Saturday, March 4, 2017

FOR THE BIRDS - Feb. 2017

by Fireweed for the Island Word, February 2017 issue

      I haven't always been quite so interested in chickens...but that was before I met Sybil.

She was born in a rural classroom incubator with a slight deformity, never standing a chance at the bottom of the pecking order among her own kind. And so this wee bird joined our human family on the farm one summer and we bonded as she grew. Sybil knew her name and would come racing up to the farmhouse veranda for a treat when called. It was easy to spend far too much time with her cradled in my lap, her small head buried in the crook of my arm. A contented chicken will not only sigh, but coo like a purring cat! Sybil taught me to start paying far more attention to the unique personalities of individual birds, and the relationship at large between our two species.
      Gallus gallus domesticus are the descendants of jungle fowl indigenous to the bamboo forests of India and South-East Asia, but they have been introduced by humans to every corner of our planet. Incredibly, their population is now triple the size of our own. Bearing little resemblance to their ancestors, the chickens raised today for eating also look very different from those raised primarily for eggs. Each kind has been strategically bred for hyper-production. The vast majority suffer from severe physical problems brought on by genetic manipulation, and the hellish conditions inherent in factory-style farming which dominates well over 99 percent of animal agribusiness. The lives of so-called 'broilers' are typically ended at around 2 months of age, while 'layers' may languish for up to 2 years in cramped cages before they are killed and replaced. With few to no federal laws to protect them, billions of chickens stacked in windowless warehouses the size of football fields right this very minute are unable to peck, perch or spread their wings, let alone dust bathe or even scratch in the dirt.

       In the shadow of this heinous reality, the desire to keep a few chickens in one's own back yard has been granted almost heroic status in some quarters. Even where authorities have wisely ruled against the keeping of farmed animals on city lots the burgeoning locavore movement is pushing back. There is a plethora of on-line sites and groups today that romanticize small scale animal husbandry, linking 'local food security', 'justice' and 'sustainability' with alleged improvements in animal welfare. Never mentioned is the fact that there is zero need for eggs (or any other animal products) in the human diet, and therefore no real justification for encouraging the breeding and confinement of chickens in enclosures of any size.

      Predation is the leading cause of premature bird mortality wherever real freedom to roam is granted however. One day, out of the blue, my sweet Sybil simply vanished from the farm. I don't accept the notion that nature is simply taking its course when we fail to provide adequate protection for animals once under our care. But everyone I've ever known who has lived with chickens in the country has a tragic tale to tell. Urbanites who wish to keep hens obviously need to make a considerable investment upfront in secure accommodations – and not be discouraged from feeling compassion for the vulnerable beings they are essentially choosing to take under their own wing. Egg production typically wanes after two or three years. When the decision is made to replace still relatively young hens with new ones, will it feel right to betray those with whom trust has been established by sending them to slaughter, or will finding a retirement home somewhere safe be the truly 'just' and 'sustainable' option? Unfortunately, hospitable destinations are in short supply for retirees. I know of existing sanctuaries overburdened with the responsibility of ongoing care for 'spent' hens. There is already no end to requests for help with roosters from folks without the heart to deny those casualties of the backyard chicken movement the right to ongoing life either. 

         Courtenay is facing renewed challenges to existing bylaws that currently prohibit backyard chickens within the municipality. Residents would do well to familiarize themselves with the list of considerations the BC SPCA has made available on their website that reveal why raising hens in an urban backyard environment is not a suitable practise for the inexperienced. A few years ago inaccurate information started circulating that suggested the Vancouver Humane Society had reversed their position opposing urban poultry. Communications Director Peter Fricker recently confirmed for me that this was never the case. VHS remains concerned about the high probability of inhumane treatment of backyard chickens and is therefore opposed to the practise.

      Eggs are considered to be a great source of protein (boasting approximately 6 grams per) but so are plenty of plants. Did you know that there are 6.3 grams of protein in just 2 Tablespoons of hemp hearts? And 7.3 grams of protein in 1/2 cup of chickpeas? How about 9 grams in just 1/2 cup of cooked lentils? I hope you enjoy my tasty Quinoa Salad recipe below to the tune of 11 grams per cup!

Fireweed's Organic Quinoa Salad
4 cups vegetable broth (see instructions below)
1.5 cups raw whole grain quinoa
1 cucumber, sliced 
1 yellow bell pepper, diced
1/2 cup lightly steamed broccoli florets
a few cherry tomatoes, halved or quartered 
1/4 cup of chopped walnuts 
diced scallion optional
1/4 cup olive oil
1/3 cup fresh lemon juice
2 cloves garlic, minced
sea salt and pepper, to taste

Cook the quinoa for about 15 minutes in vegetable broth (I like organic Better Than Bouillon which is available at Edible Island - and palm oil-free!) Stir occasionally. Whisk together the fresh lemon juice, olive oil, garlic and salt and pepper while the quinoa is cooking. When light and fluffy, remove from heat, allow to cool slightly, then toss with your veggies and dressing. Stir to combine well. Bon appetit!

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