Our household currently has a problem with a group of freeloaders. We have 6 individuals living in what is essentially our guest house. They eat our food, make messes we have to clean up, and cause assorted inconveniences that impact our schedule. In return for all this, they are currently contributing nothing to tangibly benefit our family. This has been going on for over a month now, and I’m getting a bit impatient with it to be honest. I’m referring, of course, to our lazy backyard chickens.
Depending on the breed, healthy chickens will lay up to an egg a day for several years. But in northern climates like ours, they generally take the winter off. Certainly the cold temperature is a factor, but I’m told that the lack of sunlight is a bigger culprit. Some factory farms keep the lights on 24/7 to fool the birds’ natural instincts, but plenty of homeowners and small farmers will add some extra light too. Even birds get depressed in the winter darkness.
Last year was our first Winter with the flock, but we didn’t see a drop in production due to the season. Each chicken laid about 5 eggs a week through the winter, and continued into the Spring and Summer at the same rate. Since our chickens were young, and had just begun laying their first eggs in November, I suspect that the age-based biology simply overpowered the sunlight-based biology. All Winter long we had more eggs than we knew what to do with, giving them away to neighbors and trading at Food Swaps.
A fresh egg from a free-range backyard chicken is just a glorious thing. The yolk isn’t yellow, it’s a deep orange, and it’s so rich and creamy it will stain a wooden spoon. The proteins in the egg whites are so strong that they don’t spread out much in the pan, so a pan-fried egg looks as if you cooked it within a metal ring, or baked it in a round dish. The flavor is deep and real, so satisfying that I’ll typically eat 1 or 2 instead of 2-3 grocery store eggs.
Beyond the superior taste, raising my own flock means I know exactly where my food comes from. If you’re reading this blog, you probably believe in how important that can be, and you’ve probably read accounts of factory farming conditions from writers far more skilled than myself. I know what my chickens ate because I fed it to them, and I know their water supply is clean and the air they breathe is fresh because I created those conditions too. Now that they’re smart enough to take cover from hawks, and I’m smart enough to not let my new puppy dog out in the yard when they’re loose, I know they live a stress free life. It’s beyond stress-free really, they’re downright spoiled. At least I was getting 5 eggs per bird per week as payment. Until now anyway.
We decided to try our hand at raising birds after a trip to Long Island wine country, where both our B&B’s featured flocks of their own. I know that the wine country experience is a rather unrealistic portrayal of a pastoral wonderland, but it’s just so much fun, and after 3 afternoons of sipping chardonnay and watching the birds wander and peck – we were hooked. I came home and started building the coop.
At home with our new flock, we were able to approximate the wine country experience fairly well from the back deck, enjoying “The Chicken Show” over an al fresco dinner. Chickens are just incredibly funny to watch. The way they walk is silly, the way they run is hilarious, and watching them react to the world around them is as entertaining as any household pet.
We’ve also been amazed at how many everyday sayings are so clearly based on chicken behavior, probably coined by farmers several centuries ago. Here’s a few:
“Come home to roost”: A roost is a raised platform of sorts that they like to stand on while they sleep. If they free range during the day, no matter what, they’ll return to their coop and get on their roost to sleep.
“Don’t put all your eggs in one basket”: I only tripped once carrying eggs, but they were in my pockets… yuck!
“Ruffle your feathers”: I never knew what this meant until I saw it live, and just like humans, they do it when they are annoyed.
“Hen pecked”: Call it sibling rivalry, but they can get pretty rough with each other.
“Pecking order”: They have a clear system of who-picks-on-who, and every once in a while I have to
separate whoever is at the end of line.
“Cooped-up”: If they’re stuck inside too long for bad weather or other reasons, they get cranky.
“Flew the coop”: Once in a while I’ll crack open the door and they will come flying right out (probably when they’re feeling cooped-up or hen-pecked!).
Even though it’s turning cold again now, last weekend was sunny and fairly warm, and the girls spent a lot of time outside. When I locked up the coop on Saturday night I almost missed it – 2 fresh eggs, one from each of our two breeds. Winter can be rough on all of us, but as the sunlight stretches later into each day, I can picture more clearly our summertime in the backyard, enjoying a drink while our chickens roam free. I don’t have to imagine the eggs though, because my chickens gave me a small sample of what’s to come. They were delicious.