconut Macaroons Dipped in Dark Chocolate

The ingredients:
For the Macaroons
2 – 2/3 cups sweetened, shredded coconut, also called angel flake
2/3 cup granulated sugar
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
¼ teaspoon sea salt
4 egg whites
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

For the Chocolate Dip
8 ounces dark, semi-sweet chocolate

Putting it together:
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Place oven rack in middle.

In a medium size mixing bowl, combine coconut, sugar, flour and salt. Add egg whites and vanilla and mix well. Let sit for 10 minutes to allow the coconut to absorb the egg white.

While you are waiting, line one baking tray with parchment paper and another with aluminum foil. Prepare for making the chocolate dip by placing a double boiler with a few inches of water on the bottom, on the stove. Place the chocolate in the top portion.

Drop mixture by the heaping teaspoonful onto the parchment-lined baking tray, 2 inches apart. Place in the preheated oven. Bake until pale golden, about 20 minutes. If you wait until they are golden brown, the bottom will be a bit crunchy. Remove from oven and place macaroons on a wired baking rack until cool to the touch, about 15 minutes.

To prepare chocolate dip, turn heat to medium flame under the double boiler. When water is at a small boil, about 5 minutes, turn flame to low; using a rubber spatula, stir the chocolate until smooth and creamy. Taking each macaroon, dip it into the chocolate with one hand and with the spatula in the other hand, coat half of each macaroon. Place each dipped macaroon on the aluminum foil-lined tray. Place tray in refrigerator for at least 30 minutes to harden the chocolate. Makes 12-14 large macaroons.

Ann Evans

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