1 Sep 2017

Chicks in the City

By Claire Eamer

I usually live a peaceful, semi-rural life on a small island in the Salish Sea. There are plenty of animals in and around the island, both wild and domestic, but our particular patch of island rarely features anything much bigger than a hummingbird. And, admittedly, the occasional passing raccoon or river otter, but we discourage them. They tend to leave smelly presents behind.

This week, however, I'm in the city - smack in the heart of Victoria, British Columbia. I'm helping out some absent friends by taking care of their chickens. Chickens. Three of them. In the city. Honest!
City chicks Inky, Pinky, and Ponky gobble down a delicious broccoli leaf.
Alan Daley photo.
It appears that urban chickens are not as surprising as I'd thought. In fact, with my new awareness of city chicks, I spotted this article in The Guardian about a fashionable new trend in Britain - chickens as household pets. ("Oh no!" my friend wailed via email. "We're hipsters!")

Now, in fairness to my friend, these chickens don't wander through the house like the ones in the article. Inky, Pinky, and Ponky have their own very pleasant accommodations in the yard, opening into a well-fenced run. They pay the rent with three fine fresh eggs a day, which both sides consider a fair deal.

Getting to know the girls got me curious about chickens in general. I had researched them several years ago for my book about the science and history of food, The World in Your Lunch Box, but I thought I'd take another look. And here's a bit of what I discovered.

Ponky (or perhaps Inky...or Pinky) channeling her
inner dinosaur. Claire Eamer photo.
Domestic chickens are descended from red jungle fowl, a bird species found in southeast Asia. Of course, over millennia of domestication, humans have bred and modified them into a huge variety of colours, shapes and sizes. And just as huge numbers. There are more chickens than any other bird species in the world - and more than there are humans. A 2009 United Nations report estimated that, on average, there are three chickens for every human on Earth.

Chickens aren't the peaceful seed-and-chickenfeed-eaters you might imagine. They'll happily chow down on insects too, as well as small lizards and mice. After all, chickens are the little modern cousins of dinosaurs - and if you look closely, you can see the resemblance.

Chickens' ability to produce eggs reliably and frequently (one a day each from Inky, Pinky, and Ponky) is impressive. That's a lot of energy and chickenfeed going into egg production. Here's a short video that explains how it works and how long each step in the process takes.

Surprisingly (to me, at least), making the shell takes up most of the day - 20 hours out of 24. And then we break the shell and throw it away. Sorry, girls!

If you want to know more, check out this collection of fun facts about chickens from the Smithsonian.

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