Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Chicken, Inc.

In September 2011 I accompanied Diocese of Virginia Director of Mission and Outreach Buck Blanchard on a visit to the ECS Diocese of Cuiebet. Buck wanted to visit Cuiebet so he could speak intelligently about the diocese with a group in the US that were considering entering into partnership with Cuieibet.
As a part of our visit the bishop offered us a gift of greeting and friendship. Cuiebet is Dinka territory and cattle form a prominent part of Dinka culture and a cow is a traditional gift of peace and friendship. The bishop asked me quietly if we couldn’t take a cow with us. I assured the bishop that I didn’t think we could take a cow, we couldn’t get it on a plane, though we appreciated the offer.
As a fall-back plan the bishop instead directed his staff to grab us a white rooster. We were thus presented with a very handsome pure white rooster! We located a box into which the rooster went for the hour-long ride back to Rumbek. It’s a long story, but suffice it to say that we missed out flight back that day and so had to spend the night in Rumbek until we could fly out the next morning. We got rooms in a hotel next to the airport. As I was being walked to me tent/room (the rooms were self-contained tents) the lady guiding me kept looking at the box I was holding and finally asked, “what’s in the box?” I told her it was a chicken. She was incredulous, saying no one had ever kept a chicken overnight in their room before.
We flew back to Juba the next morning on a small plane. Unfortunately, the chicken couldn’t ride in the cabin but instead had to go into the cargo hold. I was worried about him, but the chicken made it through alright.
After a failed effort to erect an outside pen, we placed the chicken in our outdoor storage shed which we could lock-up at night. Never having kept chickens before, we didn’t know what to expect. Most alarming was when the chicken would wander off in search of forage. We had no specific food at the house for him, and it’s not like there is a Southern States store around here where we could go and buy chicken feed. We threw out some bread and other stuff for him to eat. We thought the chicken was lost, not realizing that there was truth in that old adage about “chickens coming home to roost.” Regardless of where the rooster wandered every evening at 6:30pm, like clockwork, he would come home to the shed to sleep for the evening. In general, we found keeping the rooster pretty light work.
But: What to name the rooster? We had at the time a friend named Sarah staying with us. With her we were watching a series of DVD’s about the history of Scotland. Of course, one of the prominent figures in Scottish history are all the Bruce’s, or THE BRUCE’S! Sarah said the perfect name for the rooster had to be: THE BRUCE! And thus, our rooster became known as THE BRUCE! We were also pleased because Bruce was not much of a crower. He normally waited until around 7am each day before crowing, which was a blessing. You can hear roosters around Juba, some of whom start crowing at 5:30am or earlier, so we were pleased that Bruce had a sense of decency with regards to beginning to vocalize.
Now, there is nothing more sad than a lonely rooster. We made arrangements with someone traveling to Uganda to bring us two hens from Kampala. This friend said he had had good luck with Ugandan hens, several times getting hens who quickly started laying eggs. A few days later our friend returned with two hens: one big brown hen and one even bigger white one. Hens have a definite “pecking order,” and although to me at first the white hen seemed dominant, we quickly realized that it was the brown hen who was in charge.
We named the brown hen “Baba Ganoush,” and the white hen “Phoebe Snow.” I explained to my British flat-mate the history of the name “Phoebe Snow” from the old Lackawanna Railroad advertisements. “Phoebe Snow” was a character created to sell the virtues of the Lackawanna’s use of anthracite coal, supposedly a cleaner burning coal which wouldn’t leave travelers coated in soot like the ordinary coal used by other railroads.
Once the hens were acclimated to their surroundings in the shed they joined Bruce on his daily forages for food. It quickly became clear that Bruce and Baba were fond of one another, they stayed close to each other all day. Phoebe, though not without her charms, did not draw Bruce’s attention the same way. We were worried about the reaction from people if the chickens wandered about the Guest House grounds, and we’d even been told the birds sometimes bothered people at meal-times. I tried to create fencing to keep the chickens near our home but the birds were simply too smart and wily for me, always finding ways of escaping. I eventually gave-up and all three chickens would spend their days wandering in search of food. But again, like clockwork, every evening the chickens would return home happy to be safely locked away in their shed.
After about a month we were surprised and delighted to find an egg in one of the nesting boxes I had placed in the shed! I’d taken two small crate bottoms, filled them with straw and placed them below a shelf. It was Baba who was laying the eggs, and she began laying one egg every day. We collected the first half-dozen which a friend then offered to buy for a few pounds. We agreed and were pleased that the birds started paying something for all of the grains I was buying to feed them. Technically it was still a loss, but at least it was something. We did eat a couple of Baba's eggs. They were so much nicer than the eggs we buy here in the market. The yolks of the purchased eggs are gray-colored and the eggs are tasteless. But the eggs our hens lay are tasty and the yolks nice and bright yellow.
One question was whether or not the eggs were fertile? If left to nature, would we get chicks? I did happen to observe Bruce and Baba…getting friendly in the yard one time. So we decided to leave Baba to sit on the last few of her eggs to see what would happen.
After about two solid weeks during which Baba sat on her clutch of three eggs day and night we came home from work in late November to find a baby chick!! It just so sudden and surprising to see this little cheeping bird next to Baba! The chick was so soft and fuzzy looking, it was amazing to think we had an addition to the flock. The other two eggs never hatched and one day I removed them from the nest so Baba would stop wasting time with them. Baba was an attentive mother, being very protective of her chick and really giving loud warnings to either Bruce or Phoebe if Baba felt they were coming too close to her chick.
But what should we name the chick? My flat-mate had recently met someone with another organization named Igor and I had told her about the scene in “Young Frankenstein” where the Marty Feldman character said he preferred to be called “Igor” (Eye-gore) rather than “Igor” (Eee-gore.) So we started calling the chick “Igor,” pronounced either way!
Life for the chickens continued as usual, we turned them loose every morning and they would forage about until their return in the evening. We fed them a mixture of rice, broken eggshells, chopped beans and ground nuts, and eventually some ground dried fish, sesame seeds, and pop-corn kernels. The latter were probably the most costly item, though the cost of all of the food added-up, especially when compared with how few eggs we received in return. But still, it has been fun having the birds.
With a chick to look after Baba and Igor were inseperable. Igor rarely ventured more than a few steps away from its mother’s protection. In the meantime, Phoebe lost no time in becoming Bruce’s new favorite and the two of them became as cozy as Bruce had once been with Baba. Then, towards the end of December, Phoebe started laying eggs of her own. We think this was the first time Phoebe had ever laid eggs. I gathered this from the fact that Phoebe didn’t lay her eggs in a nesting box but upon one of the shelves in the shed where the chickens roosted. Problem was, the shelves were up high and slanted so that the eggs rolled off to the ground where they smashed. Dumb chicken. After three days of this I barricaded the shelves which caused a lot of trauma and screaming on the part of the chickens who would hurl themselves at the shelves making a lot of mess. I also took an egg purchased in the market and placed it in the nesting box for Phoebe to see. Phoebe took the hint and the next day she started laying her eggs in the nesting box and all was calm after that.
About a week later Baba started laying eggs again. Fortunately, Baba was smart enough to know to use the other nesting box without prompting. I marked each hen's first five eggs with a marking pen, planning on keeping these for chicks. All eggs above these five we took for consumption. The hens were pretty regular, each laying an egg a day up to around a dozen before knocking off. If you intended to sell eggs for market you would need dozens of hens laying to get enough to sell.
Of Phoebe's five eggs, four of the five hatched chicks! Sadly, the first hatched during the one second a day she left her eggs and when she returned to the nest and saw this chick there she didn't know it was hers and pecked it to death. Grusaome. But the other three hatched and she accepted them, though eventually two of them also died. She has one good chick left which is growing nicely.
My flatmate and I were both away alot during January and February. When we both last left Baba was still sitting on five eggs. My flatmate returned first to find no eggs at all under Baba and no chicks. We suspect either someone stole the eggs (which were old! not very nice) or stole the hatched chicks. Either way, we're pretty sure during our absence someone nicked our chicks!
This has all been an interesting experience, never having raised chickens before. It gives us something to do, and we like the eggs. We debate which chicken we should eat, or whether we should eat one at all! Most mornings when the rooster is screaming his head off at levels higher than a jet engine taking off, I vote for killing him first. Another alternative it that we give the chickens to the children at the CCC orphanage we volunteer at so they can start a flock.

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