Tuesday, July 31, 2012

On Getting Restless

Alice (right) and Emmeline are getting restless.
The eggs have kept coming, one every couple of days it’s been a baker’s dozen now.* Alice has continued laying since she started up again, a couple of weeks back, though I still haven’t caught her in the act.

It’s been delightful to resume the eating of eggs. Oh, I bought some from the supermarket during the Great Egg Drought that happens naturally during winter, but for the most part I couldn’t bring myself to eat them. 

The shells may be of uniform size and colour, but the yolks look anaemic, even though I buy only the free-range brands. Besides, I don’t know where they’ve been.

Today, Emmeline the Light Sussex made her entrance, laying her first egg of the season. Emmeline’s eggshells feature small white splashes atop a pink blush or bloom: lightly scratch the surface, and you can see the tan colour underneath.** 

An egg from her, as from any of my half-dozen hens, is layered with meaning: a many splendoured thing. Alternatively, I’m reading way too much into it, and it’s just an egg.

Emmeline’s egg (left): has she
been careless with a paint pot?
’s surely not kiln-dried poo.
She made enough fuss about it. “Emmeline’s all mouth and no trousers,” I told Carol this morning, having just responded to the noise yet again to find... nothing. A few hours later, however, I was rewarded. And as I have been brought up to be polite, I expressed my gratitude. “Thank you,” I told Emmeline. “That’s a very nice egg.”

Neither she nor the others take a blind bit of notice when I say that. They’ve moved on. But from my point of view, an essential part of the process is being truly thankful for what I have just received.

Where’s the nesting box? It used to be here.
There it is ...up the stairway to heaven.
The sound effects are essential too, it seems. As the hens come back into lay, they become noticeably restless and noisy. It’s entertaining at times but angst-inducing as well, for an animal husband such as me. 

Am I providing all the necessities of life and enough of its luxuries, I wonder? Must the chooks argue over one nesting box when they have two, both spacious and lined with straw? And what will the neighbours think about the cackle-ophony? 

Infill housing has sidled up to us since Carol and a friend constructed the coop about 15 years ago, so within shrieking range of our chickens stand two newish brick-and-tile homes where previously there were expansive backyards with free-range grass. 

Fortunately, their occupants haven’t complained — not even in summer, when sometimes the girls clamour for breakfast at an uncivilised hour.

If ever the neighbours do complain, I’ll be ready. All the best chook books suggest that even a grumpy bugger can be disarmed — with an egg.


* “Baker's dozen meaning ‘thirteen’, arose in the 16th century. It was a traditional bakers' practice to add an extra loaf to every dozen sold to a shopkeeper — this extra, thirteenth loaf was the source of the retailer's profit when the loaves were sold on to customers.” — Oxford Dictionary of Word Origins. 

** I’ve borrowed “bloom” from botany; I’m not sure what that outer layer is really called. In The Gardener’s Dictionary of Horticultural Terms, Harold Bagust describes it as “The very fine powdery or waxy deposit covering the surface of certain leaves, stems and fruits such as grapes and plums: a protective coating easily rubbed off if the fruit is badly handled.”

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Egg Number One

If you think the cult of youth holds us humans captive, just look at what it does to commercially kept chooks. Serious egg producers “rarely keep hens more than 2 years”, notes one of my books on chicken-keeping (it’s aimed at children, with the cover featuring a cute little boy in the company of his even cuter hen and rooster). As hens age, the cost of feeding them outweighs the benefits they offer us in the form of eggs.  

So it’s out with the old, in with the new. And though it’s regarded as fair to sell your year-old chickens as “layers”, apparently when they’re two years or more you should only sell them as “stewing hens” (like an old dunger you’d sell for parts). That’s the category my six fall into: the pot.

Only they don’t. The raison d’ĂȘtre of Alice et al isn’t an infinite supply of eggs, the nurturing of a financial nestegg, or chicken stew. In my backyard the end of lay doesn’t spell the end of life. Nor does “laziness”, another reason that my slightly stern children’s book gives for dispensing with hens. (“To improve the overall laying average of your flock, cull out the lazy layers”, it suggests.)

Alice encounters a crabapple,
and finds it to her liking.

I admire hens who have better things to do than serve as egg production machines. And as I’ve mentioned previously, I’ve not sought to extend the laying season by installing lighting. This is due to my own laziness and the deficiencies of our outdoor electrical supply, admittedly, but also to the desire to give my chooks a lie-in.

All the same, when they’re off the lay, I find myself eagerly awaiting the arrival of eggs. The longer the girls take a break, as they do over winter, the more keenly I check the chalet de poulet (the nesting house) just in case one of them has left something there.

The chalet was designed and built by a carpentry student at Carol’s school. It cost a lot and despite its more modest name is far more upmarket than the (older) palais de poulet where the chooks roost at night. Its hentrance is discreet — a very short ramp underneath that doubles as a trapdoor — and just lately I’ve wondered if they’ve forgotten how to get in. On a few fine days, I’ve gone so far as to open another door, the large one through which I collect the eggs, if there are any.

Leaving it open isn
t practical, given the rain we get in these winter months. And it’s wishful thinking. When I’ve peeked inside the chalet, I’ve seen only a scuffle of the nesting straw where the girls (having perhaps forgotten what it’s for) have scratched around in a desultory search for snacks.

Mid-winter egg.

I expected the same yesterday, so was greatly surprised to discover an egg. It was from Alice the Australorp, I think, though I didn’t see any hen entering confinement (or leaving it).
Each chook lays eggs that are slightly different in colour and patterning; this one — light brown with a fine freckling — looks like Alice’s work. The black fluffy feather I later found in the straw may be her signature. What’s more, when hens are in lay, their combs and wattles look more full and red. Hers are glorious right now.

There’s something special about a first egg, and this one made my day. Even more special, however, was the Egg Number One that awaited me a couple of years ago.

My pullets, as they then were, seemed to be eternally on the point of lay. This didn’t give them any discomfort but I was on tenterhooks, feeling like a kid waiting for a Christmas that simply refuses to come. It seemed that what was supposed to happen naturally would require a miracle.

The very first eggs, and a story.
(Illustration by Carol.)
On arriving home one morning after having shoulder surgery and a night in hospital, I was greeted by the sight of two eggs, the first from any member of the flock. Carol had given them pride of place in the kitchen — and egg number one came with a story.

Apparently the hen who laid it was caught short. It arrived in the night, while she was roosting and presumably asleep. The egg fell, and would have broken, but for the small pile of poop below, which gave it a nice soft landing. Next day, on checking the palais de poulet, Carol had found the miracle. It looked like a rugby ball balanced on a kicking tee.

You might wonder if an egg is safe to eat once its shell has been slightly soiled. Well, this didn’t need much of a clean-up. I ate eggs one and two for lunch when I arrived home that day. Each was delicious, and I lived.

Yesterday’s egg arrived just three weeks after the year’s shortest day, winter solstice. It will be interesting to see when the next egg comes along. People with newly productive pullets may be receiving them regularly, but adult hens generally need 14 hours of light to keep on laying. Right now we have fewer than 10 hours.

So this fresh egg was a gift: one I looked for, but unexpected all the same. Perhaps that’s another miracle. Certainly it made me smile for a good long while. 

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

(not the) National Poultry Show

Vanessa the White Leghorn and Emmeline the Light
may have missed out on the catwalk, but they
feature as page 100 girls in a new magazine.

Hot Dang! I missed the National Poultry Show, held in Hamilton last weekend. I’d planned to go, but two biggies — Life and Work — got in the way. So I’ve rustled up some props (fallen leaves) with which to hold my own Poultry Show. Here, right at home and with no rosette-claiming characteristics apart from audacity, my chooks strut their stuff.

Oh, and if you find yourself near a branch of New World in the near future, slip in and get a copy of that supermarket’s Real magazine (July–August issue) so you can read my double-page spread on “Backyard Beauties” — keeping chickens. The magazine also has
recipes and other interesting things, such as how to “Make your own Mug Warmer”.

Henemoa and Amelia. As a Rhode Island
Red and a New Hampshire Red, they
are cousins of a kind.
Alice the Australorp (left) is actually more
than twice the size of Victoria the Araucana,
but in her mind, Victoria towers above all.