Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Urban Poultry

All the comforts of home
My wife's niece and her husband have a chicken coop in their back yard - thus, urban poultry. Their kids are accustomed to the birds, and the daughter is a professional hen wrangler and egg gatherer. Our granddaughter caught on quickly, once she was assured there was no problem being among the birds - sandals on to keep squishy stuff from oozing up between her toes. The chickens were more interested in bolting for the door than checking out the intruder to their space.

In addition to organic chicken farming, there is quite a movement of urban poultryists - Newsweek magazine ran a feature story back in 2008. The article is full of background information. For other information about community-based farming opportunities, go to the link here. For information resources, go to the link here.

The New Coop de Ville - The Craze for Urban Poultry Farming.

Jessica Bennett, November 17, 2008

Backyard chicken coop
For Brooklyn real-estate agent Maria Mackin, the obsession started five years ago, on a trip to Pennsylvania Amish country. She, her husband and three children—now 17, 13 and 11—sat down for brunch at a local bed-and-breakfast, and suddenly the chef realized she'd run out of eggs. "She said, 'Oh goodness! I'll have to go out to the garden and get some more'," Mackin recalls. "She cooked them up and they were delicious." Mackin and her husband, Declan Walsh, looked at each other, and it didn't take long for the idea to register: Could we have chickens too? They finished their brunch and convinced the bed-and-breakfast owner, a Mennonite celery farmer, to sell them four chickens. They packed them in a little nest in the back of their Plymouth Voyager minivan and headed back to Brooklyn.

Three different colors of eggs
The family has been raising chickens ever since, in the backyard of their brick townhouse in an urban waterfront neighborhood called Red Hook. Every Easter, Mackin orders a new round of chicks, now from a catalog that ships the newborns in a ventilated box while they are still feeding from their yolks. When they are grown, she offers up their eggs—and occasionally extra chickens, when she decides she's got too many—to friends and neighbors, and sells a portion to a local bistro, which touts the neighborhood poultry on its Web site. She gives the chicken manure—a high-quality fertilizer—to a local community garden in exchange for hay, which she uses to pad the chickens' wire-fenced coop. Occasionally, she kills and cooks up a chicken for dinner—though, she says, her chickens are egg layers and aren't particularly tasty. "We joke and call ourselves the Red Hook Poultry Association," says the former social worker, who at one time housed 27 chicks inside her kitchen—for six weeks. "Sometimes people are like, 'This is really kind of weird'."

Hunting and pecking - free range style
As it turns out, Mackin is hardly an anomaly, in New York or any other urban center. Over the past few years, urban dwellers driven by the local-food movement, in cities from Seattle to Albuquerque, have flocked to the idea of small-scale backyard chicken farming—mostly for eggs, not meat—as a way of taking part in home-grown agriculture. This past year alone, grass-roots organizations in Missoula, Mont.; South Portland, Maine; Ann Arbor, Mich.; and Ft. Collins, Colo., have successfully lobbied to overturn city ordinances outlawing backyard poultry farming, defined in these cities as egg farming, not slaughter. Ann Arbor now allows residents to own up to four chickens (with neighbors' consent), while the other three cities have six-chicken limits, subject to various spacing and nuisance regulations.

That quick growth in popularity has some people worried about noise, odor and public health, particularly in regard to avian flu. A few years back in Salt Lake City—which does not allow for backyard poultry farming—authorities had to impound 47 hens, 34 chicks and 10 eggs from a residential home after neighbors complained about incessant clucking and a wretched stench, along with wandering chickens and feathers scattered throughout the neighborhood. "The smell got to be unbelievable," one neighbor told the local news. Meanwhile, in countries from Thailand to Australia, where bird flu has spread in the past, government officials have threatened to ban free-range chickens for fear they are contributing to outbreaks. (In British Columbia, where officials estimated earlier this year that there are as many as 8,000 chicken flocks, an avian flu outbreak four years forced the slaughter of more than 17 million birds.)

But avian flu has not shown up in wild birds, domestic poultry or people in the United States. And, as the Washington-based Worldwatch Institute (an environmental research group) pointed out in a report  report last month, experts including the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production have said that if we do see it, it'll be more likely to be found in factory-farmed poultry than backyard chickens. As GRAIN, an international sustainable agriculture group, concluded in a 2006 report: "When it comes to bird flu, diverse small-scale poultry farming is the solution, not the problem."

Many urban farmers are taking that motto to heart. In New York, where chickens (but not roosters, whose loud crowing can disturb neighbors) are allowed in limitless quantities, there are at least 30 community gardens raising them for eggs, and a City Chicken Project run by a local nonprofit that aims to educate the community about their benefits. In Madison, Wis., where members of a grass-roots chicken movement, the Chicken Underground, successfully overturned a residential chicken ban four years ago, there are now 81 registered chicken owners, according to the city's animal-services department. "There's definitely a growing movement," says 33-year-old Rob Ludlow, the Bay Area operator of and the owner of five chickens of his own. "A lot of people really do call it an addiction. Chickens are fun, they have a lot of personality. I think people are starting to see that they're really easy pets—and they actually produce something in return."

Because chickens can be considered both livestock and pet, farming them for eggs—or keeping them as pets—is unregulated in major cities like New York and Los Angeles. But it isn't legal everywhere. According to one recent examination by urban-agriculture expert Jennifer Blecha, just 65 percent of major cities allow chickenkeeping, while 40 percent allow for one or more roosters. (Hens don't need roosters to lay unfertilized eggs.)

Chicken slaughter, meanwhile, tends to fall under a separate (and generally stricter) set of regulations, though they're not always enforced. Most cities that allow chicken farming limit the number to four or six per household, so many urban farmers aren't raising enough chickens to slaughter and sell anyway—though they may cook up a meal or two at home. If they want to slaughter more, there are mobile slaughterhouses in places like Washington state that will do the dirty work for you: USDA-approved refrigerated trucks will pull right up to your doorstep.

Chicken farmers are finding each other on sites like, and logs some 6 million page views each month and has some 18,000 members in its forum, where community members share colorful stories (giving a chicken CPR), photos (from a California chicken show), even look to each other for comfort. "I am worried that non-BYC people won't understand why a 34-year-old woman would cry over a $7 chicken," writes a Stockton, N.J., woman, whose chicken was killed by a hawk.

Over at, which launched this year, founder K. T. LaBadie, a master's student in community planning, provides updates on city ordinances, info about local chicken-farming classes and coop tours and has been contacted by activists hoping to overturn chicken bans around the nation. In Albuquerque, where she lives with her husband and four chickens—Gloria, Switters, Buffy and Omelet—residents can keep 15 chickens and one rooster, subject to noise ordinances, as well as slaughter the chickens for food. In July, LaBadie wrote in detail of her first killing: she and her husband hung the bird by its legs, slit its throat, plucked its feathers and put it on ice. Then they slow-cooked it for 20 hours. "It's not pretty, it's kinda messy, and it's a little smelly," she writes. "But it's quite real."

Meanwhile, at, the Web site created by the Madison Chicken Underground, chat-line operator Dennis Harrison-Noonan has turned his chicken love into a mini-business: he's sold 2,000 design kits for his custom-made playhouse chicken coop, which retails for $35. "It's really not that crazy to think that people are doing this," says Owen Taylor, the urban livestock coordinator at Just Food, which operates the New York Chicken Project. "Most of the world keeps chickens, and they've been doing so for thousands of years."

Historically, he's right. During the first and second world wars, the government even encouraged urban farming by way of backyard "Victory Gardens" in an effort to lessen the pressure on the public food supply. (Until 1859, there were 50,000 hogs living in Manhattan, according to Blecha.) "It's really only been over the last 50 years or so that we've gotten the idea that modernity and success and urban spaces don't involve these productive animals," Blecha says.

There are a host of reasons for the growing trend. "Locavores" hope to avoid the carbon emissions and energy consumption that come with transporting food. Chicken owners and poultry experts say eggs from backyard chickens are tastier and can be more nutritious, with higher levels of supplements like omega-3 fatty acids. Their production cost is cheap: you can buy chickens for as little as a couple of dollars, and three hens will likely average about two eggs a day. You can also use their waste to help revitalize a garden. "There've been recalls on everything from beef to spinach, and I think people want to have peace of mind knowing their food is coming from a very trusted source," says LaBadie. "As gas prices go up, and people realize how food is connected to oil and transportation, they are bound to realize they can get a higher quality product cheaper if they get it locally."

Keeping a chicken is relatively easy, too—assuming you don't get too attached. (That's a talk Mackin says she had with her kids early: these chickens aren't pets.) They'll eat virtually anything—"pork products, string cheese, even Chinese takeout," she laughs—and they feed on bugs and pests that can ruin a garden. They can withstand harsh weather conditions. (In one oft-told tale, a Maine woman lost her chicken in a blizzard and found it, a day later, frozen solid with its feet stuck straight in the air. She thawed it and administered CPR. The chicken made a full recovery.) And much like New Yorkers, not much bothers chickens grown in urban environments. "[Those] raised in a really controlled environment like factory farms are very fragile, both physically and emotionally," says Blecha, who lives in St. Paul, Minn., with her partner and six chickens. "My chickens, I mow the lawn a foot away from them and they don't even look up from their pecking."

But even urban chickens, who can live more than five years, can die easily: from predators like dogs or possums, catching a cold or sometimes for no apparent reason at all. Once, one of Mackin's chicks got stuck in a glue trap. She drowned it, to put it out of its misery. "That was really sad," she says. (Mackin doesn't name her chickens, for that very reason.)

But the overall experience seems to be positive for everyone. "We have people calling weekly to say, 'This is really cool'," says Patrick Comfert, a spokesman for Madison's animal-services department, where the chicken ban was reversed in 2004. "Chicken people love it, the neighbors don't care, we have no complaints." Minneapolis enthusiast Albert Bourgeois sums up the appeal. "Chickens are really fun pets," he says. His flock is named Cheney, Condi, Dragon, Fannie and Freddie. The next one, he says, will be Obama.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

You Never Know Who You Will Run Into

Back in January 1995, I had a training course on Capitol Hill. It was fascinating to learn how government works. There were several days of speakers scheduled including a new Congressman, Standing Committee Staffers, a fellow who helped write the new Polish constitution after the Eastern Bloc fell, a member of the Congressional Research Service, professional lobbyist.... the list went on. Our classes
Army Air Force Energy Forum
were in different Congressional office buildings and meeting rooms, and we were able to watch various business and debates being done in the Senate and House of Representative chambers. At the time, I thought every adult should have to take a class like this - there was no way kids could appreciate all of this when they were in school. It was an interesting time because that was right after the new Congress convened following the big swing after the election the previous November - some things really don't change - there have always been swings. One minor memorable event was getting disoriented in one of the Senate Office buildings trying to find my way back to the conference room we were meeting in. As I walked down one of the halls, I remember passing Senator Nancy Kassebaum - as we walked by each other, she smiled. I never realized how short she was - when you see notable people on television, camera angles and adjustable chairs make all sorts of adjustments to equalize everyone.There were other members of Congress that were out and about near the Capitol - if you watched McNeil Lehrer News Hour, many were recognizable from seeing them in interviews on television.

In the audience at the forum
At the Army-Air Force Energy Forum, there were many more civilian-dressed people than those in service uniforms. It was noted in the opening plenary session, that former Senator John Warner was in the conference room. In addition to Congress membership, he was once the Secretary of Navy, and at the Navy Energy Forum this past autumn, he spoke right before me (1). So it was notable to me, that when the panel I was a part of at the forum took our places at the front of the session room, Senator Warner was in the first row to listen. Lunch followed, and when one of the other panelists and I were heading into the ballroom to eat, Senator Warner stopped to talk with us - particularly her - as we were entering. (he didn't think it is as easy to get up to production for the aviation biofuels as it was for ethanol from corn grain.) Washington, D.C. is an interesting place - you just never know what you will see or who you may run into.
(1) I have always thought it would be a catchy statement to say that my presentation was right after John Warner's, but in reality, he was the main speaker and left right after his talk, while I was on a panel that had a break between the Senator's time and ours'.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Needed Help - Odonata Identification

Yesterday on my way out of the house to the car on the way to work - a dragon fly flew in front of me and landed on the front of the house. Out came my snap shot camera - set to macro mode -click - and several more clicks. I had never seen a white-bodied dragon fly before. Last
Common Whitetail Dragon Fly
night I looked on the Web, but couldn't find anything resembling the specimen I captured on digital image. So, today at work, I walked down to Kevin's office. He is an entomologist - a bug person. Actually, he handles honey bee issues - Hymenopter - those are bees, ants, wasps, and the alike (1). Dragon flies are of the insect taxonomic order Odonata - a much more majestic sounding name than Hymenoptera. Well, Kevin didn't have any idea about what kind of dragon fly it could be, but recommended I check with Dan. Dan is a medical entomologist - he is retired from the Army, so this is his second career. It is amazing what some one can do when he or she knows what they are doing. I had barely gotten back to my office, and he had already sent me a Weblink with the answer: a male Common Whitetail, Libellula [Plathemis] lydia - Oh, and that takes care of that for which Odonata.
(1) See the C-SPAN report.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

The Serengeti Plains and Annapolis

Cape hunting dogs feeding
We entertained friends last evening - assorted appetizers, more than enough for an entire meal. It struck me how as everyone was gathered around the serving table, it looked like a scene from the Animal Planet cable network where hungry predators are circled around their prey preparing to feed upon its fallen carcass. Our guests were quite civil and orderly - no dominant leader for the pack emerged, there was more than plenty for everyone. Mentioning the metaphor of the appearance of the Serengeti 
Annapolitans feeding
Plains, there was a slight chuckle - our hungry guests not lifting their eyes as they continued to to serve themselves. After filling our plates, we moved to the tables set out on the patio. It was a perfect evening for outside dining - temperature in the low 80°'s and low humidity, tiki torches and citranela candles lit to fend off the bugs.   The wilds of our back yard a perfect suburban veldt setting - cooked carrion and other delicacies neatly arranged on platters, the sounds of the environs in the background, and good company under the stars.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Words Into Action - Lesson in Government

A speech was given at Georgetown University back on March 30, 2011. In the remarks, a Presidential Directive was given that was translated into an executive order - follow up meetings were scheduled, and new tasks added to a job list. It is pretty cool to see how words in a speech can put actions into play - to personally be able to see government in action. I first became aware of government in a seventh grade class
F/A 18 fueled with 50/50 biofuel blend
that had a big standardized Constitution Test attached to it. As I remember it, was that the year the North Koreans captured the USS Pueblo(1) and Hale Boggs was the House Majority Leader. Lots of facts to have to remember about how our government worked. Jump forward a lot of years - At 25 minutes and 25 seconds into the speech: And I’m directing the Navy and the Department of Energy and Agriculture to work with the private sector to create advanced biofuels that can power not just fighter jets, but also trucks and commercial airliners. Also, at 26 minutes and 28 seconds: Over the next two years, we’ll help entrepreneurs break ground for four next-generation biorefineries -– each with a capacity of more than 20 million gallons per year. There was word that something was leaked to the press (see the Wall Street Journal article below) - I had no idea what that was about the other day. But when Web-surfing this evening, the article below popped up in response to some of the key words I used. It is not the kind of stuff that Bob Woodward or Carl Bernstein(2) would write about, but it caught my attention - a month after the speech, when it involved me.(3)


Led By DoD, Federal Government Hoping To Fund Biorefineries  
Yuliya Chemova, 30 June 2011

The Department of Defense, an emerging market force in biofuels, is working on a new program to finance non-petroleum fuel production, in collaboration with the departments of energy and agriculture, according to people familiar with the situation.

The Defense Department is considering invoking the Defense Production Act--a 1950 law created to enable the military to source essential materials in a timely matter--to gain flexibility in how it buys biofuels and invests in biorefineries, according to these people.

Three departments--Defense, Energy and Agriculture--are close to signing a memorandum of understanding for a joint venture that would invest directly in new U.S.-based production facilities for advanced biofuels, these people said.

Program organizers are hoping to fund it with $300 million to $500 million from all three departments, and that money would be leveraged by private investments in each project, according to these people. There are roughly 500 venture capital-backed start-ups in the biofuels space, and many are undercapitalized.

The focus is on biofuels that are replicas of petroleum-based jet fuel and diesel, and less on ethanol.

In March, President Obama tasked these three department to work with the private industry to boost the production of biofuels.

"The Departments are exploring a variety of options to work with the private sector to provide alternate fuels to meet military and commercial needs," wrote Lt. Col. Melinda F. Morgan, spokeswoman for the Defense Department, in an email. She declined to comment further. Representatives of the departments of Agriculture and Energy declined to comment.

The Defense Department has recently stressed in hearings on Capitol Hill that advanced biofuels are of strategic importance to the U.S. "Diversification to advanced biofuels is essential to sustain the U.S. military's mission capabilities," said Tom Hicks, deputy assistant secretary of Navy for Energy, before the House Subcommittee on energy and power on June 3. The Navy has a goal of replacing half of petroleum-fuel with domestically sourced biofuels by 2020.

But the current biofuels industry is young and does not have enough production capacity to meet such demand. That is why, these people said, the Defense Department is stepping in to help.

Federal money would help resolve the predicament of many start-up biofuel producers that cannot find standard project financing, even as they see growing interest from the airline and other industries to purchase such fuels.

"Traditional project finance [for biorefineries] is still challenged," said Jonathan Wolfson, chief executive of Solazyme Inc., a venture-capital backed company that recently held an initial public offering. Solazyme's algae-based oils are currently being tested by the Navy.

However, the capital goal for the new program of up to $500 million may be more aspirational than realistic, as the federal government grapples with a huge deficit and Congress has marked down numerous existing programs at the Energy and Agriculture Departments that currently support clean technologies.

As the new program is being contemplated, other methods of support are weakening. Loan guarantees from the Agriculture Department, for example, have no new appropriations for either fiscal 2011 or 2012. That program, titled 9003, has supported projects from venture-capital backed companies such as Coskata Inc. and Enerkem Inc. And the Energy Department's Biomass and Biorefinery research and development programs, which helped such companies as Solazyme, Elevance Renewable Sciences Inc. and Sapphire Energy Inc., are scheduled to receive about half of what the President asked for in his budget request, per the latest appropriations from the House.

Invoking the Defense Production Act would make it easier to circumvent certain appropriations requirements in Congress. The Act may also give flexibility to the military in how it funds biorefineries -- for example, by either investing equity in such facilities or providing loan guarantees, as it sees fit, said two people.

Several bills pending in Congress may also extend the Defense Department's ability to lengthen contract terms for fuels.

"What you want to see are longer-term commitments for purchasing," Wolfson said. Banks are reluctant to fund biorefineries because these are large capital investments that have pay back times of 10 to 15 years, and yet, there is no guarantee the fuel they produce would be bought, and at the right price. Traditionally, fuels are bought on the spot market.

Three departments--Defense, Energy and Agriculture--are close to signing an agreement for a joint venture that would invest directly in new U.S.-based production facilities, VentureWire has learned. The program could fund start-ups through a pool of as much as $500 million from the agencies.

(c) 2011 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.

(1) Actually, the capture of the Pueblo happened in my eighth grade year - I had to look it up. 
(2) The Woodward and Bernstein papers associated with the Watergate scandal. 
(3) This effort is an expansion of earlier partnerships in this arena. For a perspective about one of the kinds of feedstocks to be used to produce jet biofuels, see the earlier blog by clicking here, and agriculture working with aviation by clicking here

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Adolescent Identity Crisis

Juvenile cardinal among a host of sparrows
Yesterday morning and then through out the day we were setting records for the numbers of birds that would perch on the seed feeder at a time. Typically, waves of one kind or another species would come in and feed like a food frenzy was going on - mixtures of species were more rare than groups of the same kind. The order of things were disrupted when a more dominant outlaw species would swoop in and land, displacing the smaller others who were already settled in to feast. What was strange - out of place - was how this juvenile female Northern Cardinal was hanging out with a host of House Sparrows - we had noticed her for a couple of days hanging around the yard alone. Its immaturity was notable by her beak color that was not yet solid orange, and the under-developed feather color. I guess the youngster is still trying to figure out her place in life - When will my beak color finish development? - Will the other cardinals pay attention to me? .....

Friday, July 1, 2011

Passing Through - Glad I Had My Camera

Over the fence - a quick look and picture
The evening bird activity seems to be the greatest I have seen in our backyard. There is a constant parade of the commons species that have been noted - waves of House Sparrows, Tufted Titmouse, and Black-capped Chickadees. The low-flying aerobatics are also noteworthy - birds flying through the yard at low elevations just above our heads, kind of like a 3D movie's special effects where you duck your head when your eyes are fooled by your brain;(1) a fair bit of hoovering behavior in mid-air; and even some duels between males jockeying for territories - Mourning Doves, American Goldfinches,  
Female Baltimore Oriole
and Northern Cardinals. There are also the transient travelers who seem to have little interest in our yard, much less the seed feeder - in particular, the Blue Jay lately, and other passer-by's who fly just over the trees. But while talking with our son on the phone, an unknown landed on one of the crepe myrtle trees - pick up the camera and a quick photograph, view slightly obstructed, but there was yellow on the chest of that bird; a seconds later, it flew across the fence and landed in a sweet gum tree, hiding among the leaves a bit, at times obscured - quick, another shot, followed by more, the view still not clear, but at least a few different perspectives. Out come the bird guides: a Yellow-breasted Chat - even though large, not one of the small warblers. Mystery not solved, so off for a walk around the the neighborhood, and then back to the house. A glass of ice water to cool down, another look at the photographs, more referencing on-line guides and photos, and then the thought: "Could that have been an oriole?" - a female Baltimore Oriole it is.(2) This is the first oriole of any kind that I have seen in over five-and-a-half years of living only 35 minutes south of Baltimore. Meanwhile, the sun had set, the fireflies flickered, and the birds sang in the trees - all the while the fan in my mosquito repellent device whirled and hummed like a mosquito sounds when you are laying in bed after dark and it is about to land on your ear, but my legs were spared the bites.
(1) See the effect at 7 minutes and 30 seconds.

(2) If I am correct with this identification, the picture of an oriole in my mind's eye is different than I had imagined based on the ones I have seen on Baltimore Orioles baseball caps and other memorabilia. It was the same way when I saw my first Northern Cardinal - it was smaller than I thought it would be - the large red bird perched on a yellow-colored bat that spans the broad chests of players like Albert Pujols in Saint Louis - another town with a famous bird name, but a long ways from Baltimore.