When we started keeping chickens, we bought a dozen Rhode Island Reds (RIRs) from a guy down near Red Hook, New York. The hens were about 16 months old and they cost $2 each. It was the perfect starter flock. They were already established and laying and there was no learning curve. We brought them home and showed them where they now lived. By the third night, they were putting themselves away in the coop and roosting through the night like chickens should.
As time went by, we added birds. First, we found some Black Copper Marans (BCMs), then we found a Golden Laced Cochin (GLC). After that, some Bantam Splash Cochins (BSCs). Then, we started incubating.
Upon first firing up one’s incubator, one should ask oneself, “What the hell am I doing anyway?” I mean, to even own an incubator means that you’ve decided to start creating life in another species. That’s a fairly large thing to decide to do.
But, decide to we did, and before we knew it we were candling eggs to check for fertility, sacrificing infertile eggs to the pigs, and hatching, hatching, hatching.
We now have 43 chickens taking up space on this little farm. The five remaining RIRs still rule the roost, there is a proliferation of BCMs, a little clutch of Brahmas moves in a pack all their own, and then there are the hatched birds. These are the ones whose parentage is of unknown provenance. I mean, we generally could tell which hen’s egg it was by the color and size, but we had two different roosters at the time of all the hatching, so the combination possibilities were fairly wide-reaching. We’ve got RIR-BCM mixes, and BCM-BSC mixes; there are GLC-BCM mixes, and BSC-RIR mixes, to name a few. Imagine if there was an organic farm on the Island of Dr. Moreau…
Of these 43 chickens, only two are roosters. Of these 41 hens, all but 11 are of age to lay. Of these 30 laying hens, only three of them are giving us eggs. Three.
That’s right. We are getting three eggs a day. One RIR, one BCM, and one GLC. That’s it.
Now, chicken feed ain’t free and, since we use organic, it is REALLY not free. Also, the chicken coop doesn’t clean itself. So lately, as we feed these creatures and clean up their prolific amounts of shit, we can’t help but wonder… WHY? Why aren’t these birds laying and, furthermore, how did we end up with 43 messy, expensive pets?
In an effort to squeeze out (literally, I suppose) every last possible egg available to us, I modified the nesting boxes yesterday. It was an upgrade of fairly spa-like proportions. Where there had been simply wooden planks divided by smaller boards filled with mulch, there is now a four-sided box, cleaned thoroughly and filled with fresh pine shavings. I hope the ladies appreciate the gesture.
I realize that no amount of coop-improvement may make any difference. There are two probable explanations for the utter lack of eggs from this otherwise healthy and vibrant flock. One is that, despite keeping the birds fenced until noon every day in an effort to encourage them to lay in the coop, they may very well be “holding it” until they are allowed out to free-range. I’ve watched them, daily, upon dispersal to see if I can figure out where they are laying. In the woods? In the garage? In the garden? So far, I’ve seen no evidence of an off-premise clutch.
The other is that the days are shorter and the nights are colder and it just might be the way it is until spring.
Free from human intervention, chickens will only lay eggs in spring and into the middle of summer. Because chickens lay eggs to reproduce, they do it during those months when the weather is favorable and food supplies are readily available. As the days shorten, their chicken bodies register the seasonal temperature and light changes and recognize that the time for making babies has ended. Humans can, and do, modify this behavior through the use of artificial light, essentially tricking the chicken into thinking it is spring. While this is not terribly problematic and will help egg production continue into the fall and winter, it will ultimately shorten the overall egg-laying time of your hens. Chickens only have so many egg-producing cells in their bodies and when they’re used up, they’re done for good.
Also, it is worth noting that chickens are made almost entirely out of chicken. So, if all else fails, it’s what’s for dinner.