It’s 7:30 pm and the Bearded One has just put the chickens to bed. He counts 10 hens that have finally settled down on the top roost, collects the day’s eggs from the five nest boxes, closes the coop doors and then unties and locks shut the little chicken door of the aviary.
“Only 3 eggs,” he tells me when he returns to the house.
“Impossible!” I say ungraciously. I’m in the kitchen doing dishes and am stunned. The usual is between 6 and 9. “I heard the hens all day when I was weeding. Everything sounded normal.”
The Bearded One heard them, too. In fact, he had to dunk Stevie twice for broodiness. He is becoming a broodiness expert. He says there are two types of broody hens — one looks bored but will cut you with a switch blade, the other you could put a fireworks sparkler beside and she wouldn’t notice it. That’s how it usually is with our hens. Stevie doesn’t move.
“Maybe it’s related to the broodiness,” he says. “They’re hogging the most desirable nest boxes.”
“Maybe,” I say. “But where are the other eggs then?” Do healthy layers just stop laying if they can’t get the exact spot they want? How to solve the riddle…
I study the April calendar on the side of the refrigerator. There it is, colored in yellow crayon on the Daily Egg Chart our farmsitting neighbor children gave us last week upon our return. That Thursday was a meager 3-Egg Day, the first full day we were gone. The hens could have been upset.
Before that, the last 3-Egg Day was when Blackie was killed on March 30. Another upsetting day. It makes some sense to me that their systems would shut down with stressful days, but what was so stressful today?
I was weeding, the Bearded One working on the new meat chicken pen. It’s just 2 more months before 30 2-day-old Cornish Broiler chicks arrive in the U.S. mail from the hatchery in Texas, without a mother, and needful first of a warm brooder, and then a pen and coop to live out their 8 weeks of life before we turn them into meat.
We go to bed with the mystery unsolved. I dream uncomfortably of boxes and fence boundaries and weeding vast acres of gardens, turning them into little neighborhoods of vegetables, and neat little domesticated developments with pens for poor chickens and goats to live out their lives in the service of humans.
The next morning, the sky is blue and I feel better as I always do in the morning. I am no slave-driver. I am a nurturing caretaker, a farmer. I admire the weeded beds, the clean dark soil ready for rows of potatoes and strawberry starts and my 2-month old cabbage and broccoli seedlings.
I do the morning opening of the aviary doors and duck and cover as the hens fly down, and that’s when I notice 4 eggs on the ground underneath the spindly huckleberry bush.
“Look at that!” I say to the 3 goats, who watch me closely every morning. The eggs are nestled together, but vulnerable.
The goats bahhhh, I tuck the eggs into my coat pockets, walk to the barn and feed the goats their 2/3 cup dry cob each in their 3 separate bowls, and then return to the house, the mystery solved.
“Eggs could be anywhere in either pasture?” the Bearded One asks.
I tell him that I don’t know, but I am going to find out. I spend the next hour on the Internet connecting with the farmletting cyber community and discover that hens, especially free-range birds like ours, prefer to lay an egg in a safe, known cubbyhole and then get on with their day.
But if there is a huffy, broody hen in the favored box intimidating the others, or two broodies stuffed into one box, there are arguments and ultimately eggs laid on the floor. Which is bad because of cracks, dirty eggs, and broken ones which can even trigger egg eating by the birds — a really serious problem.
Sometimes a dominant hen will harass and hector another hen who’s already nesting at a desirable spot. Both Ameraucanas, our biggest birds and the ones who lay the blue/green eggs, will pace around screaming bloody murder at an interloper, stick their heads into the box or crawl right in and take over.
Maybe this causes the chastened chickens to seek out a little peace and quiet under a huckleberry bush. Once one egg is laid, it’s suddenly a trendy new spot.
“You were right,” I tell the Bearded One. “It’s broodiness plus plain old nesting competition. It has nothing to do with us leaving. And yes, there could be eggs in the pastures, but I don’t think so. They like the aviary too much. One thing we can try is moving eggs into some of the less favored nests, to prompt the subordinate hens.”
The Bearded One is listening, but he is also examining the 4 cold eggs that spent the night on the ground. Two are green. “Green eggs must be green because of evolution,” he says. “Easier to hide in the grass.”
Genius sleuthing. Case cracked. And for breakfast? Green eggs, of course.
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