Birds of a feather, flock together? While it is an old, funny saying, this really isn’t the case. Multi-species flocking occurs in nature; frequently. Not just coexisting in the same space, but true camaraderie, a true relationship. For instance, woodpeckers use chickadees and titmice as sentinels, standing guard, keeping watch, protecting against marauding predators. The golden-crowned warblers call other birds to form a mixed-species hunting party, each species foraging in their preferred niche whether from tree branches, the ground or mid-way in the shrubs. In nature, multiple species of birds use each others strengths to help everyone to survive.
If in nature multiple species of birds not only congregate together, but flock together, utilizing everyone’s skills, why shouldn’t we allow this for our poultry flock? It is true we have stopped multi-species flocks in agriculture. Starting in the early 1900’s, our farm management practices changed. We confined our livestock to smaller spaces which caused an explosion in viral and bacterial diseases and aggression towards other species, their own kind and to humans. In reaction to these problems we have bred livestock so docile, they have very little predator defenses. We have fed our animals copious amounts of antibiotics to keep them healthy enough, long enough to reach slaughter age. We have created temperature controlled, predator proof, and expensive, highly confining shelters. Industrialized farming promises to give control over the volatile, unpredictable nature that is farming, but at what cost? Farmers now are highly specialized, producing one thing, exceedingly reliant on hybridized, genetically engineered, chemical and poison dependent, life forms which they are raising. Are we really in control when the industrialized agricultural system relies so heavily on these things? It seems that we have lost our way and that this system created to control the risks of farming have bankrupt the small family farmer and created a highly dependent, fragile food system. This system of livestock management is not sustainable. Something has to give and what has been giving is human health with super-bacteria, a food security breakdown, and nutritional value of our food sources and livestock welfare. If we as homesteaders continue to use Cornish Crosses as our meat chicken, we will be beholden to large scale, industrial chicken breeders, paying more money to these institutions and through lack of support, further decrease the variety of breeds of livestock which have actually retained skills necessary for self-reliant survival. We too will lose important skills such as feed production and breeding practices. We are shooting ourselves in the foot. As Joel Salatin puts it, “Bigger, Faster, Cheaper and More” isn’t the answer. It needs to stop.
At the same time, we also need to be aware of the pitfalls of a multi-species system of livestock management. If you decide to detour from the poultry management system provided in my book, by say, confining your poultry or drastically changing the numbers of a particular species or selecting a super-sized industrial breed of bird you will have problems. Furthermore, you will have to work harder, spend more money, and care more for your poultry. That being said, not all poultry species get along. I have not included guinea fowl, pheasant or quail in this multi-species flock. Individually, these birds are a great option as an egg or meat source for homesteaders. But together, guinea fowl tend to completely dominate a flock and add a significant amount of stress to its other members to the point of death. Quail do not play well with others and due to their small size; tend to get crushed in the multi-species management system. If you desire, please do utilize these birds in your overall plan to be self-reliant, just do not include them in your multi-species flock.
When managing a sustainable, mixed-species, flock of birds you must have a plan. Creating the right balance, the right number of birds and managing reproduction, all-the-while ensuring that it all works together in concert with your principles requires a well thought out plan.
Being quite practical people, we desire to minimize our daily labor investment yet also desire to give our birds the best quality of life. Happy animals produce healthy food, right? To maintain the right balance requires our animals to put their efforts into the ecosystem as well as our own. We are not going to strap little backpacks on their backs and require them to carry loads of grain from one end of the farm to the other. Ha, it makes me laugh, just imagining a sort of turkey chain gang! No, no, we will allow them to display natural behaviors such as breaking up large cow pies, tilling and aerating the soil, planting seeds and fertilizing the ground. We set ourselves and our animals up for success by selecting the right species, in the right numbers, the right breeds, the right foods, and the right space to support one another and ensure the health and survival of all.
Your multi-species flock is just that, variety of poultry species, in just one flock, congregating, utilizing each other’s strengths while occupying the same space. The species to include are: Chicken, Turkey, Ducks and Geese.
As you care for your flock through various seasons you will see a change in the number of birds you have. The ratio of each species will remain relatively the same, but with each new clutch of eggs hatched and each meat harvest, your numbers will fluctuate.