Sunday, August 31, 2014

Buried Treasure

Nobody had been hanging out in the hens’ nesting house. Nobody, that is, except a rat (identifiable, in its absence, by the droppings it had left behind). And yet Alice the Australorp was late in giving me an egg. 

In 2013 she had resumed laying weeks before the official start of spring, and the same thing the time before. 

Perhaps she had since decided to retire, like her flockmates Emmeline and Henemoa last year, but her ripe red comb and wattles told me otherwise.

A Hen Hermit?
She began spending inordinate amounts of time on her own, under the nesting house. In fact she was so reluctant to leave this retreat that, several days in a row, it was only some gentle but firm prodding with a stick that persuaded her to scramble out to join the others for dinner. 

It seemed unlikely she’d been enjoying a long, relaxing dirt-bath: that’s a summery occupation, and the signs are different. Alice had transformed herself into an expectant mother hen — a broody.

Laws of Physics
It occurred to me then that I should have been looking for eggs under, rather than in, the nesting house. Taking a garden kneeler, I assumed a position of prayer, then bent down to look ... difficult, as the nesting house is an A frame (we call it the chalet de poulet on account of its roof’s steep pitch). If I could just bend a little further  

This attempt to contravene the laws of physics failed. Instead I pitched forward into the manure-enriched mud, which did at least mean that staying clean and dry was no longer a concern. Thus I was able to get down far enough to shine a light into Alice’s hidey-hole and to see that she had indeed started laying on the sly.  

Fowl Play
Hide the Nest is typical fowl play when a flock ranges freely, but it’s not something my girls had been able to do. Here, though, were two or three eggs, at least.

Over the couple of years we’ve had the chalet de poulet, the girls have done quite a bit of excavating beneath it, creating a nice, dry, cave-like area. Leaves added from other parts of the chicken run make fine nesting materials, but they also form a visual and physical barrier, so I needed to do some excavation of my own before I could safely extract anything.

A Hoarder!
With most of the debris cleared away, it was plain that Alice had become a hoarder, rather out of keeping with the ascetic ideals of authentic hermitry. I pulled out egg after egg until eventually I had thirteen, a baker’s dozen. 

They were a bit grubby but none was cracked or broken, and they turned out to be fairly fresh.

My Australorp goes broody at the drop of a hat, but this time her maternal feelings were probably brought on by the wonderful opportunity that her hoard seemed to present.

A hen “usually lays 12 eggs, called a clutch,” writes Diana Toops in Eggs: A Global History, “... and if they are not collected, she may stop laying and start brooding.”

Rejoining the Flock
For Alice, the experience of seeing her buried treasure brought to the surface, boxed and then removed seemed instantly to eject her from her hazy state of broodiness. 

She didn’t resume laying right away — that can take a few weeks — but unusually, she decided then and there that she’d spent long enough in her self-imposed confinement. 

After suitable chastisement from her erstwhile friends, who hadn’t seen much of her lately, she rejoined the flock. They’ve been together pretty much ever since.