Saturday, November 17, 2012

Watching a Chicken Lay an Egg

     There aren't many better ways to spend an hour and a half on Saturday morning than in the henhouse.  I went out today, as usual, to clean the nesting boxes and bring the birds some scraps:  wilted lettuce, sprouts, squash peelings and seeds, a stuffed pepper from last week, cheese rinds.
     One way to tell if your chickens are healthy or not is by watching their reaction when you enter the chicken yard with something in your hands.  Chickens have good eyes and are very observant.  So, if they don't crowd around your legs, making it difficult to cross to the feeding tin without tripping, something is wrong.  If they don't cluck and flap with enough commotion to drown out the crows in nearby trees, it's a sure sign of a problem.  A chicken who rebuffs you, or toddles in the opposite direction, or stays in its dustbath hole, is sick.
     This morning my hens were all happily underfoot.  Even the five new Rhode Island Reds I acquired last week--rescuing them from someone else's stew pot--seemed to have new vitality, despite the beating they were taking as the cruel and inscrutable mechanics of the pecking order held sway.  Some of them were missing feathers at the base of the tail, while others had been extra skittish, scooting down an alley between the chicken house and the chain link fence whenever one of the incumbents looked in its direction.
     "Fight back!" I want say to the new chickens.  "Don't you realize how strong you are?  You can't let those bullies convince you you're nothing!"
      How odd, I realized, for me to be egging them on like a punitive coach in the boxing ring.  Was I giving myself a peptalk?  Am I running from bullies?
      A product of the '60's, I raised my sons with pacifist values:  peace, love, tolerance.
     But, reflecting back on those days, they, too, fought like roosters with their bullying age mates.  I was called away from patients to come into the principal's office to hear the latest bad-behavior story more times than I can remember.  The boys did hundreds of push-ups at night and asked for barbells to beef up their physiques.  So much for overturning Darwinian dynamics.  It doesn't pay to be meek, I guess.  If you're a chicken, it can be the death of you.
     Perhaps the prospect of new, savory treats got the chickens' oviducts going, because within ten minutes of my arrival two of them were making loud birth announcements in the vicinity of the hen boxes.  These are the sixteen wooden boxes I had built and keep lined with clean hay or shredded paper from my office, so the hens have a choice about where to nest.  But they usually select one of just three spots, always the same--sometimes leaving, by the end of the day, six eggs in a single nesting box.  Since hens don't lay, at most, more than one egg a day, it's obvious that one hen's good idea becomes the others' copycat decisions.
     It's not easy to lay an egg.  In fact, it's an astounding accomplishment.  Whenever I lift a chicken, gently, around its middle, I can hardly believe how little it weighs.  That an egg is created at all within such a fragile frame--poofy feathers and hollow bones--is remarkable;  that eggs are produced on a regular basis from lowly materials like millet, corn, dried peas and kitchen scraps is beyond belief.
     I stood in the darkened henhouse watching the two Delaware and Barred Rock hens scratching at their bedding to make padded depressions for the incipient eggs.  They were fussy and tense, elongating their necks and chests in a maneuver that seemed intended to wiggle something through their digestive tracts, then burrowing their heads and huddling into downy balls.
     They stared at me during the nesting ritual--calling attention to my unmannerliness in overstaying my visit--and refused to make quick business of their egg-laying.  I stared right back, intent on watching the process from beginning to end, and so it went.  They held out, and so did I.
     I had to swat a good many mosquitoes out there in the henhouse, despite the coolness of the morning, and when one or another of the flock wandered in to check on me I'd hold out my palm with a freshly killed mosquito for it to peck and eat.  They got used to this and would bite my finger when I wasn't looking, as if to say, "Where's my morsel?"
      Every time I made a move to swish away a mosquito, the laying hens stood up, bothered.  They'd cluck loudly, ruffle their feathers, or preen a little, and look at me:  When are you going to get out of here, so we can get through with this?
     The Barred Rock was in the far corner doing some twirls to find a good position.  Her vent--an opening just below the tail, and the place where eggs are released--was opening and closing in the shape of a smile, so I knew a delivery was close.  A few minutes later, without a sound, she jumped down and ran out of the house.  I figured she just wasn't going to make a public affair of the egg-laying, and had found a way to halt the process.  Darn!  Then I looked in the box--she'd laid an egg without a sound.  What a trickster.  I missed it.
     I positioned myself right in front of the Delaware hen.  This was one of the executives of the flock, second in command and a bit of a show-off.  She fluffed out her plumage and opened her beak, and out of her mouth came squawks that carried such a sense of urgency some of the lowly Reds quivered and went running in circles outside.  Exactly in tandem with her vocal outpouring was a series of opening and closing motions of her vent, visible to me as she faced the wall.
     Like mammals, hens are born with all the yolks they'll need in a lifetime.  During their most productive time--age six months to three years--their ovaries release a yolk every twenty five hours, the time it takes for the albumin (white part), membrane and shell to be formed.  Twenty of these hours are devoted to shell production.  Hens need large amounts of calcium in their diets to lay down shells;  I often give them back their own washed, crushed eggshells, which they gobble greedily.  My chicken books say that too much calcium causes hens to become fat, and fat hens don't lay well.  But running around a large coop or back yard keeps hens trim--even those who, like mine, have constant access to plentiful amounts of feed.
     Without any more of the usual, loud, boastful fanfare associated with egg-laying, this Delaware hen stood tall in the nesting box, marched in place a few steps, and undulated her neck and torso like a belly dancer while the vent under her tail squeezed out, in four tries, one perfect egg.  The hen is white, but her egg was burnt-caramel brown, with the bloom still moist on the surface.  As it dried, the color lightened until it looked like beach sand.
     She hopped down from the box and headed for the watering can, taking in long draughts without stopping for air.  Laying chickens can drink up to two quarts of water a day.  Then she edged all the other chickens away from the tray of extra snacks I'd brought, and snooted around for cheese and sprouts.  She was hungry.  It takes about 3/4 cup of feed a day for a free-range chicken to make a single egg.
     I took the egg and brought it up to my cheek, marveling at the warmth and perfect smoothness of the shell.  It smelled clean and new, and I was grateful to have it in my palm.  Is it possible to feel close to a chicken?  Do the chickens know, or care?  Does it mean something, that we depend on one another?
     Walking back to the house under a gray sky, I wondered.


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