SEASON OF THE EGG – April 2010

By Barbara Mellon

Well, it’s that time of year when the shelves in the grocery store that are generally chock full of eggs suddenly look sadly empty. Where have all those eggs gone? To the homes of children who are excitedly dunking egg after egg into little dishes of colored water, changing the normally white eggs to a brilliant array of pinks and blues, yellows and greens. It’s the season of the Easter egg.

This got me to thinking about where these eggs come from. Well, not actually these eggs; we’ve all heard the stories about the huge chicken farms where hens living in servitude under artificial light are forced to deliver egg after egg after egg. No, my mind turned to friends and neighbors who raise their own chickens in order to put eggs on the table.

Accosting a couple of folks as they wandered by, and making a few phone calls, I found that there is quite a lot to raising chickens. First is the decision regarding what type of chickens to raise. Although the American Poultry Association recognizes only 113 breeds, there are many more that have evolved through cross breeding. Some are better for meat, some for laying eggs, some are multi-purpose. They vary in size, shape, color, temperament, even comb style, and I’m told that the physically larger hens will lay larger eggs. For white-shelled eggs, you should look for a breed with white ear lobes; those with red ear lobes generally produce brown eggs. There are even breeds which lay bluish green eggs. A bit of research can help determine the perfect chicken for your needs. Of course, those I spoke to said they often went with whatever birds someone else was looking to give away.

Not being a farm girl myself, I was amazed to find that you could get chicks from a store. “Tractor Supply,” I was told when I asked where one would purchase chickens. Or you can order them through the mail.

There were a variety of reasons for embarking on keeping chickens at home. The Piervincenzis were offered some birds by a friend and decided to give it a try; Joe Henn jokingly told me he got his first ones in order to “wake up the neighbors,” but later admitted he just “felt likehaving some animals walking around.” Although raising your own chickens is not a cost-saving endeavor, there’s something wonderful about knowing your eggs are as fresh as can be. I’m told you can indeed see and taste the difference!

There are some negatives, of course. One is what to do with all those darn eggs. A hen at its peak will lay 1 egg every 36 hours; with a brood of a couple of dozen, the eggs can really mount up. With that ugly word “cholesterol” always bouncing around, unless you have a growing family at home you’ll probably be looking for friends to take the excess off your hands.

The other downside is the heartbreak. Most of those I spoke to usually let their chickens roam free. While this leads to healthier, happier birds, it also makes them more vulnerable to predators such as coyotes and foxes.

As chickens get older, the number of eggs they lay decreases until eventually they no longer are useful for this purpose. If you a select a breed that is good for both eggs and meat, the older chickens can still find their way to your table, fried, roasted or fricasseed.

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Joe Henn delivering some of his excess eggs

Joe Henn noticed that within his chickens there was a “pecking order”; the runt of the litter was often attacked by the stronger birds and pushed away from the food. He also found some would relish attention from him, always following him around, and he knows of a couple who actually answer to their names. Joe told me of an “attack rooster” he once had; sometimes when he walked into his garage the bird would fly at him with its talons out, ready for battle.

Similarly, Mary Tucker tells about a mother hen who would aggressively protect her offspring. Noticing the chicken with her 8 chicks out by the side of the barn, she “could see … that she (the hen) seemed disturbed so went to see why. There was a long garter snake by the chicks. The hen attacked and pecked the snake, driving it away and gathered her chicks under her to protect them.”

While some of those I spoke to no longer keep chickens, and others say once the ones they have are gone, they won’t replace them, all seemed to agree that they are glad they went through the experience. It’s especially great if you have children around to enjoy the birds and help out with the chores, and of course to eat the eggs without fear of a lecture from the doctor.   ~