These are the prepared remarks for the Toastmasters speech I gave today.
One of the surprising things about my adult life is how much I am into urban gardening; it’s surprising considering how much I resented having to do it as a child. But gardening isn’t enough, though. We had to get chickens! We enclosed part of our backyard as a run in which the chickens could roam. Inside the run we built a coop where we could lock them up when needed, where they could roost at night, and where they could lay eggs in their nest boxes
It’s a lot of fun raising chickens. They are very cute when they are babies, and even as adults they have distinct personalities. Some are shy and run away from everything. Others are very social; one even used to perch on my shoulder. Some are natural leaders, always plotting for ways to get out of their run when we opened the door to feed them. And some are just jerks, forming exclusionary cliques amongst themselves. Really!
The practical benefits of raising hens are obvious: eggs. If you compare a standard-issue grocery store egg with an organic egg, you’ll see that the former has a pale yolk, and the latter has a brighter orangish yolk. Compare now the organic egg with a home-raised, free-range egg, and the difference is just as stark: the home-raised egg has an intense yellow-orange yolk, supposedly because it’s full of healthful nutrients like beta carotene. And it is delicious!
Hens lay eggs roughly daily, but we don’t always get an egg per hen. What factors affect egg production? There are four. The first is the breed of the hen: some breeds lay more regularly than others. The second factor is the season. In winter, egg production slows down due to the shorter days and colder temperatures. Many egg production outfits use artificial lights and heat to extend the day and force the chickens to continue laying through the cold months. This works, but it decreases the laying life of the hens. This brings us to the third factor: age. Hens, like humans, are born with only so many eggs. If you speed up their laying, they will run out earlier, reaching the chicken equivalent of menopause.
The fourth factor affecting egg-laying is broodiness. That’s when a hen has laid eggs and its instincts tell it it is time to stop laying for a while, sit in the nest box, and incubate the eggs until they hatch. It’s puzzling that even if you’re meticulous about removing eggs daily, a broody hen will still sit in the empty nest box. It’s not clear to me exactly what triggers the broody behavior, since it’s obviously not the presence of eggs, and it’s certainly not having copulated: we don’t have a rooster (we’re not allowed to because of the noise). It makes me laugh! I often refer to the hens’ broody phases, if you’ll forgive the irreverence, as “waiting for the immaculate conception.”
Last year, a friend told us a great idea, which I’ve since found is pretty common in the chicken-raising community. Put fertilized eggs under a broody hen so that when they hatch, she’ll raise them as her own! Brilliant, huh? It brings the miracle back to the immaculate conception!
We tried that this summer when one of our hens, Katherine, went broody. We couldn’t find fertilized eggs, so we bought baby chicks instead. They were so cute! Tiny, warm balls of fur that fit in my palm, chirping away with hunger and curiosity about the world! We slid them under Katherine that first night, locked them inside the coop while the other hens remained outside in the run, and just waited. Would she take to them or push them out? Would they survive?
The next day I got up early, went to the chicken run, and…. yes! They were alive, chirping away. I was ecstatic! We put water and food near them in the chicken coop, and made sure to keep locking them away from the other hens so they wouldn’t be attacked. After a few days, though, we started letting them get out into the run and mingle with the others during the day. The aunties, if you will, mostly ignored them. Once or twice, one of them tried to peck at the poor little chicks, but the youngsters were too fast. They were fine. Katherine, though! She was irate! She fluffed herself up and went after the attacker. That’s when I knew she had truly adopted them! After that, we felt no need to lock them back up at night.
Not everything was positive, though. Within the first week, the runt of the three was stumbling and not really eating. One morning we found her dead, and we promptly buried her in what is fast becoming our animal cemetery (you can ask me about that later). But the other two? They’re doing well! They are much bigger, still a bit shy, still chirping, and still cute. I expect that within the month they’ll get to their gangly teenage phase as they transition into their adult plumage, and then they’ll start laying. Eventually, they, too, will have broody periods and—who knows?—maybe they’ll make Katherine a doting grandmother.