Sex and the Single Chicken

The New York Times is late to the backyard chicken trend story, which has appeared for years in every paper from The New Yorker (three years ago) the Petersborough Examiner (4 days ago) to the Intermountain Jewish News (this week).  Google News lists 302 results for “backyard chicken” stories in 2012 alone.

But The Times story makes it official: everybody’s raising chickens in their backyards. 

What amazed me about the story is the comments section.  Times readers are the elite, right?  They’re not stupid, they’re smart, right?  And yet even they don’t understand where eggs come from.

This comment from “jdpolicano from East Hampton” was typical of many:

One of the most delightful experiences of my life was visiting my uncle’s country place in New Jersey 50 years ago and feeding (and being fed) the eggs and (gasp!) the chickens. But is it practical for me to raise some on a one acre lot in what is really a subburban setting in East Hampton? Won’t the rooster drive everyone crazy? Do I even need a rooster? … Tell me if it can be done and how to go about it. Thanks so much.

Do you even need a rooster?  To be fair to JD and his fellow rooster-curious commenters, when people visit my backyard hens, they invariably ask the exact same question.  Smart people. Doctors even.  All f them stare like kindergartners at my birds and at some point, “Don;t you need roosters?”  Which is essentially like a grownup asking, “Where do babies come from?”

No, I explain, you don’t need a rooster to make eggs.  Eggs are not nature’s little abortions.  They are the result of unfertilized ovulation, the end of a chicken’s menstrual cycle.  To be graphic, humans have live birth, so unfertilized eggs come out in a period.  Chickens give birth in shells, so that’s how theirs’ comes out.

It’s even cooler than that: Google chicken anatomy and you’ll see how all this plus more—pee and poop—emerges from one chute, the cloaca, and yet the eggs come out clean and sweet-smelling.  You’ll be amazed how they pull off that trick.

Did I know any of this before I began raising chickens, 22 years ago?  Nope. I learned about the cloaca the hard way.

One evening Naomi and I came home to find one of our chickens listless.  We called my sister, who’s a veterinarian. Sometimes, rarely, an egg gets stuck.  If you don’t pull it out, the chicken will die.  It’s called egg bound. Lisa said we should try to massage the lump out, but if that didn’t work—it didn’t—one of us had to stick our fingers into the chicken and pull the egg free.

“Nomi,” I said, “you have smaller fingers.”

We sat in our yard, the chicken on Nomi’s lap, and began to search for the exit hole.  Lisa said, “There’s only one.”

“Only one?”

I watched Naomi’s face as I said this, and the implications struck her immediately.

“It’s called the cloaca,” Lisa said. “Naomi will want to put some oil on her fingers.”

Naomi lubed up and poked gently around, and slightly into, the cloaca.  The chicken hardly moved. Both of us squirmed like crazy.  A lot of “ews” passed between us.  It was like some demented Lamaza teacher’s idea of a dry run.

Lisa explained that the chicken had been sick when we got to her, and despite our best efforts, it wasn’t surprising we couldn’t save her.  Up until then I had eaten hundreds if not thousands of chickens.  That was the first time I understood chickens actually died. We think we know the birds and the bees, but we don’t.

The fact that we don’t know how eggs and baby chickens are made is just another sign of how divorced we are from the sources of our own food.  But there is a cost to our ignorance: if we’re not clear on where our food comes from, how can we know what’s in it?

In the same Times issue, April 4, Nicholas Kristof wrote a column entitled, “Arsenic in Our Chicken?.”  ( I know, it always seems awkward when he poaches on Mark Bittman’s beat.  How would Nick feel if Mark started interviewing Sumatran sex slaves?  Is Kristof next going to write a Maureen Dowd-like snarkumn comparing Mitt Romney to Pete in “Mad Men?”  Aren’t there lines over there?)  This column was about a recent set of studies that show our factory-farmed chicken contains arsenic, Benadryl, caffeine, antibiotics and assorted other drugs.

“The same study also found that one-third of feather-meal samples contained an antihistamine that is the active ingredient of Benadryl” Kristof reported. “The great majority of feather meal contained acetaminophen, the active ingredient in Tylenol. And feather-meal samples from China contained an antidepressant that is the active ingredient in Prozac.”

Anyone who eats factory-farmed chickens or meats is playing Russian roulette with their short- and long-term health.  It doesn’t take long to learn how chickens make babies, or where to find healthier sources of meat, or how to forego meat altogether.  We don’t all have to start a flock in your backyard—though I do recommend it—but we do have to open our eyes.