Chickens in the garden, eggs in the kitchen: Part 3

One of the more obvious advantages of keeping a small flock of chickens in the garden is the constant supply of freshly laid eggs. I will never tire of the pleasure of going to the hen coops and opening the nest boxes to check for these treasures. We got our first egg from our first chicken within a few days of them moving into our garden. I haven’t had to buy an egg since. When our hens lay more eggs than we can use I have friends who will buy them from us which provides a welcome contribution towards feed costs. The number of eggs laid by the flock depends on many things:

  • the age of each hen;
  • her breed;
  • general health issues;
  • the number of hours of daylight in which she may feed;
  • the ambient temperature;
  • whether she was spooked by a scary aeroplane flying overhead or a sudden noise.

I learnt early never to go into the chicken garden with an umbrella. Better to get wet than to frighten my poor birds with this huge, flying object.

When a hen lays an egg she goes to a familiar place where she feels safe and comfortable. She will move the bedding around with her beak, throwing a little over her shoulder to the right and to the left as she squirms down into a comfy position in the nest that she has made. Having sorted herself out she will wait a little while before rising up slightly and laying the egg that she has been growing in her body for the last twenty-four to twenty-six hours. Some hens, when they lay the egg, will immediately leave the nest box. Others will settle down in an attempt to warm the chick that may be inside. They will check it from time to time, gently turning it with their beak. Once you observe a hen laying an egg you will never again take it for granted. Each egg is a little miracle, produced with such care by these affectionate, funny and loyal birds.

A hen will lay an egg whether or not she runs with a cockerel. Keeping a cockerel will help to maintain order in the flock, minimising the risk of bullying, and will also allow breeding. As I have no wish to raise chicks at this stage I keep only hens. My little flock is made up of different types of hybrid hens of different ages. This is not an ideal set-up. It is recommended that a flock should be of the same age and the same type of bird to minimise the risk of bullying. Pecking can be a serious issue as, if blood is drawn, the birds can become cannibalistic. Thankfully things have never got that bad amongst my birds.

A pullet will come into lay from around twenty to twenty-four weeks of age. It will take a few weeks for her to settle down into regular egg laying during which time eggs will vary in size and some may be soft shelled. A good egg layer will soon be providing an egg nearly every day. Laying hens have large, bright red combs and wattles and should be fully feathered, glossy and sleek. Almost all of their energy goes into producing that delicious, daily egg so they carry little fat. They should be alert and bright eyed, happily running with the flock in search of tasty treats to eat.

Hybrid hens should continue to lay eggs regularly until they are around three years old. As they come to the end of their laying lives the eggs may become larger with weaker shells. When they have laid their lifetime supply of eggs their combs and wattles will turn a pale pink and shrink back in size. These old ladies of the flock will continue to demand the respect of their juniors with a sharp peck if they are not allowed to feed when they wish. They will move more stiffly and face feathers will look paler. Hens do not grow grey and arthritic but that is what comes to mind when I watch my elderly hens as they move around the garden.

There are times in a laying hen’s life when she may take a short break from egg production. It is natural for a hen to moult periodically. This can appear quite dramatic with bald patches appearing and dropped feathers floating around the garden in large numbers. The hens can look worryingly ‘oven ready’ between dropping their old feathers and regrowing their sleek, new, personal duvet. The energy required to produce the replacement feathers can take all of a hens energy leaving none available to produce an egg.

Some types of chicken are also prone to broodiness. When this happens the hen will remain sitting in the nestbox with all the eggs she can find warming under her. She will turn them periodically and leave them only once a day to fill up on food and water, and to rid herself of one enormous, very smelly, broody poo. It takes around twenty-one days for a fertilized egg to develop a chick and hatch. A broody hen will sit on eggs for that length of time. As I do not wish to raise chicks I try to discourage broodiness by removing eggs regularly and lifting the hen out of the nestbox. She will always try to go straight back. If a determined broody is shut out of the nestbox then she will settle herself down as close as possible to where she thinks the eggs are. For the twenty-one days that she displays this behaviour she will lay no eggs.

I am always looking at where I am going next in my hen keeping adventure. When my current birds reach the end of their lives I am considering replacing them all at once with one type of bird. I will stick with hybrids as they lay more eggs per year than pure breeds. Pure breeds are now aimed more at keepers who wish to show birds or who wish to watch pretty little things run around their garden. I find my birds quite pretty enough, and I want them to keep laying me lots of yummy eggs.

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3 comments on “Chickens in the garden, eggs in the kitchen: Part 3

  1. Beautifully described – a joy to read. I’d love to have a little flock of chickens one day!

  2. […] Chickens in the garden, eggs in the kitchen: Part 3 (neverimitate.wordpress.com) […]

  3. gillybirds says:

    Reblogged this on gillybirds and commented:
    the third part of her account of hen keeping

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