RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Hong Kong Chickens
Come Home to Roost

On December 29, Hong Kong health officials ordered the slaughter of the island's chickens. Workers gassed commercial flocks, school pets, 1.3 million chickens and, according to Reuters, "unknown numbers of ducks, geese, quail, partridge and pigeons that might be responsible for infecting humans with a disease previously thought to affect only birds." This undertaking is front-page news of the highest order.

And, today, on this farm, we have run out of eggs. After extravagant omelette and meringue consumption over Thanksgiving, when we fed 25 people one day and 50 people the next, my husband and I rationed our remaining eggs until now we are out. Not news of international concern, but important here.

Humans and chickens have shared homesteads at least since 6000 B.C. when the first chickens were domesticated in southern Asia. To humans, that's 400 generations, if you estimate one generation per 20 years. To chickens, which reproduce yearly, it's 8,000 generations. To viruses, which inhabit both humans and chickens, it's a whopping 124,800,000 generations, if you use the estimate that a virus packs in about 300 generations a week. Most of these virus generations live in relative peace with their hosts, eventually discarded through normal bodily processes.

But, with every virus generation, there's a chance that some genetic information will develop that leads the virus to kill its host, be it chicken or man. This isn't a successful strategy for viruses unless they also develop a way to move to someone new.

In animal confinement operations, movement from host to host is easy. In fact, Asian operators have grown accustomed to huge die-offs. On December 12, when investigations into the deadly H5N1 influenza were first widely reported, the South China Morning Post reported that months earlier an epidemic had killed thousands of chickens but had not been reported because operators "considered it normal." A few days later, the same paper reported that chicken deaths in the Hong Kong market tripled between December 1 and December 16. The big news isn't that chickens died but that humans were killed by the same virus that got the birds.

Slaughtering all of Hong Kong's poultry was designed to kill off H5N1. The precaution was criticized for coming too slow -- the first influenza death came in May. Other critics say the kill-off came too soon, before all the facts were in.

No one is criticizing how chickens have come to be raised and how the manure is treated and the human lifestyle that leads us to raise chickens and eggs the way we do. This commentary is missing because confinement poultry operations seem normal. As one chicken company employee told me, "That's just how it's done."

Maybe that's how it's done, but it's not working.

Raised the old way, our farm's hens run and graze from early morning until dusk in all kinds of weather. Their diets range from spring dandelions to summer grass to autumn acorns to cracked corn in winter and to bugs and earthworms and manure in all seasons. They reward us daily in egg season with joyous cackles that announce eggs with clear albumin and bright yellow-orange yolks. We get an egg a day per hen for much of the year -- plenty for ourselves and all our friends, with enough left over for the occasional setting hen to hatch out and raise.

"How picturesque," I hear you saying, "but, studies by the American Egg Professionals say we should eat eggs every day. If we had to depend on yesterday's methods, we'd never have enough."

So, how many chickens is enough? The industry began to grow in 1975 by 1 percent to 6 percent per year, according to the U.S.D.A. Much of the increase now goes to the export market, but the rest has been fueled by domestic demand for "The Incredible, Edible Egg." And, the increased number of chickens are now crammed in a decreasing amount of space and benefitting just a few Goliath corporations. Farmers who once benefited from chicken and egg sales and from the chicken's helpful bug-killing and manure production cannot compete.

Given free range, chickens move around most of the day. From time to time, hens abandon their normal laying habits in their coops and find a new spot. They'll take up residence in the barn, or the garage, or on top of the feed shack. This roving habit might be exactly what keeps free chickens healthy. In the wild, all animals roam, leaving parasites behind.

In confinement, chickens are medicated to stay healthy in unnatural conditions, but, in fact, standing around is a sure sign that a free chicken is unhealthy. A sick chicken will stay in one place, an easy mark for a predator to carry away. Sometimes, sick chickens will recover, but if they don't, that's one weak bit of genetic material snatched from the gene pool.

Keeping hens the ancient way, we lose some to predators and some are old enough to collect social security. Unlike the commercial growers, we never need or use antibiotics.

And, we are proud, even boastful, of our home-grown eggs. We show them off to visitors, and demonstrate their superiority against factory eggs by inviting people to break one of each into glasses and compare. Even a first-time egg breaker can tell the difference. The hardness of the shell, the thick, bright yolk, the clear albumin. In comparison, factory eggs come off sickly, with watery whites and yolks, thin shells. Our eggs fill you up, and stay with you all morning. They taste good, even to the egg-spurner.

When the days get short and dark, hens quit laying. The natural production cycle favors long daylight hours, a bit of genetic selection that long ago chose chicks hatched in warm weather when things are growing rather than chicks born in the uncertain cold. That happened here in early November. In a bright spell, the hens honor us with a few eggs, but we have only seen sun a few times in the last two months.

There are tricks you can play on the hens -- lengthening the daylight with lamps, feeding them extra hormones and keeping them in buildings that are artificially warm. Commercial egg producers do this to stabilize the egg supply, but I believe there is meaning in cycles. I can't help thinking that the eggless intermission is a reminder that we humans -- only 400 generations away from the Stone Age -- should respect our fellowship with nature.

If, in the meantime, we must have cake or pancakes I will ferret out my old-time cookbooks with their recipes for "eggless cake" and "eggless pancakes." Maybe in some way that we will never understand, the pause is good for us. Many cultures celebrate spring with festivals featuring eggs, and we will have ours. On this farm, the hens will have a rest, and we'll scramble when the sun shines.

After so many generations of life together, this only seems fair.

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo.

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