A regulatory crisis

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Many years ago, I interviewed a nutrition scientist who gave me the most cogent explanation I ever heard – before or since – for our obesity epidemic.

He’d done some work at a zoo, and he had a problem with overweight orangutans. They’d gotten used to eating foods other than the fruits and greens that are their native diet, in part because well-meaning people wanted to donate food to the zoo rather than let it go to waste. Give orangutans papayas and tree bark, and they regulate their own diet. Give them donuts, and they get fat.

Like us, the apes recognize that donuts taste better than what the rainforest has on offer, and the genes that evolved to give them a preference for fruit go into overdrive when presented with a chocolate cruller. Not only that, when you try and get them to go back to tree bark, they throw tantrums and start winging poop around.

Humans evolved to eat a diet not dissimilar from that of our closest cousins, and Krispy Kreme has been our undoing just as surely as it ruined the girlish figures of apes in captivity.

We’re orangutans with donuts, and the ready availability of high-fat, high-salt, high-sugar (read: delicious) food seems to throw all our self-regulatory mechanisms out of whack.

Small children have been shown to regulate their own intake, and can effectively keep their energy intake and output in balance. Once they hit the ripe old age of three, though, all bets are off. From toddlerhood on, food palatability (and its partner in crime, portion size) strongly influences how much we eat.

Animals, by contrast, are pretty good at self-regulation. Fat chickens are a product of science, not gluttony. The birds had to be genetically manipulated to eat a lot and grow quickly. Even so, the only way to grow meat birds economically is to keep them confined and feed them high-protein, high-calorie food. If you let them out, they’ll revert to their calorie-burning, grass-eating selves and self-regulate you right out of economic feasibility.

All cooped up

All cooped up

I’m worried about precisely the reverse. Our chickens free-ranged all summer and fall and, although they always had pellets, I trusted their chicken instincts to eat what they needed. I didn’t have to pay attention to their diet because they did.

Because it’s winter now, we keep our chickens locked in their run almost all the time. The smorgasbord that is our property is barren – no bugs, no greens – so there’s no point in exposing them to do the danger of predators. That means it’s up to us to make sure they have everything they need.

In theory, the layer pellets we feed them provide the full nutritional complement. In practice, I worry. I’m sure they’re getting plenty of protein and calories, but I’m concerned about calcium.

Humans need calcium for (among other things) strong bones. While chickens also need strong bones, they also need strong eggshells. Kevin thought that our chickens’ shells seemed to be getting a little fragile, so we decided to give them a calcium supplement.

Our shell pile

Our shell pile

The calcium supplement of choice is crushed oyster shells, and it runs about $8. for a small bag at our local feed store. Uncrushed oyster shells, by contrast, are free for the taking in the giant shell pile that we’re amassing behind the compost.

Kevin dug through the pile to pick some oyster shells out from among the clam shells. Although I don’t know why people don’t use clam shells for calcium supplementation (Lower calcium content? Difficulty in processing?) we went for oyster shells because that’s what everyone uses. There must be a reason.

Kevin, having long anticipated the day we’d want to crush oyster shells for our chickens, had been keeping his eye out for items that would function as a giant mortar and pestle. When the window-treatment store downstairs in his office building closed, he appropriated a steep-sided concrete planter that was left behind.

Here’s where it gets embarrassing. All my life, I’ve been under the impression that the bowl was the pestle and the stick was the mortar. I even told Kevin, and he came up with an easy way to remember it: “The pestle is the vessel.” Turns out, though, that the pestle isn’t the vessel. The mortar is the vessel. The pestle is the stick. Sigh.

Anyway, we had a mortar, but we needed a pestle. Ideally, it would be a foot-long stick with a hard, rounded, heavy end. Kevin couldn’t find one of those, though, so he went the Paleolithic route and used a rock.

A crushing blow

A crushing blow

We put a handful of shells in the mortar and took turns pounding them with the pestle. Before long, they were a mix of crumbs, pebbles, and shards. Some of the particles were very small. Others were still quite large.

I was in favor of more pounding. “Some of those pieces look too big for them,” I said.

“They can swallow pretty big stuff,” Kevin answered.

I was still concerned. “I don’t know,” I ventured, “I think some of them could be a choking hazard.”

“A choking hazard?” My husband looked at me incredulously.

“Like with babies,” I said.

“You realize that they free-range all summer,” he said, clearly referring not to babies but to chickens. “And they encounter particles of all sizes, yet manage not to peck at things that will choke them.”

Oh yeah. I’d forgotten about that.

A chicken treat.  No donuts.

A chicken treat. No donuts.

We mixed the shell with corn and some cooking oil we’d used to fry shrimp fritters, and brought it up to the coop. The chickens wolfed it down, big pieces and small. I subsequently learned that larger shell particles are better for eggshells, apparently because they spend more time in the chickens’ digestive tract, giving the birds more opportunity for calcium absorption.

All in all, I’ve been struck by the chickens’ ability to figure things out for themselves. They know what to eat, and eat the right amount. Once we configured the nestboxes correctly (our bad), our flock laid almost all their eggs in them. They know enough to come into their coop at night and roost up high, where they’d be safe from predation. As long as they’ve got an appropriate habitat – lots of space, the right kind of food, plenty of water – they know what to do.

I, by contrast, am an orangutan with donuts. I’m still trying to ditch the ten extra pounds I’ve acquired over the last year or so, but it’s very hard to do in a world full of things like the chicken liver mousse Kevin made for the Super Bowl party we went to. Any day now, I’ll hit the poop-winging stage.

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Comments

  1. I wonder at what stage of human evolution winging poop around stopped being a successful strategy for getting one’s own way? Probably when we became sedentary and agricultural. Before you could just walk away from the mess I suppose. And agriculture encourages you to wing poop on fields for fertility, not at each other…

    Sorry I’m digressing.

    You can also feed eggshells back to chickens by baking them in the oven and crumbling them back into their food. But then we haven’t got a midden layer of oyster shells at our disposal (your coyotes will be disappointed)

    Our problem is when the ground freezes the chickens can’t scratch up enough grit to keep their gizzards working properly, and they don’t convert food efficiently when they need it most to keep warm. Their shells suffer that way too. But we feed wheat and corn, which isn’t as easily digestable as layers pellets.

    I love that Kevin saw a big pot and thought ‘mortar’. Brilliant!

  2. This is a great idea, Tamar. Ours get oyster shells bought at vast expense. They are also carefully pecking out the mortar from the old brick wall at the back of their run.

    Wouldn’t have thought of pounding whole oyster shells – thanks for the tip.

  3. How about an old baseball bat as a pestle? I’m sure Kevin could find one at a yard sale. Or even an old ax handle?? We’ll look in the wood shop and see what we might have for you!!!

  4. Oh..a thought..our egg shell quality goes down a bit before the birds moult.

  5. i’ve tried reasoning, common sense, occasional frustrated sighing, carefully timed use of obscenities, calmly leaving a room, and on one occasion, outright yelling with clients, all with varied but low levels of success.

    i’m darned near certain “winging poop” would render them speechless, which is exactly the effect I’m going for.

    “better watch the redhead. she’s got poop.”

  6. Very interesting post in regards to diet and obesity being regulated by a natural “intended” diet. I have never thought of it quite that way before.

    I really like your idea of giving the ground up shells to the chickens…wish we had some. On the rare occasions we, or someone we know, make a trip to the coast I always bring back a few shells and add them to the garden. We give our chickens dried and crumbled chicken egg shells for calcium supplementation, they go crazy over them and have very hard shelled eggs.

  7. Jen — Yes, grit is another issue. I learned a lot about how chicken digestive systems work as I researched the calcium issue. I thought the oyster pieces would double as grit, but I was disabused of that notion. They pieces stay in the gizzard for a while, but they’re broken down (both mechanically and enzymatically) relatively quickly.

    CS — Per Jen’s comment, the mortar may provide grit, but its calcium content will depend on its constituent rock. If it’s limestone, it’ll be calcium-rich. (Don’t I sound like I know what I’m talking about?!)

    Jane — Good idea! If the wood’s hard enough, a bat should work well.

    Amanda — Now there’s a strategy for building a client base!

    Mike — If we didn’t have oyster shells, we’d go your route and grind up our eggshells, cannibalism be damned!

  8. I’d go with the axe handle- they’re usually made of hickory, which is pretty darn hard. Ball bats are usually made of ash, which is pretty brittle, for wood.

    Great post- now I know to start keeping an eye out for oyster shell. Wish I’d known that before leaving Florida- it’s all over the place there.

  9. You mean I’ve been wrong for all my life?? The pestle isn’t the vessel? Who’d a thunk it? Another belief shattered, another vocabulary lane-change to remember. Now that I think about it, as a nurse of 35 years I’ve always known the term “pessary” – which does things for women’s uteri that I will not mention here – but I never made the connection. This may be a no-go for me; my aging mind unable to juxtapose the names. That bonking-down thing is a mortar! Yep, it is!

  10. Paula — Hickory would probably work (oyster shells are relatively soft), but I’m looking for something with a rounded end to grind against the side of the mortar. Maybe there’s a hickory baseball bat out there somewhere …

    Mimi — So glad I’m not the only one!

  11. We primarily use steamer shells and grind them up the same way we make our driveway – with a vehicle. I put shells in an old feed bag and run it over and over and over. Works great.