Driving through the Canadian rural area, we landed at a farm selling ‘farm fresh’ eggs. They were also selling ‘Free Range’ eggs, costing over double the price of normal eggs. These eggs they claimed were laid by hens raised free of cages and other types of confinement housing and provided with access to the outdoors, weather permitting.
The labels on egg cartons in Canada would confuse any shopper and are misleading. Only a handful are certified by a third-party agency like ‘SPCA Certified’, meaning the product comes from a farm following prescribed standards of animal welfare, assessed annually by a trained inspector or ‘Certified Organic’, where in the birds are raised on organic feed without growth hormones or antibiotics. I am told that mature broiler chicken raised on growth hormones are in such terrible state of pain due to the inability of their legs to withstand the body weight, that we are actually doing them a favour when we slaughter them!
Now we get many uncertified, but somewhat accepted labels, more as a fashion statement. They cover ‘Free Range’ and ‘Free-Run’ denoting that hens could move around in open concept barns, but they do not necessarily have access to the great outdoors. The ‘Cage-Free’ and ‘Pasture Raised’ can also be found.
Labels such as ‘Animal Friendly’, ‘Country Fresh’, ‘Naturally Raised’, ‘Non-Medicated’, ‘Raised Without Antibiotics’, ‘Raised Without Hormones’ or ‘Vegetable-Fed’ or ‘Grain-Fed’ do not mean anything and are likely to mislead the shoppers.
In case there are no labels, or the label states ‘Classic’, ‘Conventional’, ‘Regular’, ‘Farm-Fresh’ or ‘Natural’, it means that the hens who laid these eggs were kept in cages for almost their entire lives. The cages are about the size of a file cabinet drawer and can hold up to seven hens. It is reported that an estimated 95% of eggs produced in Canada come from hens confined to cages where their movement is severely restricted and they are denied their most fundamental behavioural needs such as wing-flapping, foraging, perching and nesting.
In my childhood, I was always fascinated by the brood my mother reared. The most dominant cock assumed the position of a rooster, leading the brood. There would be many duels to establish supremacy and the defeated cocks submit to the rooster. The rooster would push ahead of the females to have first pickings of the food and the hens would stand back.
In the evenings the brood would return and never enter the coop, but perch on the tamarind tree behind it. The rooster would perch on the top with the hens and other cocks below him; hence the idiom ‘ruling the roost’. The rooster is always on the lookout for intruders and predators and would warn the brood about them. He would also attack and throw away the intruders. The rooster would crow at the break of dawn, announcing to the world his presence and dominance in the brood. It also served as an alarm for our father. He would wake us all up and commence with the morning prayers.
The rooster would also crow in response to a potential rival. When being fed in the morning, the crowing acts as a way to assert that it is his food. It also serves as a warning to other roosters in the neighbourhood, not to trespass his territory.
Our neighbour’s rooster was bigger and always ‘bullied’ our rooster. In one such fight, I, then aged about four, barged between the two roosters in an attempt to protect ours. The neighbour’s rooster literally flew into a rage and pecked on my forehead and left me bleeding and presented me with a scar which became my identification mark. A mark of recognition! How would I be identified without the help of the neighbour’s rooster? A philosophical poser.
The rooster mates with the hens during the day, like all birds. The mating ritual will typically begin with a rooster exhibiting a type of dance meant to attract his mate. He would dip one wing, wave his colourful tail feathers and dance around the hen in a circular pattern. If the hen is receptive, she will crouch down and allow the rooster to mount her, else he would force himself upon her. For balance, he would peck on to her comb atop her head. The entire mating would last a few seconds.
Both male and female chickens have one exterior sexual opening called a cloaca. When a rooster mounts a hen, he tucks his tail under the hen’s in a ‘cloacal kiss’, passing sperms to fertilize the egg. The sperms travel up the oviduct, where an egg is released every day. One mating can leave enough sperms to fertilize each egg for up to a week.
The hens usually met their end dying of old age, disease or falling prey to intruders like foxes, dogs or cats. Some got run over by the vehicles plying on the road in front of the house. The rooster’s or cock’s end is another story. Amma (mother) would order us sons to butcher one to be the entrée for the dinner when an uncle came calling on. The cocks also met similar fates to celebrate the birth and resurrection of our Lord – Christmas and Easter. She would indicate the cock to be butchered by its colour and at night, one had to climb the tamarind tree with the skill of a leopard, locate the cock and catch it. The operation was impossible during the day as the cock would run away.
We then had to butcher it and dip it in boiling water to de-feather them. Unlike the factory reared chicken of today, these fowls, being ‘Free Range’ do not carry any fat between their skin and muscles, hence, skinning them is impossible. The meat took longer to cook and was harder to bite into, but always tasted much better. Similarly, the eggs from the ‘Free Range’ hens tasted much better to my palate than the factory produced eggs served at the Cadets’ Mess or the Officers’ Mess. It could be because these hen foraged on the leaves, especially of the herbal plants that grew abundantly all around our house then.
Every other year, Amma would hatch chicks to recoup the dwindling strength of her brood. She would select a healthy hen who had just moved into her ‘broody’ state and prepare a safe area in the store room, away from other hens and cats. A hen in a broody state does not lay eggs, eats hardly, remains in her nest, is very irritable and assumes that she is incubating eggs to hatch, though there is nothing under her.
She would then pick out a dozen eggs from the recent pile. She was a bit superstitious when it came to placing the eggs under the hen for incubation. She always believed that anything she touched turned male – that is why we do not have a sister. I was presumed to be the ‘lucky’ one because whenever I placed the eggs under the brooding hen, it mostly resulted in about eight females and four male chicks.
After I left home to join Sainik School, the job for once was given to my younger brother. It turned out that barring two, rest of the chicks were all males. That possibly explains why he has two sons today!
After 21 days of incubation under the broody hen, the chicks hatch. The mother hen would lead the chicks out, teach them to eat and drink and walk through the farm. In case of any attack from predators like cats, hawks or crows, the mother hen would tuck the chicks under her wings. She would also attack the intruder with her beak. The rooster would immediately come to her rescue and also join the fight to repel the intruder. As children, we used to artificially color the chicks to red, orange or pink, to scare away the predator birds.
The offering at the annual feast of our ancestral church with St George as the patron saint, was fowl. Many ladies in the area would conditionally promise St George that they would offer Him a fowl in case at least 10 of the dozen chicks would survive through. Now the responsibility to take care of the chicks rested with St George and in case he failed, he lost a fowl during the annual feast!
After about six weeks of rearing the chicks, the mother hen would either avoid them or peck them away as they have now become capable enough to take care of themselves. They now grow as ‘Free Range’ to produce eggs or to end up as entrée at the family dinner.
With rubber plantations replacing the pineapple and tapioca cultivation in our farm land, forage for the fowls reduced. Spurt in vehicular traffic on the road in front of our house made it unsafe for the birds. Easy availability of eggs and chicken meat at affordable prices without hassles made rearing of fowls uneconomical. All these factors, along with the age of my mother contributed to the sad end of fowl rearing at our home, as also in much of rural Kerala. At the very thought of those childhood days with the ‘Free Range’ brood around, I am flooded with a wave of nostalgia.
PS – Thanks to Veteran Colonel Baby Mathews – the idea for this article emanated from a telephonic conversation with him.