Just in case you haven’t followed the Saga of the Brick Chicks, here’s a quick recap:
We have 15 chickens at present…assuming, that is, that the resident fox in the neighborhood allows us to keep up the current count. (He took two back in late August, on one unguarded summer evening, when our watchdog Charley was indoors, miserable with allergies.)
Three are ‘Production’ Reds — Rhode Island Reds that are specially bred to produce more eggs. They look like this:
They are mean, quarrelsome, bossy…and excellent layers. They also began laying eggs earlier than the others. Maybe I’d be crabby too, if I felt that urge all the time!
The rest are Australorps — a Buff Orpington breed refined and expanded on in Australia. They look like this:
(Actually, they look prettier than this — their feathers have an iridescent sheen that is very appealing.)
The Australorps can be skittish, and are scared of their own shadows — unless they think food is involved. Then they’re ruthless. Although I picked up and held the older girls, I did not do so with the younger chickies. It doesn’t seem to matter — they’re okay with me standing by, as long as I keep a respectful distance, and pet them now and then in the nesting box.
We’ve had seven of the Australorps for more than a year — the others, along with the Reds, for about seven months. We got the Reds because the feedstore ran out of Australorp chicks, and offered me these (one of them a freebie) to fill in the quota. The Reds started out larger, and though the Australorps soon caught up to them, size-wise, have continued to rule the roost. Literally.
If your hens are free-range, as ours are, they’ll pick up extra protein from bugs and worms, as well as all the greens they can grab. (Sadly, that also means your perennials, if they can get away with it.) They’ll also clean out any kitchen leftovers you’ve got, including vegetable and fruit peelings, as well as stale bread, dry biscuits, bacon fat and even — horrors! — chicken. (They’re also fond of dried mealworms, which come in half-gallon jars at the feedstore. Disgusting, but the chickens love them.) And they’re passionate about pumpkin — which I hope to restock with after-Halloween and post-Thanksgiving sales.
The results are simple: extra food means extra eggs.
And that’s the whole point: extra-extra-large beauties with a bright yellow yolk and heavy shell speckled with brown. You really can taste the difference: these are fresher, somehow more ‘eggy’ than their grocery store counterparts. (Side note: European stores market their eggs on the shelf, not in the refrigerator! Probably because eggs, with their porous shells, can absorb other odors, if not kept in the carton.) We’ve had no problem selling our eggs (currently at $3.75 a dozen) — in fact, we have more would-be customers on the waiting list. Since our flock’s output ranges from 6-12 daily, it usually means we can sell 2-4 dozen a week, with extras for our own use. That may not sound like much, but 1) it’s a bargain price around here in Colorado (fresh free-range eggs are usually $5 or more a dozen); 2) we’ve got fresh eggs for us, and 3) the hens are producing enough to pay for their own feed.
We don’t have a rooster, for our neighbors’ sake. That means our eggs aren’t fertilized (i.e., with blood spots). It also means, of course, that we must buy our chicks at the feedstore, instead of letting our sometimes-broody hens raise them. But that’s a small price to pay for keeping things quieter around here.
I love the productive results that chicken-raising has inspired. Go out on a sunny early morning, and open the coops up — the chickies come pouring out like circus clowns from one of those tiny cars. While they’re eating, grab eggs from the nesting box. Dice a pepper, some spinach and a green onion to add to the eggs– all from plants fed by chicken manure. While your omelet finishes cooking, throw the peelings to the chickens — who will gobble them down to make yet more manure…and eggs. The circle of life continues.
Some of our biggest surprises have been molting — at a certain point in its production cycle, the hen loses a large amount of feathers. She takes on a messy, uncombed look, and can pick up ‘dandruff’ on her head and normally bright-red wattle. A little diatomeceous earth sprinkled on the chickens, as well as on the floor of their coop, ensures that you’re not seeing mites, instead. (Supposedly this powdery natural remedy is good for your insides, too — but I won’t be cooking with it anytime soon.)
The strange part about molting: it can happen anytime, including in the fall, when it would seem nature would want hens to keep their feathers. And sadly, when they do, they cut way back on laying. This can go on for weeks, which means you’re feeding them during that period for no real reason at all.
The other has been the eggs themselves. Sometimes they come out as ‘doubles:’ literally an extra-long one that looks like two eggs fitted together. Sometimes they’re tiny (especially when the hens are first laying). More often, though, they’re huge. And they can be a dainty pale pink, or a hearty brown that looks like the earthy product it is. Every once in a while, you’ll even get an “inside-out” egg: a gelatinous one laid without its shell!
Our current project is expanding the chicken coop to hold all of the hens. (The older ones sleep in the current coop, and the babies in a tarp-covered run that’s actually an old library table enclosed in chicken wire.) The new section is 6 1/2 feet tall, so we can get in without stooping, and will give all of the girls plenty of room to fit, while still letting them snuggle on cold winter nights. They’re surprisingly resilient to cold, though we also add a heatlamp for warmth. More light in the coop, up to 12 hours’ worth, also signals them to keep laying. (Chickens literally have a built-in ‘sensor’ that starts slowing down, otherwise.)
The old coop only has three nesting boxes. Will we add more with this expension? Nah — because in typical stubborn chicken fashion, they only lay eggs in two of the three boxes. They refuse to use the third box. Why? If I knew that, I would still have only a tiny foothold in the strange and wonderful world of raising chickens.