Tree Hill Nature Center strives to protect and promote the native flora and fauna that exist in northeast Florida. Tree Hill works towards this goal through education programs, where discussion topics with students include biodiversity, adaptation, and competition for resources. Volunteer work days throughout the year provide an opportunity to remove non-native species such as the Dioscorea bulbifera, commonly known as the air potato vine. Staff is encouraged to spend time researching the species native to the area so they can be easily identified, and pointed out to guests. Why then is Tree Hill committed to keeping a flock of chickens?
Chickens evolved from dinosaurs into the flightless birds that we know today. The junglefowl was native to Southeast Asia, coincidentally the original home of the air potato vine. Research indicates that they were brought to South America in the 1300’s, before the arrival of European explorers. A 2007 New York Times article by John Noble Wilford, “First Chickens in Americas Were Brought from Polynesia,” summarizes the research and outlines the migration. Before being a staple in diets across the world the chicken was viewed as a mystical creature, from a battle omen to protector of fertility. For European settlers, the chicken developed into an easily transported and reliable source of protein. The voracious omnivore was prized for their bug control skills at that time as they are now by backyard chicken keepers.
The chickens at Tree Hill Nature Center provide a number of benefits. Each day the chickens are let out to roam the grounds of Tree Hill. They scratch at the compost pile behind the goat pen looking for treats. They turn the soil by taking dust baths to clean themselves and cool off in the summer. And, of course, eat all kinds of bugs until it seems they might burst! Periodically, a small number of chicks are purchased. Choosing the varieties, awaiting their arrival, and sharing the wonder of fluffy chicks with young and old alike is such fun! Well socialized chickens make the job of caring for them much easier. With the large school groups that visit Tree Hill each day, it is important that the chickens be easy going. Incidentally, it could be argued that chickens don’t deserve the bad wrap of being non-native; after all this time and with their propensity for staying in one spot.
Outside of entertainment value and the teachable moments they provide, the chicken eggs are a top contender in the reasons why Tree Hill keeps chickens. Staff, volunteers, and interns are encouraged to take home eggs for their personal use. Chickens lay, on average, one egg every day, and the stash can quickly build up. When extras are available they are donated to the food pantry at Arlington Community Services. With a flock of about 20 birds, Tree Hill is looking to begin selling eggs to guests in 2017. This will bring in a modest amount of additional revenue as well as keep the conversation going about the importance of backyard chickens, growing one’s own food, and learning about how we get our food.
The next time you come by, take a look at the ‘Hen House’, courtesy of JM Family Enterprises and Southeast Toyota Distributors. Find a Tree Hill employee and ask them your questions about chickens. If you’d like to email us your questions you can do so by using our address: [email protected]