- a note on the stories, uses and traditions surrounding our feathered friends, Chickens.
Pets have always been an important presence in my life and I have always enjoyed their companionship and noticing their personality traits, most notably the creatures of comfort Brook and Tilly at home and the daft Coop at Sarah’s house. More recently we have befriended a cat on the PORET site which Sarah named Lentil (shocking, I know) that mainly puts up with us because we feed it. One night in our hut, several hours after feeding Lentil some scraps of salmon which we had from our final packet of fancy pants camping food from Patagonia Provisions, Sarah and I suddenly felt a big thud on the bed and there was Lentil, purring and looking for some warmth.
The main animal presence at the PORET site however is the chickens. At the PORET site and in permaculture in general, chickens are a valuable and productive resource that if well managed can yield a multitude of benefits. Chickens fascinate me, as they are very social characters but can get feisty at times: the other day, I was the spectator for a multi-day fiery feud; I interrupted the scene to begin dinner preparations and the next morning they were still locked in combat. It was intriguing watching an animal with no arms fight... have you ever imagined fighting with no arms? Apart from drop kicks, the chosen method of chickens, there isn't much in your arsenal.
All the chickens (except newly born chicks and their mothers, which are kept in cages inside Julious’s house overnight) reside within a hand-built chicken coop next to the kitchen and main house. Their daily life is as free range as you can get. As the sun rises the Roosters sound their trumpets to awaken the area and interest is piqued in the coop when people begin to surface to make breakfast. The chickens stare longingly like prisoners watching a guard play with his keys until Mr Komo, the site caretaker, comes with food and water. After the manic hustle and bustle over cornmeal, some chickens begin their ingenious and daring escape (cue the music). They begin by awkwardly climbing trees or the coop itself (sometimes forming runway queues on branches ready for take-off) and fly over the fence onto a post. Once free, the foraging begins and those courageous few get first picking. Later, the rest of the chickens are released for the day to rummage around like light ploughs, mixing the top soil and supplying vital nutrients. Wherever you are on the PORET site you can always hear chickens rummaging for food. The chickens naturally return to the coop at night for protection and to sleep. So overall, Mr Komo takes care of the chickens and the chickens take care of the garden, manage the pests, provide food and nutritious manure, and can be sold for money or traded for goods, pretty good deal I think.
The chickens on site are a cross of Roadrunners and Broilers. The Roadrunners are indigenous to Zimbabwe and produce beautiful large eggs with luminous yellow yolks; when cooked, their meat is slightly tougher than Broiler meat, but still delicious. Amius, a helper at the kindergarten and teacher at the weekends, informed us of a Zimbabwean tradition: only the men eat the chickens feet (which must be prepared separately from the rest of the carcass). It is perceived that because the males of the household (back when the people were hunter gatherers) were the ones to roam across the expansive landscape to provide food for the family, the feet were a reward for their efforts.
Despite the large fence around the chicken coop and their finely tuned martial arts, the chickens are vulnerable to predators. We have heard stories from Julious and Amius of vipers stealthily sneaking into the coop at night, camouflaging as fence posts, and consuming chickens whole. After the attack, since a viper's normally slender frame now takes the shape of a skewered chicken and sleep is required for digestion, the snakes are often caught inside the coop as they are too large to make a post-kill escape through the chicken wire fence. Suspicion is usually aroused when the petrified chickens suddenly erupt into pandemonium, but PORET staffers have developed a more nuanced detection mechanism: Amius can smell snakes. The snakes apparently smell strongly of potatoes. Amius's snake-sense tingled once when we were fetching fire wood, but fret not mothers, the snakes don’t attack us noisy, clumsy humans! Well not often…
Every time I sit observing the chickens, I can’t help but think of the classic film Chicken Run and the line “I don’t want to be a pie, I don’t like gravy”. A PORET chicken's life ends with slaughter by Mai Mercy (Julious’s wife named Taurai, Mai Mercy simply means mother of her first born named Mercy) to feed the Piti family. Not a scrap is wasted, and if anything is dropped, it is rapidly consumed by the cats and chickens end up pecking at any leftovers. I enjoy them with a clear conscience, convinced they led a proper life, a life a chicken should lead, left to wander at free will around the PORET eden rummaging for bugs and seeds. Mai Mercy has promised to show us how to slaughter a chicken, an important life lesson if I'm going to eat chicken!