This is a fowl post. Fowl is a lovely old fashioned word you don’t hear much any more, people are more likely to call their chicken “chooks” nowadays, which I think is a term that originated in the States. In my youth, in the Forest of Dean, everyone called their chickens “fowls” and I think my fascination for them is rooted in collecting eggs from a straw nesting box at a friend’s house and going back to the kitchen to eat them for breakfast. It seemed like a magic thing then and it still does now. I’m not sure they taste all that different from the eggs in the supermarket, to be honest, but the yolks are a deep yellow and I know where they’ve been, so to speak! I am a relatively new chicken keeper, only having chickens for the four years I’ve been here. Chicken is a very important part of the Portuguese diet. It’s so important that there are different words for different types. This can also cause some confusion to both chef and chicken keeper alike. You can still buy live chickens in the markets here, although I haven’t done that yet, preferring to buy mine from a local agricultural store, where, to me, they seem less stressed. At the moment, you couldn’t buy a chicken in the market at all, as they have found bird flu in a heron in the Algarve and the movement of birds is restricted for 50 miles around where the sick bird was found.
Last Autumn, I bought four young birds from the agricultural store. They were “poedeiras” or hens on the and point of lay, in the Uk we would call them pullets. Two of them were speckled brown and two were white. These brown ones are mixed , dual purpose hens, and good layers, however, the white ones are usually bought for fattening for meat. They are bred for the speed in which they fatten up and not really meant to be kept as they get too fat and don’t function very well as layers.They are very greedy birds. But quite docile and pleasant in nature. I didn’t know they were meat birds when I bought them though. I quickly realised my mistake, as my two white birds grew to almost the size of turkeys. They waddle around and don’t lay very well, quite often producing a soft shelled egg. One of the birds is an especially hopeless case. She is so big, she can’t clean herself very well and so she looks very mucky. I had to give her a bath the other day and trim her bottom feathers and she lumbers about looking quite sorry for herself with a red bottom and dishevelled feathers. I am a failed chicken keeper…5 cockerels, all crowing their heads off who should be in the pot by now, and a bird with special needs who needs nursing care. I’ve got to give myself a firm talking to and deal with my growing cockerel problem!
Chickens bred for laying eggs are called “Gallinhas” and those young chickens bred for eating are called “Frangos” Cockerels are called “Gallos” If you want to buy a freerange chicken in the supermarket you can buy a “Frango de Campo” but these are more for stewing than roasting as they are older birds and very delicious they are too! Roasting of chicken is rarely done , at least in my part of Portugal, chicken is either barbecued or stewed. Chicks are called “Pintos”
Anyway, I digress. My exciting news about chickens is that I have a clutch of new arrivals, hatched last Wednesday! You may remember early disasters with trying to successfully brood chicks using a broody hen. So far I have had an exploding egg, infertile eggs, a raid by other jealous chickens on the poor bantam broody, a trampled chick and various other mishaps, mostly caused by my interference. I have felt like a bungling murder at times! I have had two broods already, but they were only two chicks each time. And all boys. Beautiful boys none the less, but more than two cockerels, one little and one large so they don’t fight, becomes unmanageable for me and the hens. So much drama! Especially when Spring arrives and the testosterone kicks in.
However, under the guidance of an experienced chicken keeper and friend, I have learned a great deal about the process of successfully hatching chicks. I have learnt the importance of having a safe separate area for the broody, to leave her to do her job which she can ably do without me, how to keep chicks healthy and warm in the early weeks and above all NOT to keep fussing and peeping during the hatch. So this time she hatched nine eggs out of ten! One died straight away, I found it squashed, poor thing and chucked unceremoniously out of the nest along with the egg shells from the others. I buried it in the compost heap with a little prayer and hope it will be reborn as a succulent tomato. I lost a second through my own stupidity. It got out of the crate where its mum was and couldn’t get back in and died of cold. I found it’s stiff little body in the morning and shed a tear. There is nothing sadder than a new born creature which didn’t make it. I felt terrible and consigned it to the compost to the company of its squashed brother or sister. I rigged up a flowerpot candle heater since there is no electricity where the chickens are and it has been very cold and now all the chicks now look very happy and healthy.
So now, I’m the proud keeper of 19 birds. 6 big girls and their cockerel, 4 young bantam cockerels all strutting around, a bantam broody and seven chickens, of indeterminate sex and not all bantams as I slipped some eggs from the big girls under the broody when she wasn’t looking.
I have a plan to have two small flocks, five or six bantam hens with a cockerel and the same with the big hens. The bantams are wilder and go broody more often, but are less destructive in the garden and very good foragers. The big girls are more passive, better layers, never go broody and I love the way they chat and mutter to each other as they tour the garden. They also do poos the size of small dogs, a bonus for the plants.
It’s been very cold and wet here this week, so it’s not a great time to have new chicks. The main flock have been very happy to go to bed, having spent the day crouched miserably under the chicken shed as the rain literally comes down as though grey buckets of water are being chucked from the sky.
The chickens are a great start my day. Stopping to make myself a cup of tea, I head down to the chicken corner and let them out, chuckling at all the crowing and posturing from the young cockerels and taking delight in the chicks peeping out from Mrs Chicken’s feathers. The valley is often shrouded in wisps of mist, the garden has some new discovery, the Chief cat comes and sits on my lap for warmth and watches the chickens with me as I drink my tea, swearing quietly at Subordinate cat who is very jealous and sits at my feet. It’s a wonderful way to forget the world’s problems!