Friday, August 9, 2013

Concessions of an Egg Timer

Regular as Chookwork 
Alice the Australorp produced her first egg of the season recently, a year to the day after she last resumed laying

It had been an age between eggs. My hens moulted early this year, when the days were still long and hot, rather than when autumn started to make its presence felt. As creating a new feather cloak for winter is about as energy intensive as producing eggs, the egg supply dried up early too. 

A few other chook owners saw a similar pattern with their own flocks, and we speculated that the extraordinarily dry summer might be to blame. “They’ve had a hard time of it this summer with the heat and the endless drought,” wrote a fellow chicken blogger. “It put them off the lay and many began to moult”. 

However, poultry professional Sue Clarke attributes early moulting to “age and from Christmas onwards, decreasing day light hours... drought shouldn’t have made any difference unless they were short of water, feed or it was too hot to eat.” 

Alice: ready, set ...
Winter and Water
Alices first egg this season came some weeks after the winter solstice, when the days began to lengthen again. It was slightly grubby by the time I collected it, an hour or so after it arrived. 

Winter is a filthy business. Just add water, and there on the dirt floor of the chicken pen, all my lovely compost-in-the-making can turn to sludge. I put sawdust and leaves on top to create a clean surface, but mud oozes through in places. 

Alice would have been out to peck and play before she settled down inside to lay. She probably prodded her egg with her muddy toe more than once prior to giving it up and leaving the nest.

From nature’s perspective, eggs exist to hatch a whole new generation. Perhaps even without being broody (eager to incubate), a hen retains some maternal instincts — such as egg-turning. 

Turn, Turn, Turn
This apparently insignificant act benefits embryonic chicks in several ways. It prevents them from sticking to the shell membrane, helps gases circulate, makes nutrients more accessible, and distributes the temperature evenly.

One of the chook books I consulted comments that broodies or ‘setting’ hens turn their eggs by constantly fidgeting on the nest; another claims they turn their eggs up to 100 times a day. If no broody hen is available to do the job, an artificial incubator will rotate eggs several times a day, around 90 degrees at a time.

Here’s one Vanessa (below)
prepared earlier. Note the
non-carbon footprint.
Earlier this year I found a distinctly fowlian footprint on one of the fine white creations of my Leghorn, Vanessa. This suggests to me that a hen will turn her egg even if all the broodiness has been bred out of her: Leghorns typically have no interest in motherhood, and Vanessa is the only member of my diverse flock who’s never gone broody. 

Of course, it could simply be comfort rather than some relict maternal tic that drives such a hen to adjust the hard oval thing beneath her.

The Winner Is...
Leghorns and Australorps are great egg producers. A hen of either breed can lay more than 300 eggs a year. But it is reportedly an Australorp that holds the world record for laying the most (364) eggs in a year, and so far this winter Alice Australorp is my flock’s breadwinner. 

Also ‘in lay’ at present is Henemoa the Rhode Island Red, with one egg to Alice’s nine. But Emmeline the Light Sussex, like Vanessa, seems to have forgotten she ever produced an egg.

Victoria the Araucana is the only other hen to show any interest in our chalet de poulet (nesting house) in recent weeks. She’s peered inside, but has yet to cross the threshold. Perhaps she hopes some rooster errant will carry her.