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Fresh Eyes Column

by Caroline Downs

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Every egg is a celebration . . .

Posted 1/30/13 (Wed)

Longtime readers of this column may have noticed there has been no mention of chickens for several months.

That’s because my sweet chickens haven’t been doing much.

Oh, they eat. They squawk, scratch, cluck and roost just fine.

But no one hatched any chicks last summer, despite the fact that four different hens claimed nests and sat on those eggs with great determination and ferocity.

The girls are showing their age. I didn’t realize chicken feather colors fade as the years pass, but they do. Our buff Orpington fluffed out richly golden feathers for the first three years, but now her beauty has softened to a shade of pale butterscotch. She looks like a ghost of herself.

I’m waiting for the others to go completely gray, never mind that a couple are naturally gray.

Most of our hens are five and six years old now. I realize this can be a long lifespan for a chicken, especially for those enduring our winters on the northern plains.

Add in the threat of foxes, owls and hawks, the occasional hailstorm, and near-death experiences while picking up grasshoppers along a paved county road.

All of these birds were around to train our young dog in the art of farmyard tolerance, and a few could have been involved with our old dog through her puppy days.

That’s a lot of living for a chicken.

So I haven’t been surprised egg production has dropped during the past couple of years, especially after the girls molt in late summer.

Imagine growing feathers and laying eggs at the same time. That takes energy. We feed the hens well and spice up their diet with vegetable and meat scraps from the kitchen, but I realized I couldn’t ask too much of them through the autumn months.

Just as long as I had eggs for baking.

They seemed to heed my request for Christmas 2010 and 2011. Maybe they made a schedule and decided who would step up to the nest on which days, but they managed to provide exactly the number of eggs I needed through those holidays.

Last fall proved too much for them, though. I think they were just worn out, and they stopped producing eggs by October.

Every single one of them.

At the time, I had almost three dozen eggs in the refrigerator, so I prioritized my baking needs and hoarded those eggs until necessary.

By early December, however, I had to face the inevitable.

For the first time in at least 15 (maybe even 17 or 18) years, I had to BUY eggs at the grocery store.

I begged, pleaded and cajoled, showing the girls the empty cartons. I couldn’t bring myself to threaten them, though. In chicken years, they could be my grandmothers.

For the record, I cut back on baking and only had to purchase two dozen eggs. By early January, the new feathers were grown in and the hens turned their attention back to egg-laying, even as the thermometer plummeted.

Not every hen gives up an egg every day. We find three or four most days. Six is a bonus.

I’m just thrilled. At this point and at their age, every egg is a celebration.

We may add some new life to the barn with chicks in the spring, but these hens all have a secure perch in the coop as long as they want it, eggs or not.

They’ve earned it.