Gone Bird: Lone free-ranger found barefoot in the park

Aug 26, 2015 at 2:28 pm
Gone Bird: Lone free-ranger found barefoot in the park
Photo by Rachel Hurd Anger

On a swift jaunt around the Scenic Loop of Cherokee Park, I met a handsome stranger who’d probably wandered from his home someplace nearby. His bold stature, and vibrant comb and wattles hinted that he’s probably a cockerel, a young male chicken under a year old. How fortunate I was to visit Cherokee and to run into my favorite urban farm animal.

Even with their tiny brains, chickens are smart animals, able to recognize the faces of humans they interact with regularly, to hide when predators loom above and to find edibles on the ground that we can’t even see. But, chickens are domesticated, which means they need human protection. A chicken that crosses the road to forage along the edge of the forest could become a meal. A hawk in the daylight can pluck a chicken right off the terrain, and owls at night can do horrific and sometimes-fatal damage — I’ve seen it happen. By now, I hope he’s found his way back to his flock.

Because Louisvillians don’t have to register their small flocks with the city to raise chickens, it’s impossible to know how many residents are keeping poultry in their backyards. We can only guess that the numbers are growing by what we’re seeing and hearing in our community, or, like at Cherokee, what’s wandering in public places. When people find out I raise chickens in my backyard (and that I get to write about them), there’s usually a chuckle, or a hen-like coo. Then comes a confession: “I’ve always wanted to do that.” Is the reason we’re so attracted to chicken keeping because we’re so far removed from natural systems in our urban lives?

Joel Salatin of Polyface Farm writes in his book “Folks, this ain’t normal,” “Today we live day to day to day, even a lifetime, without thinking about air, soil, water, lumber and energy. If we do think about them, we think about them in the abstract. We don’t have a visceral relationship with any of these essential resources.”

Energy does not refer only to fossil fuels or alternative forms of energy, like solar and wind, but to food energy. Our current food system requires approximately 15 calories of energy to produce just one calorie of food energy — and then we throw half of our food away. The human race has survived as long as it has not because of industrialized food systems. Those systems in their current forms are very recent innovations, or intrusions. Humans thrived with animals right on their land, and America’s gardens produced half of all our nation’s produce just 60 years ago.

Is locavorism just about the food we grow, buy, raise and eat within a 100-mile radius? That’s the trend, to eat within 100 miles. Or, is the word just another portmanteau, a mix of two words, that when pulled back apart is a no-brainer. ‘Local eater’ doesn’t have the same tangy zing. Farmers are the true locavores, still adept in the arts of livestock husbandry, food preservation and sustaining themselves through the lean winter months — when we mortals flock to the supermarket, thrilled to score bland summer fruits in February.

Mindfulness about the philosophy of food, and respecting its seasonal cycles and availability can be as almighty as what the locavore movement is trying to accomplish with mere eating. Should I eat seasonally? Who grew it? Who picked it with their bare hands? Does my purchase sustain or exploit people, or waste resources? Was this animal nurtured as it grew? Was its life sacrificed humanely? These are fantastic questions for family discussions, and there are no right or wrong answers, just educated choices within our varying means. But, we should refuse to accept that locavorism is only about stuffing our faces. It’s bigger than two words mashed together.

Like much of our food, we are products of our culture. But more people are accepting slower ways of living back into their busy lives. The proof is in the runaway chicken at the park. Someone new is on team chicken, or team trying-to-be-sustainable, or team I-just-love-birds. Someone new understands that these beautiful creatures are part of a slower, more contented way of life. Isn’t that exciting?

My own chickens are pecking around the security of my fenced yard, clearing it of pests and eating grass clippings we mowed down yesterday. Each dips her head to forage between the blades, and, from head to tail, balances at a perfect 45-degree angle. I can look away from my energy-hungry screen any time and watch them connect with the little plot of earth I own. My humble attempt at a slower urban life makes me incredibly happy.

The lone free-ranger at Cherokee is unaware of his owner’s small voice asking for a little more connection and relaxation out of life, but I hear it. If your rooster hasn’t found his way home yet, check over by Maple.

Rachel Hurd Anger writes weekly advice for urban chicken keepers at UrbanFarmOnline.com/ChickenQuarters. She’s been a regular contributor for Chickens, Urban Farm and Hobby Farm Home magazines.