Thursday Dec 05

Sarah Lenz holds a BFA in Creative Writing from the University of Nebraska-Omaha, and a MA in Literature from Boise State University. She teaches English at the University of Findlay in Ohio. When not making noodles, she spends her time blogging at Prose and Potatoes (www.proseandpotatoes.blogspot.com) and raising backyard chickens.

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Garbage Disposals in my Backyard

They’re like garbage disposals, but with feathers. This is what I tell people when they ask what my chickens eat.  Last April, against all odds, I decided I wanted to raise laying hens in my backyard, in the city.  It turns out that it’s legal to keep chickens in Bowling Green, as long as you don’t let them “run at large,” which calls to mind the ridiculous scenario of a chicken stampede threatening the safety of innocent citizens.  I bought my backyard hens because of what I like to eat: rich, orange-yolked eggs with an intensely fresh flavor you can only get from eating them on the same day they were laid.  Though the eggs are fabulous, it turns out the most fascinating thing about keeping chickens is what they eat.

My four hens eat mostly organic, commercial feed, the chicken equivalent of kibble, which is carefully formulated to have the correct ratio of protein and fat.  I also feed them crushed oyster shells (for calcium necessary to build strong eggshells) and gravel (to aid digestion).  Anything else they eat falls into the category of either garden pest or something most people put down their garbage disposal.

Without teeth, or even a real stomach for that matter, it’s amazing what the chickens can and will eat.  Instead of a stomach, chickens have two main organs for digestion: a crop and a gizzard.  The crop is a pouch that stores food the chickens have swallowed whole.  After a hen has eaten a large meal, her crop bulges from the base of her neck like a goiter.  Then, the food makes its way to the gizzard.  The gizzard is tough and muscular and capable of churning food and gravel together like a rock tumbler.  Finally, the food pulp is absorbed through the gizzard and intestines.

I knew that the chickens that would happily munch on vegetable scraps.  All summer long, they got greens from the garden: radish tops, beet tops, wild purslane.  Dumping lawn clippings into their pen was like dumping a bag of Halloween candy into a preschool.  They went wild.

In August, cicadas—those bulging eyed, large-winged insects—invaded our neighborhood.  The cicadas began molting.  The tree trunks in our backyard were covered with the insects’ brown, papery skin.  “Let’s see if the chickens will eat cicada shells,” my husband, Kent, suggested with a mischievous glint in his eyes.  He tossed a cicada skin to the chickens.  One lucky hen inhaled the prize with a grisly crunching sound.  For entertainment, we collected cicada skins in bowls and threw them to the chickens.  Sometimes nasty fights would break out over the treats as if the hens were a bunch of hockey players fighting over a pork rind. 

As time progressed, the let’s-see-if-the-chickens-will-eat-it game continued.  Among things they will eat are worms, garlic peel, slugs, egg shells, crickets, beans, oatmeal, popcorn, and cheese.  So far there are only two things they won’t touch: citrus peel and carrot peel. I understand not wanting to eat the bitter pithy rind of an orange.  But for some strange reason, my chickens won’t touch carrots.  At first, I thought the peel was too long for them to gobble up, so I began mincing all my table scraps.  Still the carrot peels remained untouched.  Even worse, I found I was wasting my time mincing food for the chickens when one day Kent dumped a bowl of leftover fettuccine noodles into the chicken pen.  They sucked up the 10-inch long noodles with relish.  Crops bulged.