The chicken and the egg

December 8, 2009

During this last week I have been bestowed with one of the greatest honours of my life. Booker Prize, you ask? Bip-bow. Pulitzer? Shmulitzer. Miles Franklin? Huh – that old rag!?

Nope – this week, I had a chicken named after me.

That’s right, read it and weep, non-chicken-namesakers.

My friend Mistress Alice of the Mountains, aged eight and a half, and her brother Paddy, four and a half, are the proud new carers of two lovely chooks from the increasingly famous and brilliantly conceived Rentachook, where you rent chooks and coop for six weeks on a try-before-you-buy basis, so you can see if chicken-human cohabitation suits you both.

And I am told that on the journey home to the mountains with the chooks in the back of the car, Paddy and Alice pondered on the names for their new friends. By the time they reached home, Paddy’s chook was named Shirley, and Alice had chosen Charlotte. Both fine chook monikers, I’m sure you’ll agree (although Monica would have been nice too?), and I am assured by Mistress Alice’s parents that Chicken Charlotte genuinely is named for me and not some schoolfriend competitor for Miss A’s affections. Strange but true.

I am more chuffed than I can say. And here she is, above. Has there ever been a more beautiful specimen of chook womanhood??

Now, Charlotte’s and Shirley’s arrival is all very timely because I have in the past few weeks begun to obsess about eggs. Partly it was sparked when I happened to come across Julia Child making an omelette on Youtube and it was so inspiringly fast and simple and delicious-looking that I began eating them for lunch every chance I could get.

But there are other reasons for my eggsessive interest in chooks and eggs.

A short while ago (and again this week!) we’ve been given eggs by some friends who live way over the north side of the city, Soph & Roscoe, who have a sizable yard, and chooks (also from Rentachook). The first time, the eggs were a surprise present; the second time I begged for them so they were delivered to Senor at cricket (knew there must be some point to his playing that game!). You can see here how gorgeous they are – brown and smooth and just perfect. And the innards are delectable.

Anyway this got me thinking about all these backyard chooks and how happy their lives must be compared with almost any farmed animal. Because while I always buy free-range eggs (for the chooks’ sake rather than ours), just the most cursory bit of reading shows that the labelling on eggs and poultry is incredibly confusing at best, misleading at worst.

The Sydney Morning Herald ran a piece on this very subject a little while back, with this disturbing intro:

An analysis of egg industry data has confirmed what most consumers have suspected: it is doubtful enough free-range layer hens in the country exist to produce the number of eggs labelled free-range.

The article went on to helpfully – if distressingly – describe what the terms ‘barn’, ‘cage’ (ughh) and ‘free-range’ actually mean, which I found quite revelatory. For a start, there are two certification bodies for ‘free-range’ eggs, and one is more stringent than the other:


  • Birds continuously housed in cages in a shed, with a minimum floor space of 550 sq cm per bird.
  • Beak-trimming permitted.


  • Birds continuously housed indoors but free to roam within the shed, which may have several levels.
  • Stocking capacity not to exceed 14 birds a square metre.
  • Beak-trimming permitted.

FREE RANGE (Egg Corporation and Primary Industries standing committee)

  • Housed in sheds with access to an outdoor range.
  • Stocking capacity within shed not to exceed 14 birds a square metre.
  • Maximum 1500 birds a hectare.
  • Beak-trimming permitted.

FREE RANGE (Free Range Egg and Poultry Association of Australia)

  • Unrestricted access to free-range run during daylight hours.
  • Stocking capacity within shed not to exceed seven birds a sq m.
  • Maximum 750 birds a hectare.
  • Beak-trimming prohibited, as deemed unnecessary if above housing conditions are adhered to.

Okay, so now it’s clear that at the very least we have to look out for FREPA-accredited free-range eggs, not the other ones. But then you start reading about chicken meat, and what is allowed under the law to be done to chooks, and it’s even worse.

All of this made me think that what I really want is a regular supply of eggs from someone’s backyard chooks, where you absolutely know they’re being well treated and not crowded or otherwise suffering horrible indignities.

So, my quest is on for a regular Sydney inner-west backyard egg supplier. Know anyone? Half a dozen a week would be ample for us – although now I’ve discovered how sublime the freshest eggs are to eat and cook with, our intake could easily increase.

Soph & Roscoe are too far away for me to impose on regularly – and they don’t really have loads to spare anyway – and it turns out that while Shirley is popping ’em out nineteen to the dozen (well, three at least), old Charlotte sadly seems, like her namesake and Julia Gillard, to be deliberately barren! She’s not popped one yet, apparently! Her family is trying to assuage my shame by saying that Charlotte ‘has a lovely nature’ and other similar nambypamby baloney, but I think she’s just being stubborn. The other more flattering possibility is that she’s too young. Let’s opt for the latter.

I must leave you with this picture, of the beautiful gift brought to me from Shirley’s mountains bounty – a single, tiny and delicately perfect egg, laid that morning.

So thank you, Alice and Paddy, for this most precious egg – and the honour.

And let’s hope Charlotte comes up with the goods some time very soon!


  1. good for you! It’s quite an honour to have a chook named after you…

    One thing to also consider- I remember when I was very small a battery farm was closing down, and word got around. My parents and their friends took the trip up the coast to adopt three beak/wing clipped, very traumatized chickens…after a couple of days they were brave enough to emerge from the coop and before long they were laying again and following our black cat around (I think they were in love with him).

    I don’t know if this was a one-off offer by the owner of the farm, or if this often happens, but it might be worth investigating…of course, ideally, the farmer wouldn’t actually run a battery operation…

  2. Just quickly want to say that Alice and Paddy are very thrilled by this picture of Charlotte. She’s still not laying, but she really is a perfect pet, as she allows us to catch her (with some shrieking and squawking) so that the kids can stroke her and talk to her. She will also eat out of your hand. How lovely is that.
    I’d like to add my report of the happiness of the chickens. I’m a lapsed vegetarian, but I’m very careful about what kind of meat and eggs I buy. However, having the girls in our backyard has brought home to me just how big a difference there is between farmed life and backyard life – on most farms. The chickens are extremely contented wandering round the yard and scraping up leaves to find worms, occasionally being harassed (he calls it ‘herding’) by Paddy and his friends, being fed scraps from the kitchen and shut up nice and safe in their coop at night. Incidentally they only ever go into their coop during the day to lay. They like being free range. They clearly deserve respect and good treatment, and clearly respond to it. I think Charlotte’s quest is a very worthwhile one. And thank you, dearest C, for giving the girls – and the kids – a taste of the bright lights.

  3. Ooh, congratulations, Charlotte, that’s a damn fine looking bird!! How enormously flattering! And thanks for all the info about the ratings – I think as with most things now I will just abandon the supermarket altogether when it comes to purchasing all things poultry.

  4. We are the grandparents of Shirley and Charlotte, and we have to say that a finer piece of writing about our grandchickens could not be imagined.

  5. I’m about to become grandmother to a clutch of a dozen of my very own husbanded (thanks Fluffy) chicks, who’s function in life will be to grow fat for my table. Woo hoo. You can’t imagine the difference between commercial and hand reared chook.

    Thing that I find most extraordinary is that people find having chooks in the back yard extraordinary. It is only one generation since EVERYBODY (except the wealthy) kept chooks.

  6. There is a community farm down near Jane P’s place. Maybe if you join you can get eggs from there?

  7. Oh, and also, check out Linda Woodrow’s Permaculture Home Garden. In ti is a small backyard dome design for a couple of silkies which will keep you in eggs no worries.

  8. Hughesy, you are the chicken queen as is well known (those of you who are not aware of Her Majesty’s status should read Art Life Chooks, a beautifully witty account of a tree change of sorts – in the book and the blog, http://annettehughes.blogspot.com/ . So your experience is way too advanced for we mere urban mortals. Also I hear that when you named your chooks after your friends all did not end well when Jane began attacking the others?? I hope Charlotte is better behaved. oh and thanks re the tip re community farm – ? – will check it out.

    Deb & Kerry, you should be very proud grandparents (& parents Tigs). I had a number of dinner guests last night exclaiming about Charlotte’s physical beauty (if not her productivity, about which they were less complimentary).

    I continue to seek local eggs, so if any of you hear of any urban backyard egg sellers, lemme know …

  9. Oooowah!
    Why, thank you for the compliment!

    Just want you to know the first of my little mouth watering future delights hatched this morning. Heard it peeping, then saw it on the ground – it had fallen from the nest. Lucky the cage is directly opposite the kitchen window, otherwise that little chickadee would have been goanna dinner.

  10. More chicken stories here at this amusing blog by two boys who did the treechange thing in NZ – http://moonovermartinborough.com/2009/12/12/ballad-of-the-broody-hen-part-1/

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