“Chicken or eggs?” This was not a philosophical debate about which came first. It was a question about the outcome of our chicken project. I set out tools to do some finish work on the bird run, and then checked the nesting boxes. Nothing. Would we ever have any eggs?
In October, we acquired 10 Rhode Island Red hatchlings, and kicked-off Operation Egg & Poultry (E&P). The plan was simple: Raise a few chickens and have fresh eggs for the kitchen. It takes about 6 months for chickens to reach egg-laying age. But as we entered the sixth month, there were still no eggs. And attrition had taken a heavy toll – we were down to 6 birds. Now I wondered if many, or perhaps all of them were roosters.
There was no way to tell…we could only wait and see. Still, I couldn’t help wondering if, “those five look just a bit more like roosters.” Even if the gender split was 50-50, we would have to face the problem of what to do with the non-egg-layers…the unfortunate prospect of turning roosters into oven roasters.
Either way though, the birds are easy keepers, requiring almost no work. That is, if one does not count the construction of an elaborate birdhouse. Water and feed dispensers in the birdhouse need to be checked daily, but only refilled every few days. I supplement their diet with whatever vegetable scraps I can find. Most days that means filling a 5 gallon bucket with clover, small grasses, and weeds which I pull-up from around barn and flower beds.
White clover (Trifolium repens) is their favorite, however, one of the most common weeds in the spring is Chickweed (Stellaria media). It has the same moist texture as clover, but is easier to gather. Chickweed, as it turns out, is quite nutritious and makes a great snack food for the birds. But what they most enjoy is foraging for themselves.
The first time we opened the pen, it was late afternoon-to-early evening. The birds were hesitant at first, but eventually they all hopped out for a look around. And as it grew dark outside, the chickens went back to the birdhouse on their own.
Now when we open the pen, the birds don’t even pause. They hop out the door and forage up and down the yard around their house. And the birds have become such a fixture, that even the dogs barely pay any attention to them. On weekends we can let them out for most of the day.
Back to the egg dilemma. The auspicious moment finally did arrive. While working on their pen, most of the birds gathered around to see what I was doing. Individual birds also wandered in and out of the birdhouse. During a break, I checked the nesting boxes again. And sitting among the wood shavings was a little egg. So we had at least one working hen after all.
Brown and perfectly-shaped, the egg was just under two inches in length. The first few eggs are typically small. Each day after that, there was a new egg in the box. After a few more days there were two eggs in the box. A few more days, there were three.
In the two weeks since the first egg, our assessment changed completely. Since a bird will ordinarily produce about one egg a day, and our egg production has reached 5 per day, it would seem we have at least 5 hens.
After laying their eggs, most of the birds prefer to go back outside. One bird, however, is rather dedicated to sitting on her egg, and any other egg that happens to be in her box. And what about the sixth bird? We haven’t heard any crowing, but until we start getting 6 eggs a day, it’s still possible we have at least one rooster.