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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One Finger and Three Chicken Butts

There are times when we find ourselves between a rock and a hard place, facing a difficult choice amid two unsatisfactory options.   Then, there are those times when we find our finger, specifically my left index finger, between a rock and another rock.  Ouch!

The injured finger.

The injured finger.

Nearly two weeks ago, Roger and I were once again, hefting, lifting and returning heavy granite stones to one of the stonewalls.  This section failed earlier in the spring with large rocks giving way and making a nice trespass for the sheep in and out of the field.  On the day of the injury, the sun was shining brightly and we were filled with pride after hours of successful rock placement and wall repair.  Nearing the end of our efforts, we heave-hoed one last, and rather large, rock onto the wall.  It went into place all right, but did so before I could get my hand out of the way.

“Ouch!  Fuck!” began my colourful expletives, rapidly growing technicolourful.   I will not deny it, the pain was incredible and to match it came an outpouring of expletives that put me in a league with the burliest of truck drivers.

A quick trip to the local hospital and a few X-rays later, I was relieved and happy to learn nothing was broken.  For three days, I wore a splint and changed bandaging before the follow-up appointment that confirmed I also had not experienced tendon damage.  While my finger remains swollen, tender and unable to bend fully, I am keeping my fingers crossed (well, as many as possible) that all will be back to normal soon.

There is never a good time for an injury, but August has been especially tough as we’ve been busy.   Many friends and family have come by for visits, which keep us on our hosting toes.  We’ve readied the downstairs for our big renovation push and the garden is kicking out a good deal of produce, some of which we share with the birds, butterflies and slugs who get there first.   In August, we also made a quick trip East to pick our cherry tree.

Fortunately, our cherry picking adventure happened before my Oh-Roger-can-you-do-this?-My-finger-won’t-bend injury.  We rent a cherry tree on an orchard.  How this works is we pay a small annual fee and the knowledgeable farmers net, prune, manage and write a monthly newsletter filled with updates about our tree.  When the cherries are ready, we arrive with our boxes and commence harvesting.  We have just the one tree, and this year came home with nearly 18 kilograms of cherries.  Having pitted our cherries, we set about creating the following:

Twenty jars of jam,

Six jars of pickled cherries,

Three kilo’s pitted and frozen for future use,

Nightly bowls of cherries as a snack,

Various cherry desserts,

Gift bags of cherries to friends;

And last, but by no means least, cherry liquor, which will be ready in the New Year.

Cherry Tree

Our Cherries are ripe for the picking!

Hours of pitting should have put us off cherries, but oddly we find ourselves wishing we had two trees!  It must be divine intervention that there is a waiting list to rent trees.

It is just this sort of thinking, “If some is good, more is better.” that has landed us with more rescued chickens.  This month, our flock has grown from four chickens to ten.  The original plan was to go to the rescue centre and collect four more hens, but when we arrived, I with my bandaged finger, they with their bald, featherless little bodies, I couldn’t stop myself.  “If you need us to take more, say six, we can do that.”  No discussion with Roger.   No consideration as to whether we really needed six more chickens.  Just pure impulse, and a desire to save more chickens, had me gather more.  Into the crate in the back of the car the six went and onto my lap leapt Sam, he having no interest in riding in the back of the car with six scrawny new chickens.  Thankfully, Roger was in complete agreement that a couple more chickens would only add to the fun.

This new cluster of hens is feistier from the last group we rescued.  They are ex-free range, yet despite their right to roam during their working months, they are surprisingly short on feathers.

Rescued Chickens

One of the six newly rescued Hens. In another month, she’ll have all her feathers.

There is a trick to introducing new chickens into an established flock.  Most literature on the subject recommends a minimum two-week separation between the old and new flocks.   Due to our set up, we squeaked by with a week.  We would have preferred a shorter period still, but the establishment of pecking order was so dramatic, we were prepared to give it more time.  The top hen from our original flock was not having any of this rescue nonsense.  Clearly, she had forgotten her own humble roots as a working girl.  Her squawking, strutting and yes, chest thumping with the self appointed leader of the new flock was something else.  “Bwaaaak!  Bwak! Bwak! Bwak!!!!”  Chest thump.  Head peck.  Jump on top of one another.  Wings flapping.  More squawking.  The risk of serious injury was increasing as the two were engaged in their girl fight until Roger and I intervened.  These sorts of squabbles reveal how mean hens can be to one another if they don’t have space.

Within a week, the chickens reached détente and became one flock.  The thing that may have sealed the pecking order battle was recognizing the enemy of my enemy is my friend.  Early in their integration process, we had the new flock out in the grass in a portable run.   These six were safely caged.  Meanwhile, the original four were freely roaming, pecking, scratching, sunning and doing chicken-y things in the yard.   Suddenly, a huge ruckus of upset chicken sounds filled the air as a dog ran rampant through the yard attacking our hens!  This dog was out of control from its owner when it jumped our gate, chased our chickens and attacked three of the four.

Feathers littered our garden giving us the certain thought we would find four dead chickens.  Roger and I spent about twenty minutes searching.   We located one, unharmed sitting on a nest.  The other terrorized three were hiding between rocks and hard places, with nothing but their now featherless butts visible.  They were all alive, but now looking a lot more like the newly adopted chickens that all witnessed the dog attack.

For the next several days, we tended to the wounds.  With my own injured finger bandaged, we placed the chickens into warm water, washed their bottoms and applied antiseptic cream.  After the dog’s violent attempt to catch and kill our hens, all the chickens seemed to conclude that they were in it together and the pecking order was established with ease: Roger and I are here to keep them safe; they just have to get along.