Falling feathers and Failing Hens

It’s been a eggy summer. Is eggy a word? Even if it’s not, I’m going to use it. It seems perfect for describing life with eight or nine hens who laid daily all summer.  Luckily we, and our friends and family, love free-range eggs. We’ve eaten popovers, deviled eggs, spoon bread, egg bread, egg salad, fried eggs, scrambled eggs, omelette suppers, eggs on tortillas, French vinaigrette with an egg yolk in it and just about any other eggy thing you can think of. Why, you might ask, do we need so many chickens when we don’t sell eggs?  There are several reasons: laying falls off in fall and winter, laying drops as hens age and, sadly, chickens don’t last forever.

 

Eggs on tortillas with salty-lemonyyogurt and capers (inspired by Heidi Swanson at www.101cookbooks.com).

Eggs cooked on tortillas with salty-lemony yogurt and fried capers (from Heidi Swanson ). A great lunch or light dinner.

Not so much in their first year, but in the fall of a hen’s second year, it molts. Feathers fall out like crazy and the hen will look absolutely pitiful. It’s easy to think you’ve got a sick chicken on your hands, but that’s not the case. They just don’t look good with big naked pink spots! Mattie is our oldest hen at 18 months. I hate to say anything negative about the sweet girl but she’s been looking rough. Bald patches on her underside and back, thinning tail feathers, etc. I even stole her from the perch one night and weighed her to make sure she was okay. This involves putting the sleeping chicken into a shopping bag with handles, hanging said bag from my husband’s portable fishing scale and returning the bird to the perch before it wakes up and freaks out. It’s even more amusing when you learn that I do this late at night in my pajamas, a sweatshirt, an LL Bean cap with headlights built into it and rubber gardening clogs. It’s not a glamorous life. Her weight was fine. She’d just lost so many feathers that she looked very small. Her laying has fallen from daily to five eggs a week since she’s using her protein sources to make feathers. We see the new pin feathers now so I’m reassured that she’ll return to her former gorgeousness soon.

Mattie in the garden, pre-molt.

Mattie in the garden, pre-molt. i won”t humiliate her by sharing a photo where she has bald spots!

Three of our other girls, all less than a year old so not molting very much, are still laying daily. As the days shorten, this will change. The amount of daylight directs how often hens lay. It’s been our experience that every other day in winter is the norm. You can put artificial lights in the coop to keep the eggs coming, but we like the natural method and think the girls deserve some time off in winter for good behavior. When the days lengthen in the spring, things will pick up again. In most cases, egg laying reduces each year after a hen’s first big molt, so Mattie might not be a 7-egg-a-week girl any more even in summer. I’ll have to report back on that. And then there’s Opal, our 1/2 Sumatra hen who lays her eggs in the woods where we can never find them. Her mom did the same thing.

I think I mentioned that chickens don’t last forever. Free-range birds love the lifestyle and lay eggs that are healthier for us, but they are exposed to danger every day. It’s sad but true and we’ve experienced lots of loss this summer. Ruby, one of our older girls, took to sleeping in a tree with our two Sumatra chickens. They’re the ones that don’t like to be cooped up. We tried every kind of bribe but couldn’t get her to bed down in the coop. The Sumatra’s are black and invisible at night but Ruby was gold with some white feathers so you could easily spot her on all but the darkest nights. Sure enough, she was plucked from a branch during the night never to be seen again. We suspect an owl carried her off since there was no sign of a struggle. We lost two hens to a dog. Two others died of natural causes and finally to end the sad part of this post, Goldfinger, our sexy rooster, had to go back to the farm where we bought him. He was an excellent rooster, but crowed often, all day long, at a high decibel level. The farm was glad to have him back since he was a pure-bred and good for breeding. We miss each of them and their sweet, quirky ways.

Goldfinger (black with gold highlights) the rooster with his charges.

Goldfinger (black with gold highlights) the rooster with his charges.

While we still had noisy Goldfinger (GF), he performed a most heroic deed. We were outside at dusk and GF started going nuts; squawking frantically and herding the hens to a safe corner of the back patio up against the house. He then ran into the edge of the woods shrieking and returned with the last hen, herding her rapidly to the others. Roosters are great protectors so we’d seen this behavior before when dogs entered the yard or hawks flew to0 low for comfort (chicken comfort), but this time we couldn’t see any kind of predator. GF continued to raise a ruckus and finally we strolled away. As we looked back, a big black bear ran out of the woods and crossed the yard to another patch of woods — right where the chickens would have been! Guess GF smelled that bear a mile away! We miss that rooster and will always remember how he saved our girls.

The current flock consists of Opal,  the 1/2 Sumatra who safely sleeps in a tree; molting Mattie, a black and white Barred Rock; Buffy the beautiful golden Buff Orpington and Flopsy and Beatrix who are Golden Comets. They are co-existing happily in the garden and wood edge enjoying all the wonderful seeds that fall brings. As a flock they lay three to four eggs a day and are darn proud of it! They each announce when they lay by chattering and cawing loudly as they exit the coop. Those sounds are music to my ears!IMG_3475