I have a passion (some may say obsession) for keeping hens. There is just something about the different little clucking sounds and all that digging and scratching that soothes my mind. And they provide me with fertilizer and food. The rich, deep orange yolked eggs they lay have a flavour so superior to the store bought variety, it’s easy to believe they come from a different species. My hens are not just little pets, they’re an integral part of life on my little rural property.
My girls, as I affectionately refer to them, are a source of restful distraction. When the snow is off the ground, they’re constantly foraging: digging and scratching every inch of their substantial outdoor pen. Before the gardens are planted, I love to let them free range the property. I’m not sure the neighbour appreciates the hens’ ability to clean up weeds and bugs, so I try to keep them on our side of the boundary lines. Once they’ve had their fun, I have little to do in the veg patch, but rake up the soil they’ve displaced from my beds and plant my seeds and seedlings. It’s an adventure just watching where and how far they love to travel on our land.
My husband’s love for the girls is limited to eating their eggs. When the laying slackens, he threatens them with the ax, just to give them a little motivation. . My husband is a transplanted city boy, so I have to cut him some slack when he has chicken rage. He just doesn’t understand all the nuances of keeping a flock of hens. They’re sensitive creatures, not egg-laying machines.
Everything from the cold and rain to too much heat and drought will impact the laying schedule of hens. Not enough calcium or too much of certain greens lowers the laying rate. And as the hens age, the number of eggs gradually decreases until they lay one final miniature replica of their past enormous ova. The breed of bird can also determine the number and frequency. Hybrids come close to being egg-laying machines, laying an egg just about everyday for almost two years. However, heritage breeds are less likely to lay as often, but tend to lay longer than their hybridized cousins.
I keep heritage birds mostly for nostalgic reasons, but also for their hardiness and ability to reproduce themselves. Right now my flock consists of Buff Orpingtons, Speckled Sussex, Black (AKA Jersey) Giants, a few crosses and one left over hybrid or sex-link as they’re called. My girls are a colourful bunch, especially the crosses. They have pleasant personalities and get along most of the time. The absence of a rooster in the hen house helps to keep things fairly tranquil. The pecking order does come into play, but the girls are rarely violent with each other.
I’ve had to deal with hawks, turkey vultures and a fox. The fox managed to kill two of my hens, and injure one. Trooper, the survivor and one remaining sex-link, was laying on the ground terrified, with a nasty bite to her neck. Miraculously, she survived. I actually found her one morning on the floor of the coop seemingly dead. She was stiff and unresponsive. I prayed for her and told her to get up. And she did. It was quite comical. Trooper now has a droopy eye and a bit of a crook in her neck, but she’s still going strong. She stopped laying a number of months ago. But after all she’s been through, I don’t have the heart to get rid of her. Trooper will live out the rest of her days in the comfort of the coop, warm and well fed.
As long as I’m able, keeping a backyard flock will always be a part of my agrarian life. And when I’m just too old to hike to the hen house, I’ll watch the copious number of YouTube chicken videos to keep me sane.