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’être 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. 


  1. And today's story certainly made me smile, Claire. Many thanks for cheering up an otherwise gloomy day.

  2. Thanks, Renee. The six hens hanging out at the back of the property are such characters, I think the stories will keep coming even if the eggs don't.