Feathering the Nest

Jose with a wild turkey friendApril showers bring May weeds! And one of the fastest growing weeds on my farm is Chenopodium album, or “fat hen,” an exasperating member of the spinach family. But besides any vegetable “fat-hens” that may be found popping up among the rows of vegetables, our farm also hosts any number of actual avian hens.

During the winter months, when the farm is cloaked in nitrogen-fixing cover crops, pheasants take cover under the tall stands of oats, peas and fava beans. Pheasants aren’t native to San Benito County but were introduced into the Hollister Valley back when the land was covered with hay fields so that the ranchers could augment their income by running hunting clubs. Today, many of Hollister’s hay fields are gone, replaced by a scatter of mammoth homes, hobby “ranchettes,” and row-crop vegetable fields, but the feral pheasants remain. As I walk around the farm I can hear the birds calling to each other from their hiding places. Their voices sound like rusty gate hinges grating, but pheasants are beautiful creatures. Their banded, speckled, iridescent plumage provides them with excellent camouflage against soil and amongst the shadows of the grasses; they’ll wait until you almost step on them before they explode into the air with a tremendous flapping of wings.

fat henWhile clearing pipes from in front of the tractor one morning so that we could plow down the cover crop, our irrigator, Rogelio, found a clutch of pheasant eggs nestled in the grass. Among rural Mexicans, any wild food is esteemed as especially natural and healthful, and so pheasant eggs, like quelites, are reputed to be unusually nutritious. For example, Chenopodium album, the weed we call “fat hen,” is known as “quelite de ceniza” in Spanish and is much appreciated as a flavorful cooking green. Rogelio gathered a cowboy hat full of pheasant eggs to take home and eat and he gave me some to show my children. The nest would have been crushed by the tractor anyway; when the cover crops are turned under the pheasants have to move along. They move into the brush along the banks of Pacheco Creek which runs along the edge of our fields and sometimes make new homes in our artichoke patch. Pheasants occasionally come out of hiding to peck at emergent lettuce sprouts, but they’re not really pests. They eat weed seeds, bugs, snail eggs and ants, just like wild chickens, but there aren’t enough of them to do any lasting damage.

Because artichokes are a perennial crop and the stand remains “standing” in one plot of ground for several seasons, the artichoke patch is an attractive place for birds who seek cover under the big, silvery leaves. When an artichoke plant’s first bud begins to develop in the early spring, it sits atop the nascent flower stalk buried in the basal core of the foliage. One day, as I went through the artichoke patch from plant to plant, peering down inside to see if my artichoke crop was forming, I encountered a little nest full of speckled eggs, perched atop an emergent artichoke. The eggs were tiny; too small for a pheasant to have lain. A quail hen must have thought that the fat artichoke bud made a perfect foundation upon which to build her home and family. But as the artichoke flower stalk rapidly lengthened under the long spring days, her nest was thrust upwards from the comfortable, spiny heart of an artichoke plant ground into the sky. Soon the mother bird was exposed as she sat on her nest, so she fled, leaving her eggs behind. Quail are cute, but they’re stupid, and the hawks, skunks, foxes, bobcats, owls, coyotes and snakes all eat them like popcorn. Sometimes, like pheasants, the quail peck at our crops along the margins of the field, but I don’t feel them as any sort of a threat to production either. Quail eat a lot of ants, which is good, because ants will import aphids and pasture them in a crop in order to milk them of their honeydew, and aphids can be a real pest. In the grand scheme of things, quail are friends to a farmer.

Some birds can be a problem. José called me one day to tell me of a problem we were having with “los patos nalgónes” that were eating a sowing of escarole. I couldn’t imagine what he was talking about; “pato nalgón” literally means “fat-assed duck.” When I got to the field he pointed out an offender- a big brassy Canada goose was hauling its keel out of the pond that lies just over the fence on the southern boundary of the land we lease and heading into our field. The goose was truly making a mess, eating one row of escarole seedlings after another, like a cheapskate at a smorgasbord!

“Don’t just stand there” I said “Chase that pinche @#$%&* ganso out of there!”

José put his hoe down and strolled off, picking up dirt clods. The rest of the crew looked on with interest. The first few clods fell wide of their mark but soon the goose took note of José. The big bird was anything but scared. It reared up on its stumpy black legs, flapped its big wings, and advanced with a swaggering waddle, hissing and waving its long, black, snaky neck. The crew howled with laughter and joined in the dirt clod barrage. The gander retreated back to the pond under heavy fire and sailed off out of sight behind some tules. The crew returned to work, delighted with the diverting scandal and already evolving the story of how José, who studies Asian martial arts on his time off, was almost beaten up by a fat-assed duck.

But the contest wasn’t over. Fifteen minutes later the goose returned- with seven other geese, and all eight of them were aggressively hosing up escarole.

“That goose means war,” I cried. “Attack!” And attack we did, waving hoes and ululating like banshees. The geese took to the air, wheeling above us, slowly gaining altitude. They must have felt smug looking down on us as we shrank into mere barking specks by a puddle’s edge.

Los patos  nalgónes” are a pain in my butt when they choose to touch down and treat the farm as just another Motel 6 and Denny’s Restaurant along their international flyway, but actual ducks cause the us few problems, if any. While I was walking in the potato patch once, I found a duck’s nest tucked away in the leaves, all lined with down, and filled with six eggs of the palest green. Sometimes reporters will use the phrase “feather the nest” when speaking of politicians or corporate pirates who connive to lead lives of luxurious circumstance at the public’s expense. Compared to human raptors that roost in cushy penthouse suites high above Wall Street this feathered duck nest seemed so vulnerable under the open sky. What did I do with the eggs? Nothing. I like to see ducks on the farm, and there is nothing more adorable that a duck hen leading her string of ducklings to the pond for swimming lessons. But as I moved away down the row of potatoes a crow that had been shadowing me flapped over. In minutes the duck eggs were consumed. It made me sad for a moment; sometimes it’s a bird eat bird world out there, and I guess you could say that Mariquita farm is “all fowled up.”

copyright 2009 Andy Griffin || Fat Hen Recipes || A-Z Vegetable Recipes

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Andy helps Kelsie Kerr (wonderful chef and caterer who yes, did a lengthy stint at that place in Berkeley)  with a cooking class at Cavallo Point: Farmer, Vintner, Chef.
Saturday, April 25th 4:30-8:30pm.$150/head includes meal and wine and of course Andy’s rhetoric!
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Dinner in the Field! Saturday, June 20th at High Ground Organics, our Two Small Farms partner farm,to raise funds for their children’s school. In Watsonville at a gorgeous organic farm. $130/head includes farm tour, amazing meal prepared and served in the field by fabulous chef Andrew Cohen.  Read More.

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