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Extreme Free-Range
Wednesday, January 26, 2011
We all know chickens love to free range in the yard during the day, but I'm interested in chickens that can hop oceans in an afternoon. 
When it comes to the way a chicken looks and behaves, geography is destiny.  What started 8,000 years ago as a small and crafty bird in the jungles of Southeast Asia has, through time and travel and the intervening hand of man, become shockingly diverse in appearance and purpose.  It took 4,000 years for the chicken to migrate from Southeast Asia to the pyramids of the pharoahs in Egypt, and it was there that along the Nile that chickens were mass-produced in incubators for the first time.  From Egypt they traveled to Rome, and then the tradewinds eventually took them aboard ships to the South Pacific islands.  It was from the South Pacific that they landed in South America around 1300 AD and in North America a couple of hundred years later with the Spanish explorers. 
In each locale chickens displayed the incredible plasticity of their genome.  From the tiny and ornamental Sebright to the monstrously tall shamo, the spectrum of chicken possibilities is large and growing.  And, in the last decade the pace of change in the chicken population has increased in lockstep with the rise of the internet and ubiquitous air transportation.  It used to take millenia for the chicken genome to hop continents.  Now it takes hours. 
What is driving this change?  Two things, really:  Awareness and the ability to act on that awareness with startling rapidity.  The internet has opened up a vibrant online world where information about chickens is readily available and can be easily exchanged 24/7 around the globe.  Some of my best friends live in other countries, speak other languages, and we've never been within 5,000 miles of each other, but the internet effortlessly collapses those barriers and allows us to unite behind our shared obsession.  The awareness of exotic and beautiful chicken breeds creates a desire for those breeds, and we've entered an age where that desire can be fulfilled.  If you want to experience poultry-induced brain lock, simply browse through the chicken breeds featured on Barry Koffler's excellent  www.feathersite.com.  Suddenly you realize the world of possibilities that exist beyond the 70 or so chicken breeds that slowly accumulated in America over more than 500 years. 
With the advent of quick and efficient international travel and the mastering of logistics by sophisticated shipping companies, it is now possible to ship packages from point to point almost anywhere in the world and often at stunning speed.  Planes leave London at lunch and arrive in New York before dinner.  The means exist for moving birds and eggs across the globe, and all that remains for the would-be exotic poultry owner is to choose between two paths: One legal, the other not so much.
Lately, given the demand for exotic chickens in America and the challenges of dealing with some government agencies, many have chosen a path that ignores the finer points of legal importing.  There is both a personal and societal risk here.  The personal risk is that you will be caught by our brothers and sisters at the Department of Homeland Security who, it must be said, take their job seriously and are getting better at it over time.  DHS has stepped up interdiction efforts aimed at hatching egg smugglers, and they have caught a number of them.  One DHS agent told me that they have found chicks shoved inside ladies hair curlers, and some smugglers are shipping hatching eggs in cereal boxes under the mistaken belief that the aluminum foil pouch will block X-rays. 
Penalties for this kind of creative and informal international commerce almost always include a hefty fine and potentially include a five-year time-out in a federal prison during which one can reflect on the wisdom of his or her life choices.  This is a high price to pay and a large risk to take for illegal hatching eggs that are almost inevitably destroyed during the shipping process.  Air sac membranes in the eggs expand in the low-pressure environment of a plane's cargo hold, and they detach from the inner wall of the egg.  When the egg lands and is incubated at a normal air pressure, the partially detached sac smothers and kills the developing chick.
Smuggling valuable animals is hardly anything new, and if you want to read an excellent account of it, buy a copy of Stolen World by Jennie Smith and delve into the community of reptile smugglers.  You will be impressed by the passion and ingenuity of the smugglers and depressed by the toll it exacts on their lives.  (You will also be exposed to some really good writing by an intrepid and insightful reporter.) 
As to the societal cost of smuggling, there is a real and immediate potential to import new poultry diseases to the United States along with those illegal hatching eggs.  As one example, in order to legally import chickens into the United States, the birds must be tested for a viral disease called egg drop syndrome.  This disease exists in most industrialized countries except the United States.  It has no visible outward symptoms, but it reduces the egg-laying efficiency of a flock by a significant degree.  If the virus were to find its way into American commercial flocks, the resulting loss in productivity could extend to hundreds of millions of dollars each year.  Greenfire Farms has had birds tested in Europe in anticipation of exporting them to the United States, and at one point three chickens tested positive for egg drop syndrome.  These birds were culled and the potential for disease stopped --this was the point of the testing, after all-- and the birds never left their native soil and headed for America.  The system worked.  But, had we illegally shipped eggs from these birds to America, the virus can travel in the egg, and the disease could have gained a foothold in this country.
So, we're entering a brave new world where the migration of the chicken genome is rapidly accelerating, and the consequences will be astounding.  It took 500 years to bring 70 chicken breeds to America.  It may take merely a decade to bring the next 70 breeds to America.  Potentially we stand at the threshhold of a golden age of poultry in this country.  With these new birds will come genetic gifts that are now almost inconceivable to American poultry hobbyists:  auto-sexing breeds with crazy plumage and colored eggs, cold hardy breeds that happily lay eggs in the snow, wily free-rangers that have the same flight performance as wild pheasants.  These breeds and dozens like them possessing genetic super powers will open up a new world to a livestock community that is accustomed to a more stately and measured pace of change.  After 8,000 years, the amazing morphing genome of the chicken is about to go into overdrive.  We'll see how well that plays.  
Please return to your seats and fasten your seat belts.  There may be some turbulence before landing.