This ain’t no chick flick filled with love and romance, it’s a block-buster disaster at Crockern! Our hens are not laying eggs. They haven’t slowed production, they have stopped. Even our new point-of-lay hens which I picked up about a month ago, haven’t produced a single egg. In real terms: No omelettes, no soft-boiled eggs, no cakes, no nothing. Production is one big-fat-goose egg.
We have a mixed flock, not just breeds, but ages. On average, each of our hens is capable of 250-300 eggs per year. Our eldest hen, who is about 7 years old, may have slowed to one or two eggs a month, but she’s fed us well for over 5 years. Our other 9 hens range in age from 7 months to 4 years. On the low end of expected production, that is 3-5 eggs a day for a flock this size. So where are the eggs?
Over five years of keeping chickens, and we’ve never had this. We have had broody hens, flighty hens, friendly hens and darn right angry hens. We have nursed hens with coughs, bound eggs and uterine prolapse. We have lost hens to natural causes and grisly fox, badger and dog attacks. Our hens have laid soft eggs, weirdly shaped eggs, and the most beautiful, delicious eggs. But we have never had weeks of no eggs. Like any hard-boiled detective, I turn to our chicken library in search of plausible reasons for hens to stop laying. Where is that book, bok, bok, booook?
The most common reason cited is diet. But, we haven’t made any changes. We are feeding the same pellets as in the past. Our hens get plenty of bugs and worms as they free range all over the yard, including a drive-by feeding at the bird feeders. And they have ample access to water. For heaven sakes, we’re on Dartmoor!
We know three are busy moulting, but the others have all their feathers. A quick examination shows all to have clear eyes, healthy coombs and behaving in chicken-y ways, indicating tip-top health. None are sitting on the nest all day being broody. In fact, none seem to be heading toward a nest at all.
Could it be daylight? The experts say chickens need 14 -16 hours of natural daylight. Okay, so in winter I appreciate the laying slows. But this has been going on for months, beginning in the long days of summer. We could put in some artificial light into their coop, but we won’t do that. The chickens love to roam all over the yard and I don’t want to force them into some sort of egg-laying drudgery with a light therapy box in the corner of the roost. Being a chicken should be fun!
Two months ago, faced with a future of no eggs, I brought home six point-of-lay hens to up the egg game. When we introduced the new hens, we removed the electric fence since the rabbits had chewed through it. The experts claim chickens love routine and a slight disruption can cause them to stop laying for a brief period. Do our hens really remember a month ago? Two months ago? How developed is a chicken’s memory? Have our hens forgotten how to lay eggs? Is this even possible?
Fed up with not having eggs, we hatched a plan and examined every inch of property. We looked under fallen branches, up in the rafters of the barn, behind shrubs and even in the obvious nests boxes. Searching high and low for eggs, we came up empty. Ome-not-letting it slide and for two days, I spied on the chickens. I watched their every move – worms eaten, dust baths taken, preening completed — to see if they have a hidden, special spot for a quiet bit of egg-laying. Sadly, there are no secret nests filled with dozens of eggs, but their daily routines are poultry in motion.
I can hardly say I’ve cracked it, but when I mentioned to my friend Joanne that I thought they were on strike, she quipped, “Are they French?” We are unaware of any problems with worker rights, hours or conditions, but we do seem to have la solidarité du poulet.
Roger and I are scrambling for an answer and it may be all in the timing: Winter is coming; our point of lay hens may just not be ready yet; and, the old hens are on vacation. If we were tougher, we’d be making chicken stew. Instead, we’ll carry on providing food and shelter, keeping them safe from predators, looking for eggs in all areas of the yard, singing and chatting to them when we are out in the garden, and giving them a winter’s rest. In the meantime, I’m keeping my sunny side up in hope we’ll have some eggs in the new year.