Saturday, April 23, 2011

Counting Chickens

I am, of course, familiar with the old adage: one should not count one's chickens before they have hatched.  But when your hen is sitting on nine perfectly formed eggs and you know that the rooster was paying her plenty of special attention during the laying period, it is hard not to, well, count your chickens...

My faltering introduction to back-yard poultry farming started with two healthy birds, who the children named Mel and Freddy.  Our first egg was laid within hours and we were soon collecting two fresh eggs every day.  They tasted delicious and the yolks were that rich shade of yellow that suggests additives in the feed.  But our hens ate nothing apart from what they scatched and pecked around the garden.  It was the perfect start to a charmingly rustic self-sufficiency in free-range eggs.

Then Mel, our dominant hen and best layer, had a funny turn.  She became listless and spent long periods in the nest box without laying.  Broody, I hear you cry, but no, we think she had an egg stuck.  After a couple of days she suddenly rallied herself for a few seconds of wild flapping and squawking before sinking quietly to the ground where she clucked no more.

The children were devastated, particularly our daughter.  She was convinced that she had drowned the poor fowl, as she had been giving Mel a warm bath at the time (apparently it can help the passage of a difficult egg).

With egg production halved, our initial investment was looking increasingly illadvised.  I was particularly disappointed that, without a steady supply of eggs, there were no longer any freshly baked cakes.

A week later, Freddy stopped laying too and took to the nest-box in an unmistakable show of broodiness.  Perhaps, in the absence of Mel, she had developed a sudden urge to ensure the survival of her species.  Fortunately, we had acquired a rooster, or else she would have been trying to hatch duds. 

Unfortunately, in her rush towards motherhood, she had failed to lay a full clutch and was sitting on only two eggs.  To be fair, there would have been more eggs in the nest if they hadn't already been in cakes.

And there is a reason why hens usually sit on clutches of 10 - 12 eggs: chick survival rates are low.  Within a day of leaving the coup, one chick had vanished.  A few weeks later, the other one was found belly up.

Left alone again we knew what Freddy would do.  Within days, she was laying again and this time we let her keep all the eggs. Within two weeks, she was, once again, confined to the nest. This time, she had a respectable clutch with nine eggs quietly incubating.  At this point, I started to count my chickens...

Three weeks later, eight of the eggs hatched.  Freddy is now chased around the garden by a cheeping flock of fluffy yellow fledglings.  And I'm left pondering whether or not it is too early to count either my eggs or my barbequed drum-sticks...  It probably is; we won't even know the gender of the birds until they approach maturity.

   Storey's Guide to Raising Chickens: 3rd Edition   Raising Chickens For Dummies   The Complete Encyclopedia Of Chickens
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  1. How's it going Jon - are the chickens thriving?

  2. Hi Suzanne, I've been away from home and haven't seen my flock for a month. Sadly, we had a problem with a nocturnal predator that made off with five chicks. Hopefully when I return next week, I will find the remainder of the flock thriving. Maybe a fresh brood will be incubating by then too!