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Lumpy, the non-laying Barred Rock hen.

Lumpy, the non-laying Barred Rock hen.

This is Lumpy, who does not lay.

In the two years since I first became a flockster, I’ve often known who was laying what.  The two Easter Eggers laid distinctive blue (Spalty) and green (Feather) eggs.  The two Wyandottes laid smallish golden-brown (Stormy) and pinkish-speckled (Stripèd) eggs.

But the 4 Barred Rocks – One Patch, Two Patch, Lumpy, and Jumpy – were so alike in every way, their habits and nesting preferences and their pale brown eggs so similar, that I was never quite sure.  After One Patch went to the big coop in the sky last year, I thought I’d figured it out.  Not counting the Easter Egger and Wyandotte eggs, I had, I thought, three other kinds: a very regular-shaped extra-large egg, a slightly elongated, blimp-like egg, and an enormous egg with a “sleep wrinkle” on one end.  Jumpy, Two Patch, Lumpy, I thought.

But after the March chicken massacre, the only Barred Rock left was Lumpy.  And every morning since that awful day I’ve looked for her enormous “sleep wrinkle” egg, to no avail.  The other two survivors, Feather and Stripèd, continue to offer up their pale green and pinkish-speckled treasures about 3 days out of 4.  But of Lumpy’s egg – or what I thought was Lumpy’s egg, anyway – no trace.

Lumpy’s a healthy bird, with bright black-and-white feathers (especially glossy and vivid after the last winter molt), a symmetrical comb, and elegant small feet.  She’s talkative, too, with a musical voice and a funny cry that sounds like the original Star Trek intercom whistle.  All in all, she’s an easy girl to like.  And I know she used to lay, because there wasn’t a hen in my flock I hadn’t caught in the act at one point or another.  But right now, she’s not doing her job.

So this brings up the question: what do we do with layers who don’t lay?

Another kind of household would have an obvious answer: stew pot.  And I’m sure my bloodthirsty, bottomlessly hungry teenage son would agree.  But when the word stew pot comes up, I inevitably counter, lawn mower.

This is because one thing even a non-laying hen can do is keep the grass from encroaching into the garden in the summer.  The Barred Rocks are pretty flightless (one reason they were easy  pickings for the neighborhood dog, I guess), so they’re especially good at staying inside the fence and snapping off the grass tips, one blade at a time.  It’s slow, but they’ll do it all day.  They never get bored.

But the fact is, even if Lumpy weren’t a pretty good lawn mower, I’d probably have to keep her anyway.  Friendly, harmless, not the most productive, occasionally entertaining – somehow, when I go down this list of Lumpesque qualities, it seems terribly familiar.

In that remorseless middle-aged way, I think to myself: Who else isn’t living up to their potential?  Shouldn’t I be doing more in life than just, sort of, getting along? Is it OK to be an affable person, essential to my family, of value to some friends? To produce a small body of work that brings pleasure to a few? Is it enough?

The answer, of course, is yes – it has to be.  Because if I spend my life worrying about not enough, in the end I really won’t have anything to show for myself.  It’s just one reason – perhaps the most intangible, but perhaps the most secure – that Lumpy won’t be getting the axe.

Still I hope, for all our sakes, that one morning I’ll go out to that empty,  haunted nest and find it: one enormous, sleep-wrinkled egg – the work of a day; the justification, however disingenuous, for a life.

last blue eggThis last weekend, we suffered a predator attack – our first since we first got our chickens exactly two years ago. It must have happened in broad daylight, while we were inside the house, laid up with stomach bugs. But none of us heard a thing. When R went to check on them for the afternoon, he found 4 carcasses inside the fence. Only one had been well and truly savaged; the others, it seems, were merely killed for sport. Amongst the drifts of fallen feathers, we found the muddy prints of a very large dog.

Our coop is a fortress that had served our birds well till now. We have seen predator prints in the snow, pacing the coop, only to find it impregnable from above, around, and below when closed. But the door had been propped open for the day, and the hens were enjoying the first few days of scratchable, bare earth printafter an interminable winter. After the dog jumped the netting, the hens must have run for the open coop in panic. Judging from the feathers lining the floor, the dog followed them in. Any hens that didn’t make it up the narrow ramp to the upper floor didn’t stand a chance.

10-02 005

Spalty the Easter Egger, grooming her dusty-blue-tinged feathers

They were only chickens, but in a small flock you’ve raised by hand, the losses hit hard. Spalty the Easter Egger was our one blue egg-layer – she gave us a lovely pale turquoise egg with a matte finish, and she was one of our cleverer birds. As a chick, her plumage was dotted and stippled like spalted maple, and that’s how she got her name. She nearly died last summer after eating something she shouldn’t have, but made a full recovery; and she was always the first to find a patch of chickweed or steal a strawberry or learn anything new.

The original flock, in happier days.

The original flock, in happier days.

Jumpy and Two Patch were Barred Rocks – docile and friendly, though Jumpy was rather thick. As a chick she was adventurous – the first to jump out of the nursery (hence the name), the first to catch an ant. She grew to be the biggest of our birds, with giant feet and a wobbly, crooked comb. She could scarcely figure out how to exit the coop in the morning for her feeding – she’d bonk her head repeatedly against the corner opposite the door because it had a clear view out to the yard. Clumsy as she was, she was a reliable layer. Unlike Two Patch, who laid oddly pointed, elongated eggs and would squat beneath your hand with a nervous stutter step.

Stormy, the Silver Laced Wyandotte

Stormy, the Silver Laced Wyandotte

I’ll especially miss Stormy the Silver Laced Wyandotte, who used to come running when she heard me weeding the garden beds. She’d forage for bugs right beneath my fingers, and she laid beautiful golden-brown eggs. After this year’s molt she grew skittish and would linger back in the coop when the others came out to greet me, as if she had a premonition that it wasn’t safe Outside. Alas, she was right.

goodbye chicksOf our original 8 chickens, only 3 survive (One Patch died of a mysterious illness last year). We have one of each breed, now. The children’s favorite, Feather the Easter Egger, is still with us, still offering up an olive-green egg almost every day. So are whistling Lumpy and the speedy Stripèd, who is our escape artist and was hiding through the attack.

If there’s any consolation to be found in the timing of this disaster, it’s that it happened before the order deadline for new chicks this year. So in a month or so, we’ll be bringing in new little feathered friends – tiny souls to pamper, nourish, shelter, and delight in, and, eventually, to mourn. But hopefully not for some years.

Our little flock – originally 8 hens of mixed breeds – turns one and a half next month.  We’ve prided ourselves on not losing a one, despite the abundance of local predators.  We’ve enjoyed our fresh eggs, which are erratic in size, shape, color and frequency.  The last few weeks, the girls have been fenced in the garden, cleaning up bugs and weeds and winding down egg production as they prepare for their first molt.  But something was off about One Patch.

One Patch was one of four Barred Rocks in our flock.  They’re big, friendly birds, with that distinctive barred black-and-white plumage that seems such a part of New England farm life.  They lay generously sized brown eggs and they get along well with other types of birds, even though they can sometimes be a little slow on the uptake.

One Patch got her name in the usual way.  The Barred Rocks were hard to tell apart when they were chicks, so we hunted for tiny differences in their coloration and behavior.  Jumpy was the brightest and liveliest, with a big white “ J” on her head.  Lumpy had an odd-shaped beak.  And Two Patch and One Patch had white spots, right next to their eyes.

In the fall of last year, the hens were 6 months and nearly mature.  One Patch grew restless.  She began pacing the coop, going in and out of the nests I’d prepared with straw and wooden dummy eggs, groaning and whining.  She revealed what would be her adult temperament – grumpy, irritable, quick to peck – and harassed her flockmates when they too grew curious about the nests.   It was One Patch who was the first to lay, leaving a perfect small egg next to the dummy egg and then heading downstairs for a drink of water.

The other girls followed over the next three weeks.    By the time they were laying regularly, I could  pretty  much tell the eggs apart.  One Patch laid the smallest of the Barred Rock eggs, and it was sharply tapered at the top.  It became clear to me, as time went on, that One Patch was not a fantastic layer.  Whereas Jumpy, Lumpy, and Two Patch grew plump and docile and each laid 4, 5, even 6 eggs a week, One Patch only managed one or two, and she stayed small.  Still, she developed a canny habit of “fake-laying” – she’d sit on the nest for exactly half an hour and then come down for a sip of water, like an atheist stopping at the font on the way out from Mass.  She acted just as if she had actually done her job, and sometimes she would even sing a victorious, spurious egg song.

As this summer came to a close, One Patch started acting stranger than usual.  When the other hens took shelter from the midday heat, One Patch would stand in the broad sunlight, blinking.  She was slow to come at feeding time, and took to sitting in a corner of the enclosure, far from the other birds. She even stopped fake-laying.

A week ago, I noticed she could no longer make it up onto the roost at night.  She stumbled and limped, and could barely drag herself even a few inches along the ground.  The other hens watched her, in a group, silently, unsure, as if illness itself were a stranger and not to be trusted.  I brought One Patch inside to decline by the hearth.  There, in a Priority Mail box lined with straw, she lingered a few more days.  Yesterday, she began to “stargaze” –her neck twisted far back to look at the ceiling, which I took to be an end stage in her progressive paralysis.

It was likely to have been, in the end, a case of nerves – neural damage from disease, or a nutritional deficiency.  Whichever it was, the plain fact was that One Patch had become less animal than vegetable, and the kind thing was to dispatch her swiftly.  I am sorry to say that my first attempt was not a success.  It fell to Husby, with his greater fortitude, to bring One Patch’s suffering to a merciful end.

Often the last few days I’ve said to myself, “It’s just a chicken.”  That’s true.  But there are also the larger questions of pain and responsibility, of the compassion and anxiety that come with being “just a human”.  On my mind for a while will be: what makes a good death?  Because entangled in that question, after all, is the other one: what makes a good life?

one patch rip

strawberries

Today the girls reached a landmark – every one of them laid an egg in the same day!  For a few weeks we would once in a while reach 7 out of 8, though 4 or 5 a day is more usual.  Either somebody hadn’t started laying yet, or somebody was having a day off, or somebody laid a rogue egg out in the yard and we never found it.

Stormy and Stripèd, the Silver Laced Wyandottes, are probably our most reliable layers – 3 days out of 4.  Feather and Spalty, the Easter Eggers, lay the most beautiful ones (greenish for Feather, bluer for Spalty).

Of the 4 Barred Rocks, Two Patch and Lumpy have emerged as champions, hustling up to the nests to lay perfectly formed, large eggs right after their breakfast.  One Patch, the earliest layer of the flock, lays a small, tapered egg that’s easy to identify, every other day or so.

The really dirty one is a “floor egg,” laid on the ground in the coop (I had to hunch over and go inside to get it).  It’s probably Jumpy’s –she’s a late bloomer and an erratic layer, and she might not have the hang of laying in the nest box yet.

[In case you're wondering how I know whose is whose?  I haven't watched them lay every egg, honest!  though I've certainly wasted a lot of time out there.  It's mostly a matter of shape, and to a lesser degree a matter of size and color.]

 

egg soups, hurricane sandy, food without power, easy soups

 

For those of us lucky enough to have a working stove, some chicken broth on hand, and a couple of eggs, these soups may provide a little comfort without much fuss after storm-drenched days of coping.

Read The Hard-Boiled Truth About Egg Soups at NPR’s Kitchen Window here.

ameraucana eggs, silver laced wyandotte eggs, barred rock eggs

I didn’t catch them at it, but this morning there were two beautiful palest blue eggs in the coop.  They could only have been laid by Feather and Spalty, even though only Feather has shown all the signs of maturity.

One of the girls was apparently taken by surprise and didn’t quite make it to the nest box.  Nevertheless, both eggs were delivered safely, and without apparent drama.

ameraucana

One Patch, on the other hand, continues to raise high the roof beam with cries of  indignation for an hour every day before she lays.

Incidentally, the eggs are crazy delicious.

*since originally posting this, I’ve made a terminology change.  I’d thought my girls were “Araucanas” but they’re almost certainly not. They could be “Ameraucanas”–a white and “blue wheaten” perhaps. Or they could even be “Easter Eggers,” Araucanish mutts.  Regardless, the eggs are beautiful, and so are the birds.

I was there when it happened!

I went out the door to check on the girls, and I thought I heard an egg song so I dashed inside for my camera before walking over to the garden.   I looked in the nest box.  No egg.  Big circular hole in the straw, though, with the linoleum showing through.  I went and got some straw to add to the nesting box, but when I got back One Patch was already there–fussing and making swirlies in the straw and playing with the wooden dummy egg.  No more complaining, just quiet clucking.

Then she settled in and just sat.  I took a picture or two.  Lumpy and Two Patch came up to visit and watch her.  After about 10 minutes of me watching them watching her, I was ready to head inside and leave One Patch alone for a while.

I took a look at the other birds, who were hanging out in the downstairs of the ark.  I inspected the 4th Barred Rock for distinguishing marks–they’re quite hard to tell apart. Just as I’d decided it was Jumpy, two more Barred Rocks came down the ramp.  And then another.  Drat!  I thought, now I have to figure out who you-all are too.  And then Wait! that’s 4 Barred Rocks!  Who’s minding the nest?

"barred rock" "21 weeks" "first egg"

I went round to the egg door, opened it, and there it was, a beautiful light brown egg exactly the size of the little wooden dummy egg sitting next to it, but speckly and yes! still warm!

The flock is exactly 21 weeks old today.

"point of lay" pullet barred rock chicken "about to lay" expecting "first egg"

One Patch the Drama Queen, not knowing what to expect when she’s expecting.

Well, the girls are 21 weeks old tomorrow, and we’re all waiting anxiously for the first egg.  There’s been pacing, and growling, and constant checking out of the nest box.  And that’s just me.

One Patch (Barred Rock) has been ahead of the game all along.  Her comb and wattles were the first to redden, and a couple of weeks ago she started to do the “egg squat,” flattening herself to the ground and spreading her wings.  Since then, Feather (Ameraucana), Stripèd (Silver Laced Wyandotte), and Jumpy (Barred Rock) have all started doing it too.  The others still run off, skittishly, when you try to pet them.

We’ve moved the portable ark to garden bed #2 and fenced it in with bed #4, so the girls have a place to play, forage, hunt for bugs, and generally be chickens while cleaning up the debris from my tomatoes, pole beans,and cucumbers.  After they’re done here, we’ll move them down to beds #4 & #6, #6 & #8, and so on till winter, when they move into Chickhenge, the fortress-like permanent winter coop.

Today, One Patch has been more edgy than ever, pacing the edge of the fence and popping into the ark several times an hour to look at the next boxes.  She’s being very vocal, too–a sort of raspy, downward, protracted, complainy kind of growl, like a rusty barn door being opened and closed repeatedly by a restless toddler.  It’s about equally cute and annoying.

I understand all of this is pretty typical behavior for a pullet about to lay.  (Some people call it “chicken PMS”.) And I know that first egg could be today, tomorrow, next week, or November.  But it’s sure hard to wait…which is probably why I’m sitting here balanced on the corner of the asparagus bed with my laptop on my knees.

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