America, home of the brave and land of the free range chicken.
I don’t think “organic” groceries are worth the additional cost, but I gladly plunk down a couple extra dollars for more humane chicken and eggs. I like the animals I eat to be as happy as possible before they hit my plate.
As a youth I became something of a “free range” pioneer when I left the hen house door open too long. But a chicken rancher in southwest Georgia has taken chicken happiness to the next level with “pasture raised” poultry.
Like most marketing labels, those used in the food industry are more about tricking the consumer than informing them. In reality, “free range” means the bird can’t range much further than her cramped coop. “Cage free” means the animal is given enough room to spread its wings and run around a little.
But “pasture raised?” Well that is something akin to chicken heaven, if such a figment exists in the tiny brains of our delicious barnyard friends. According to certifiedhumane.org, a pasture raised chicken is never caged and has unlimited access to the outdoors and all its dangers.
While the idea of pastoral chickens pleases consumers, birds of prey are downright giddy.
At White Oak Farms in Bluffton, Ga., as many as 75 bald eagles have been seen circling the 60,000-strong chicken horde.
It’s an “all-you-can-eat” buffet, says a recent Audubon article.
Each eagle kills as many as four chickens a day, says farmer Will Harris. “You’re supposed to give 10 percent to the church and we don’t really do that, but we’re giving 10 percent to nature,” Harris said.
Since the eagles are protected by state and federal law, there’s not much Harris can do to prevent the feast other than try and shoo the raptors away. During the winter, when eagles are most populous in southern states, Harris can lose $1,000 in chickens per day. The U.S. Department of Agriculture partially reimburses farmers who lose livestock to protected wildlife.
White Oak Farms is one of only three “pasture raised” egg companies in the country, and eagle flocks are rare, which makes for a “unique situation,” says Georgia Department of Natural Resources wildlife biologist Bob Sargent.
For decades, Georgia didn’t have any bald eagles. Or maybe it had one. Sargent said the DNR looks for active bald eagle nests each winter and during the 1970s, thanks to the lingering effects of the banned pesticide DDT, none were found. One may have wintered on St. Catherine’s Island, which is closed to the public, said Sargent.
In 1981, an active nest was spotted on Ossabaw Island, which is managed by the DNR.
The bald eagle population in Georgia is now reaching new heights: 12 nests were spotted in 1990, 55 in 2000, 139 in 2010 and 210 in 2015, a record year, said Sargent.
If every chicken ranch operated like White Oak Farms, Georgia would have a healthier eagle and chicken population, says Harris, who rents cabins to “ecotourists” interested in aerial feeding frenzies.
But it’s flightless birds that pay the bills. Harris encourages those who admire eagles to admire his chickens at Whole Foods or a local farmer’s market.