Fooled by hens

The chickens have done it again. Luckily they waited this time until Sam had left - he's been gone for the past few weeks working - and that's about the only good thing I can say about the situation.

The chickens have done it again. Luckily they waited this time until Sam had left – he’s been gone for the past few weeks working – and that’s about the only good thing I can say about the situation.

We keep the chickens to have a supply of fresh eggs, at least theoretically. Really, I just enjoy having them. Sam always says for the amount of money we spend on chickenfeed and the effort to get it out here into the bush, we could easily just buy eggs in town. The chickens, he maintains, are especially useless because they tend to curb egg production just when we’re most desperate for anything fresh: in the winter. The only benefit he sees in them is the amount of manure they produce for our garden.

Vociferous in my defence of the hens, I’ve taken the blame for their sluggish to non-existent egg production in the winter. It wasn’t the chickens, I kept saying, it was me. With proper management such as artificial light in the coop and not only timing but staggering their moulting so that they would be done with it during the summer instead of fall, a steady egg supply would not be an issue at all.

I solved the artificial light problem last winter by hanging a wind-up led lantern (made by Freeplay who also have excellent hand-crank radios on offer) into the coop. Despite the lantern, there were not as many eggs as I had hoped and my conclusion was that the lantern didn’t really make a difference.

To test that theory, I stopped hanging it in there. The result was that after about ten days, there were no more eggs – nice to know that the lantern actually did help but rather unfortunate for us because the chickens would not be conned back into production when I started putting the lantern in again. No eggs until spring. Sam kept blaming the chickens.

This year, the feathers of the hens were worn out to a point that they would obviously have to moult in order to be warm and toasty for the winter. Instinct or hormones tell them this and left to their own devices, they will change into a new set of feathers around late summer or fall, just in time for dropping temperatures. The thing is, growing new feathers and laying eggs at the same time is rather hard on their bodies, so they stop laying during the moult. If the moult occurs rather late in the year, the dwindling daylight will discourage them from starting up egg production again – you can see where I’m headed with this.

Now there is supposedly a way to artificially moult the birds, by withdrawing all food for a few days and keeping them locked up without any light at all. That apparently suggests to them that the seasons are changing and it’s high time for them to put on their winter apparel. Here was my chance to prove myself as an expert poultry manager and put an end to the otherwise inevitable complaints from Sam about the sudden end to our egg supply. I would moult the birds, not all of them at once, but in two different stages, so that there would always be some still in production, and do it right in the summer so they would go straight back to maximum egg production after the moult.

It was a nice idea. My chicken book states that water has to also be withdrawn from the birds for 24 hours, a rather tortuous method I thought, so I didn’t subject my hens to it, partly because it was so hot at the time. The experiment didn’t look too promising but with the ratty feathers the chickens were sporting, it was hard to tell if it was working or not.

The ones in the moult compartment of the coop did stop laying eggs briefly. In the end, it became quite clear that the only one who was moulting (and that without my “management”) was the rooster.

I had hoped that nonetheless the chickens would somehow regulate who changed into her new feathers when in a way that would leave us with some eggs, but the flock mentality won. They’re all running around half-plucked now, stubbly new feather keels sticking out here and there and the eggs dwindling until there will be no more.

Luckily, Sam is gone for a couple more weeks and not witness to this newest chicken management disaster. I only hope they’ll get back to work before he returns so that I can keep him in the dark about it and have him concede at the end of the coming winter that this time, the hens have earned their keep.

Lisa Hasselbring is a writer who

lives at the headwaters of the

Yukon River south of Whitehorse.

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