Chicken Stories from Italy
January 7, 2012 Since we moved from New Jersey to south Italy in 2009, we had been hoping to get some chickens. I never had any contact with chickens, but my husband’s grandmother raised chickens when he was a chìld in Italy. My husband (a retired structural engineer) designed and built a stone coop entirely by hand. A few days ago we bought nine young hens and a rooster from a local farmer. We let them out of the coop today, after two days inside to make sure they knew it was home. We enjoyed watching them run around the yard, scratching in the dirt, eating weeds and bugs. We found the first egg in one of the nest boxes today, and I had it for breakfast, along with a store-bought egg. The yolk of our egg was a much deeper red than the other, and really delicious. Now we know why in Italian the egg yolk is called the “rosso”, (red). From now on, we’ll have an unlimited free supply of organic free-range eggs, and can really “live off the fat of the land”.
January 20, 2012 Charlie lays an egg
I sent my friends pictures of Charlie Chicken, who we thought was a rooster (and so did the guy who sold him to us), until she laid an egg! She certainly looks like a rooster. One day Charlie was missing from the rest of the flock, who were happily munching weeds and bugs in the yard; we looked all over and finally found him sitting in a nest box. My husband said, “Why is he in a nest box? Maybe he's a hen.” I said, “I'll believe he's a hen when he lays an egg.” When Charlie came out of the nest box, there was an egg! We're getting one egg a day now; I think two hens are laying on alternate days. The rest are still too young. I think we do have another rooster, though. Roger Rooster is in one of the pictures with Charlie. He has longer and darker tail feathers and is bigger than Charlie. At least Charlie is still a good name for a female.
1/21/12 My brother in law asked if Italian roosters crow in Italian. I said, Yes, they do - they say "kikeriki", instead of cock a doodle do. Ours haven't started crowing yet. I don't know when they'll be old enough to crow, or for the rest of them to start laying eggs. I think they were hatched in September or October. They are very entertaining. They certainly have a "pecking order" (which is where the term comes from). Calico is at the bottom. She is the smallest and has different coloring. But I think she is the smartest. When the others chase her away from some food, she goes somewhere else and finds more, then they all follow her there. The other day they were all digging holes in the dirt and sitting in them and throwing dirt over themselves, taking dirt baths and thoroughly enjoying themselves. The dirt kills parasites like mites and lice by clogging their breathing tubes.
I put some meat-fat and skin out on a plate for the skinny cats that live next door, but the chickens gobbled it up, and looked for more. Our Italian gardener Vincenzo had told us chickens shouldn't be given meat because they'll get used to it, become carnivorous and start eating each other! I think it’s more likely that they would do that if they weren’t getting enough protein.
2/9/12 It's snowing all over Italy (which is unusual), but we're only getting rain here. It's been cold and rainy all week (February is the rainy season), but the chickens don't seem to mind it. We are getting one extra-large egg every day from Charlie (who we bought as a rooster), and a small egg every day or two from two other young hens who are just starting - the eggs will get bigger as they go along. The chickens are very interesting to watch. Calico, who was originally the smallest and got picked on by everybody, has now gotten to be the biggest, but she doesn't realize it. She may turn out to be a rooster. [Calico did turn out to be a rooster, and by researching on the internet, I discovered he was a “Kabir”, an Arabian breed prized for their ability to grow very large on little food. ]
Roger, the other rooster, crowed several times one day last week, but hasn't crowed since. Maybe because it's been overcast everyday and he can't see the sunrise.
May 5, 2012 We have our first baby chicks. Unfortunately, they are orphans. Their mother, Bianca, was the only white hen in a flock of brown Sicilians, and probably didn't feel like part of the group. She wouldn’t lay eggs in the coop with the rest of the hens. She was adventurous and independent, and had actually gone out exploring along the storm drainage ditch that runs outside the east side of the yard, and decided to build her nest and lay eggs out there. She made a nest in an inaccessible place under a prickly pear cactus. We could see her through the fence. She laid her eggs there and sat on them, coming back briefly to feed on the whole wheat grains we got from Vincenzo. She made it through 18 or 19 days, and then the next day she didn’t show up in the yard. All we saw at the nest was a bunch of scattered white feathers. Who knows what finally got her – a fox, a big dog? The eggs seemed to be undisturbed. With a little help, I climbed down into the ditch and rescued them. The eggs had only a few days to go till the full 21, so I decided to rig up an incubator to try and hatch them. I put them on a soft towel in the bottom of a metal ash bucket with a lid, searched and found our little electric heat fan that I had used a lot our first winter here, before we had a heating system. By placing the fan at the proper distance found by trial and error – about 6 inches - I was able to keep the temperature close to the 99.5 Fahrenheit recommended by Carla Emory in The Encyclopedia of Country Living , one of the most valuable books I sent over here from my collection in NJ. Three chicks succeeded in hatching - two white and one brown.
8/19/12 Grapes and Chickens
Early this August morning, I was out “weeding” the grapevines, collecting the wild greens for salad and cooked greens (more delicious and nutritious than anything you could plant in their place!) We have 88 grape plants, from which we hope to make wine in a few years. One was here when we moved in 3 years ago, a black wine grape, which is also good for eating. I’m sure it’s loaded with all the good blue and purple antioxidants, like resveratrol and anthocyanin. Unlike most grapes, a bunch of these doesn’t ripen all at once. Only a few are ripe at a time, and they are very small, just the right size for chickens. We watched our chickens jumping up, flapping their wings and grabbing the tiny ripe purple grapes. A few a day, they eventually ate them all. An interesting thing we have observed, is that when the roosters find something good, they don’t eat it themselves, but instead excitedly call the hens to eat it.
Now we have to figure out how to keep the chickens away from the grapes that will eventually be growing on the new vines. I suggested putting up a fence to keep them in the back half of the yard, where the two coops are. Most of the grapes are in the front yard, lining the driveway and the fence. The chickens would still have a lot more space than most “free-range” birds. But my husband wants the chickens to be totally free in our whole yard, and will try to find a way to make the grapes grow higher, out of their reach. Our friend Giovanni said you can’t raise both grapes and chickens. Now we know what he meant.
Giovanni welded an inch square grid across the lower half of our front gate to prevent the chickens (and neighborhood cats) from walking through the gate as if it wasn’t there, like the unfortunate white hen Bianca. Her chicks are now 15 weeks old, 2 pullets, white like their mother, and a little brown rooster who has just started to crow.
Besides these 3 young orphans, we have 8 hens, 2 roosters, and 10 baby chicks, (half male and half female.) We get about 6 eggs a day, and manage to eat most of them. The rest we give away to friends. In return, they give us bags of oranges, tomatoes and other things they grow. I believe eggs (especially organic, free-range and extremely fresh) are very healthy food and do not contribute to heart disease.
10/3/13 Since we have been keeping chickens in our yard for the past few years, I have noticed that they have their own language. They utter different sounds for different purposes, which they all understand. The roosters make specific very excited sounds to call the hens when they have found some good food. They will even pick up a piece of food and offer it to one of the hens. The hens make a similar sound when they find food for their chicks. The mother hen makes a particular constant cluck cluck sound to her chicks, while they make constant peeping sounds so they all stay in communication as they move around the yard. The hens make specific loud cries when they have laid an egg, and the roosters take up and repeat the same cry, even louder. There is a big celebration whenever an egg is laid. The top rooster frequently crows the typical "cockadoodledoo", and the number two rooster responds with something that sounds like "f**k you"!
12/23/13 Rooster rigor mortis
After a couple of clutches hatching mostly males, we ended up with too many roosters “troppi galli”. They were chasing and jumping on the hens all day and not letting them eat. Our chickens all have names and personalities and we couldn't bear to kill them. We persuaded Alba, an Italian farmwife friend of ours, to do the dirty deed, and gave her one for her trouble. We made the mistake of cooking the rooster too soon, little did we know. It was in rigor mortis and the meat was very hard. You are supposed to wait a few days until the rigor mortis softens up. Also he was over a year old, and they say if a rooster is more than 6 months old, the testosterone makes the meat taste bad. We couldn't eat much of it. The cats liked it though.
10/4/14 Two of the hens were squabbling in the foyer this morning. White Hen#1 (Bianca’s daughter), who is sitting on 3 eggs in a nest in the foyer, was upset that the black French hen, Suzette, was coming to look at the eggs, and would maybe try to sit on them and lay another egg there. (Chickens like to lay their eggs where there are already other eggs, especially if someone is sitting on them. That way they pass on their genes with little or no effort.) Hens don’t care whose eggs they sit on. They will even sit on duck eggs and hatch them. (Then maybe the hen starts wondering why her babies are always going in the water, and not drowning!) The hen who spends 3 weeks sitting on the eggs is the de facto mother of the babies, the one who takes care of them, teaches them how and what to eat, and protects them. The biological mothers take no interest in them. After about 6 weeks, the chicks are big enough to take care of themselves and the mother hen will start laying eggs again.
Chickens are well known for their dominance hierarchy - they invented the idea. (That’s why it’s called the pecking order, an idea which humans seem to have copied.) Suzette outranks the two white hens because she joined the flock before they were even hatched (in my home-made incubator). So White Hen #1 can’t make Suzette go away from her nest. It’s amazing that this White Hen always comes to me for help, because she knows I outrank all the hens! She comes up the stairs to the door to the house, squawking loudly for me to come and get that other hen away. She’s the only one who seems to have developed this personal relationship with me.
Another interesting thing is that Suzette, the black hen who came to look at the eggs, is actually the biological mother of the 3 eggs White Hen is sitting on. Maybe she was coming to check on her babies! Does she know they are hers? Who knows what animals know!
We have 2 roosters: Inky, who is a pure black “Gallo Nero”, and Goldy, who is black and white and shines like gold in the sun. It will be interesting to see how the 3 chicks turn out. Goldy is a very lucky rooster. He was bought by a Chinese family, who have a store called China Town across the railroad tracks from us, for their dinner! But he escaped and made his way over the tracks, ending up in our yard and even going into one of our coops! I happened to see him in there and closed the door. Later the Chinese family came by, asking if we had seen the rooster. They even had a picture of him on a cell phone. My husband thought he was too beautiful to eat and offered to trade one of ours for Goldy.
We had too many roosters, because the last couple of hatchings had been all males, until we finally had one this Spring with 5 females. Alba said the gender of the chicks depends on the phase of the moon, and the temperature – higher temperature means females. I haven’t checked this out on Google yet.
Most people kill the excess roosters and eat them, but we are unable to do this. We had to get Alba to kill a couple of them for us. The roosters had a very happy life, running around the yard, scratching up weeds and insects , and chasing hens all day, and that’s the important thing.