Great Eggspectations

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?

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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.

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Calling Miss Marple

When I stumbled upon the aftermath of murder, I felt certain we would be able to quickly identify the culprit.  I’ve learned the basics for conducting a crime scene investigation from watching countless episodes of CSI and know, along with the detective’s shrewd intelligence, crime scene investigations are usually conducted in the dark using special hand held lights which emit a blue or red glow and the dress code is designed to enable a quick transition to a swanky bar following work.  Simply being aware of these criteria, however, does not mean we will be able to solve our very own Crockern Farm “Who Done It?”

Recently one morning, Sam and I returned from our walk, set out the wild bird feeders and about to feed the chickens, when something gave us pause.  Usually we are greeted with a chorus of demanding squawks and chirps from the chicken coop, which roughly translate as:  “What took you so long?”  “Do you think we want to stay in here all day?”  “Oh sure, you’ve got an opposable thumb and can open the latches, but we’ve got amazing hearing and eye sight, so top that!”  “ You want eggs?  I’ll give you eggs!”  But on this morning, we neither heard a chirp, nor did we see busy hens beating a path to the door.  Instead, Sam and I stumbled upon the remains of a brutal and savage nighttime attack.  The violence evidenced by feathers, blood and body parts strewn about had me convinced it was a Henocide and we had lost all of our chickens.  But a quick assessment of the scene revealed two hens high on a perch, another standing with her back to the incident, as if she just couldn’t process the events, and the fourth in a nesting box laying an egg.

Miss Marple

Miss Marple

Hoping to avoid missing an investigative trick as we grapple to determine the perpetrator and solve the cruel murders of our two hens, I’ve searched the Internet, chicken books and watched Margaret Rutherford playing the amateur detective Miss Marple as she single-handedly solves yet another murder in the village of St. Mary Mead.  Sadly, Roger and I are launching a slightly hampered murder inquiry.  We are seriously short-staffed lacking police officers, CSI units, district attorneys, medical examiners, specialists, detectives and Miss Marple, herself!  It’s up to the home team — me, Roger, Sam and the four surviving hens — to solve this crime mystery.

The steps to which we must adhere are straightforward:  First, Secure the Scene.  This is easier said than done, because the “scene” includes possible witnesses, victims and, of course, suspects and keeping “unauthorized personnel” from moving through the area contaminating evidence.  I failed on this front:  Sam was sniffing everything, the chickens were making a break for the free range world outside of their nighttime home, and I was, well, a little sickened by the brutality before me.  I set down the chicken food and fled the scene.  I brought in Roger as backup.

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Contrary to what I have been led to believe from televised crime dramas, after securing the scene, you don’t immediately start to recover evidence, but must first Define the Extent of the Crime Scene by Conducting a “Walk-Through.”  Every good investigator knows to not touch anything, but this murder was disturbing, and we aren’t preparing a case for criminal court, so Roger and I contaminated the evidence chain and cleared up the massacre.

Hoping to gain an insight into how and why this crime was committed and, more importantly, the point of entry and exit for the perpetrator we turned our attention to the walk-through and pondered:  Who or what would do such a thing?  Why didn’t it kill all the chickens?  Will it return?  How can we tighten security and keep our remaining four chickens safe?

We have a safe newly erected hen house sited within another fenced area, which had served for years as their coop.  Before Roger built the new and improved hen house, two of the older chickens always opted to roost up high, within the fenced-in area.  Two others (the victims) liked sleeping in nesting boxes, again within the fenced area but outside of the hen house.   Weekly security checks of the perimeter to see if there are any gaps in the two-foot thick stonewalls and three layers of chicken wire revealed a seemingly impenetrable boundary.  It was now breached and we needed some fast answers to solve this crime.  With no obvious points of entry or exit, our next step was to Interview Surviving Witnesses.  Unfortunately, our witnesses are chickens and no amount of questioning will help us gain the required overview of that night.   So, we shooed them away, focusing again on how the killer gained access.

As we studied each corner and seam to the chicken’s home, our conversation turned to:  Rule out Possible Suspects.  In any crime, there is a probability the victim knows the culprit and so we had to also consider ourselves.  Unfortunately, we had motive.  One sunny afternoon about a week before the murders, I looked out to see how our vegetable beds were progressing only to spy all six of the chickens turning our lovely winter garden into their private dust baths!  Chickens and vegetables do not go together, unless in a Gumbo.   But Roger and I have alibis!  We were asleep and Sam could testify to that, and besides, we loved those chickens.  Despite our brief and fleeting reasons, we removed ourselves as possible “perps”.

Topping our list of probable suspects is the fox.  Typically, a fox in the hen house – where the prey cannot escape – indulges in what’s known as “surplus killing”, killing far more than it could consume.  Even if not hungry, a fox will kill everything it can and cache it for later use.  This is sensible because not every day is a successful hunting day.  It’s a little like buying extra food and throwing it into the freezer in case we don’t make it to the shops.    Foxes are nimble, so it could have worked its way over the wire along the roofline, but four chickens remained unharmed.  The carcasses of the two killed were not entirely devoured, nor taken back to a den.  This is not typical fox behaviour, so does this make the fox innocent?

Consider the badger.  We’ve spotted it nearby at night and know it is attracted to bird food, layers pellets, and chickens.  We no longer leave the bird feeders out at night, so maybe the badger had turned its attention to our hens!  A quick survey of experts tells us that a badger usually kills by going through the breast, which is consistent with what we found at the crime scene.  Unlike a fox, a badger will stay put and eat what it kills, or just leave behind its kill.  But how did it enter and exit the coop without leaving a gaping hole?

In order to keep the chickens safe with the culprit still on the loose, we have put them into witness protection.  Each night all four hens are placed into the chicken coop, the access ramp removed and the door locked.   This involves catching the two who would prefer to roost up high outside of the hen house.  Any possible holes, even the smallest, have been blocked with stones and additional chicken wire.  And all food is removed.  They are in lock down.  Good thing too as we’ve seen evidence of predator return:  chewed wood, upturned water bowls, and my strategically placed props of wood moved from their original positions.

Loss is never easy.  Roger and I didn’t name these chickens, because we couldn’t tell them apart.  The two who died so horrifically were from the four we rescued in November.  When we brought them home, they had no feathers and looked ready to be cooked except they were walking around.  After a few weeks, their feathers returned and they enjoyed the free-range chicken life.  They scratched and hunted for bugs and worms, they curiously assisted all our outside projects, and they produced gorgeous eggs.  Four months later, two of them copped it.