ANN BAILEY: Hens aren't spring chickensI found myself talking to my mom’s chickens the other day (Don’t worry, I don’t have mental health issues because I didn’t hear them answer.) about the decline in their egg production.
I found myself talking to my mom’s chickens the other day (Don’t worry, I don’t have mental health issues because I didn’t hear them answer.) about the decline in their egg production.
In the past few weeks the number of eggs the flock of 19 produced dropped from an average of eight or nine a day, to two or three. I really wasn’t surprised about the reduction because I know that No. 1, the hens are getting old and No. 2, their production is affected by light.
At 5 years old, the hens are no longer spring chickens. If they were in commercial production they would have been in chicken soup four years ago. As it is, I would say that in chicken years they are at the least, middle aged. According to chicken experts, hens can live to be 10 to 15 years old. However, my mom, Marcia, who has raised chickens for most of her 86 years, has never had any live that long. She considers 5 to be a pretty advanced age.
I have to believe my mom’s assessment of the chickens’ longevity. Her chickens are, and always have been, treated like queens; eating laying mash as their main diet and receiving oats and vegetable and fruit scraps as treats. They get to scratch around in a large run during the day and are locked in safely in their coop at night. Even when they get old and don’t lay anymore, they do not become chicken soup. Instead, they die a natural death and receive a proper burial.
As far as the light issue, I know that chickens’ laying habits are influenced by the amount of daylight. This time of year, the days are significantly shorter, so their egg production falls off. They can be “tricked” into laying by leaving the lights on in the coop, but my mom always figured they needed a break, so she never did that.
The decrease in the amount of eggs I collect concerns me because I know that eventually it will fall off to zero and that means I will have to buy eggs again. I do not look forward to that for several reasons. First, my mom’s hen’s eggs taste much better than commercially grown eggs, second I know the chickens are raised humanely, and finally, I don’t have to worry about foodborne illnesses.
Given the chicken’s advanced years, we probably will have to start thinking about getting some new, younger blood into the flock. This past summer I had hoped that we could hatch a clutch of eggs, but the hen who was setting on them apparently didn’t know how she had to keep them warm for 21 days.
The hen, which was quite insistent about setting, stayed in a nest most of the time, but the problem was that about a week into incubation she began frequently changing locations. One day she would be in the middle lower nest box, and the next day, I’d find her in the top left box. Her propensity to move resulted in the eggs getting cold so I disposed of them. The hen, however, insisted on setting for several more weeks and would fluff up her feathers and scold me when I reached under her to see if she had laid any eggs.
Finally, though, she must have given up on being a mother hen, and one evening when I went to shut the chicken coop door, she was roosting on the ceiling beams.
Unlike most chickens, my mom’s hens like to spend the night on the beams instead of on a roost. My guess is that it makes them feel safer from predators to be high overhead. However, it makes those of us who come into the chicken house morning and night to feed and water the chickens and collect their eggs less secure.
Though, we enter and exit the chicken house quietly, the chickens startle easily, which triggers an unpleasant response. I won’t go into details here, except to say that I and my family have left the building with proof of the chickens’ upset nerves in our hair, on our shoulders and in the middle of our backs. I keep disposable wash cloths and stain removers in the car so I can erase the evidence before we encounter the public.
My mom says that in all of her years of chicken raising, she’s never had chickens that roost on ceiling beams, so I am hoping that is an anomaly and that if we hatch some eggs or buy some young chickens next spring, they will rest on the roost. If they don’t I’ll have to a talk with them. Maybe younger chickens will be more responsive to my complaints.