The obsessive joy of watching chickens come of age
One spring, a friend purchased a $2 carton of fertilized eggs at the farmers’ market and, on a whim, stuck them under a borrowed incubator. Twenty-one days later, the resulting clutch threatened to overwhelm her modest backyard coop, and so she farmed out the chicks to foster parents. I presented two of those pullets, Hazel and Lydia, to my husband William for our second anniversary. At the time, it didn’t seem strange; this being Texas and all, it seemed like we would be missing out on part of the experience if we didn’t keep chickens.
At a month-and-a-half, Lydia and Hazel were still a little fluffy. Their feathers were gray with butterscotch and brown patches on their wings, and black pharaoh-like lines around their eyes. They hopped around, cooing and chirping like songbirds. We set them up with a box in the kitchen, a temporary solution while a generous friend built them a coop.
Keeping the chickens in the kitchen was a mistake: Chickens shit every 15 minutes. But it was great fun monitoring their development. As chicks, Lydia and Hazel behaved much like kittens: They spent every minute literally on top of each other. But one morning I awoke to find Hazel alone and on top of the water jug — during the night she had developed a roosting instinct and, somehow, established pecking order. My head or the refrigerator, from then on Hazel would always be queen of the mountain.
Eventually, the coop — a beautifully crafted A-frame ark that can be moved around the yard to fertilize the grass — was complete (hallelujah) and we moved the chickens outdoors. Amazingly, they knew just what to do with the coop; they slept in the nest boxes, came out to scratch and roll in the dust of the yard during the day, and put themselves back in the coop at night (and, contrary to lore, went in when it rained). Around that time, the chicken’s voices changed, and they started clucking and cackling.
Teenagers! Overnight, it seemed, they lost their baby feathers. Hazel began sporting thin white-and-black feathers that curled off her neck like a feather boa, and both chickens developed elegant, black, rumpy-can-can tail feathers. Also, their wattles and combs turned red, which, according to the Acme Chicken Manual, meant they were going to start laying eggs.
And then the dog bit them and they died.
The Tragedy of Lydia and Hazel is a common tale, but we were crushed. It has taken a year-and-a-half for us to get new chickens. The aforementioned chicken hatcher recently gave us three hens: big red Aunty Harriet, and the twins, a couple of white chickens named Frederica and Gonzo, the latter named for her crooked beak. Needless to say, Ella the dog is not allowed in the chicken run.
Hens don’t need a rooster to create unfertilized eggs. It’s sunlight rather than mojo that stimulates the pituitary gland and causes their ovaries to produce eggs, which cluster around the follicle like grapes until they are ready to drop — as many as one egg every 25 hours and 160-300 a year.
The other day I noticed Fred looking a little pallid about the shanks. This is no cause for concern. As chickens create eggs, the mineral that makes their beaks, shanks, feet, ear lobes, and other body parts yellow is diverted to the yolks, producing a bleaching effect. So, it’s possible to approximate the number of eggs a chicken has laid by the color of its ear lobes. According to her white ears, beak, and feet, Gonzo has laid 75 eggs; Fred, whose ears, beak, and shank fronts are white, has laid 95.
Five days after the hens arrived, my husband called me at work to tell me he had found our first small, pale-blue egg. I arrived home to find it displayed on an upturned Turkish tea glass like a Faberge, my husband all but handing out cigars.
And then, we ate it. •
By Susan Pagani