Chicks, bobcats, foxes and eggs

Look for orange yolks.

Look for orange yolks.

One night a bobcat took 13. This winter, at least 30 sailed away with red-tailed hawks.

Still, the chicken population is thriving at McDonald Orchards, where Ann and Michael McDonald bought a brood of about 10 adolescent birds three years ago. Today, roughly 150 of a dozen colorful breeds roam this Capay Valley nut orchard, as free to range as free-range chickens get. The birds have 30 acres at their disposal—but they always return to their coops at night to sleep and, of course, lay eggs.

Ann calls them, collectively, “the girls,” though a few roosters prowl among them. So do chicks, which emerge from just enough eggs to offset predation, and then some. So the family grows.

Ann estimates that her best birds may lay an egg a day, though the flock’s average is about half that, with seven dozen eggs amounting to “a really good day,” she says. Eggs go into cold storage and, every Saturday, travel with the McDonalds to the Davis Farmers Market along with their nuts and honey, their staple products. At $5 a dozen, the eggs often sell out by late morning, swiped up by customers drawn to the eggs’ rich flavor and bright interior color. Such qualities differentiate small-farm eggs from those of big producers, where the chickens live behind bars and often have no beaks—and who knows what they eat. These sad birds may be safe from predation, but they don’t die of old age, either—and their eggs, as we know, are a pale yellow.

The McDonalds, by contrast, are reassuringly unsystematic about their operation. They don’t track individual productivity or cull their flock to streamline profitability. The girls run free, foraging on grubs and grasses, and the McDonalds don’t even keep exact count. It’s how a chicken farm should be, perhaps—the sort of place where roosters crow at sunrise, where foxes prowl the premises and where egg yolks are orange.