Don’t ask me why, but I’ve always loved chickens. They are downright therapeutic to me. I love watching them go about their simple lives and I love listening to the sounds they make. I love listening to hens cluck and call their babies, and I love listening to roosters crow. It’s funny how a rooster crowing in the morning is obnoxious to some but beloved by others. The fact that I awaken before the rooster could have something to do with that. I even love the way the head-rooster alerts the flock when a hawk is threatening them. I’m not sure if it takes me back to my hunter-gatherer genes or my country roots visiting my grandparents’ farms, but there’s no doubt that the need to have them is there.
Among my favorite things to do as a kid was hunt for eggs at my Emanis grandparent’s farm. Every day was an Easter egg hunt! Some were in designated nest boxes, but more times than not they were hidden in sheds and barns. I especially liked climbing into the barn loft where the eggs, bales of hay, and chicken snakes all co-existed.
Of course Texas rat (chicken) snakes learned to love big fat chicken eggs and small baby chicks in addition to the rodents and native birds they evolved to dine on. There are two chicken snake memories that I’ll never get out of my mind. The first was my Pappaw extracting a perfectly good chicken egg from inside a chicken snake (unfortunately the snake didn’t live to see it again) and the other was my Pappaw showing me how to pop the head off a chicken snake like he was cracking a whip. One reason that memory is so vivid is because a glob of snake innards ended up on the side of my face as I stood there dumb struck in front of his old barn.
I got the first chickens of my own when I was a kid. I can’t remember if it was the ones temporarily dyed Easter colors that somebody gave us or the game chickens my dad brought home for us to raise. To this day I still love watching baby chicks go from fuzz to feathers. From chickens I moved on to ducks and other assorted fowl. By the time I headed for college I had a flock of 130 Muscovy ducks!
These days, I mostly raise hens for fresh eggs. I always raise breeds that lay brown eggs, but other than the color of the shell, there isn’t any difference. There certainly is a difference in the color of the yolks if you raise them outside where they can eat plants and insect (or kitchen scraps which they dearly love). “Yard eggs” will have darker orange egg yolks (and be lower in cholesterol). Although some insist they taste better, it mostly translates into more golden pies, cakes, cookies, etc. At one of my mom’s Sunday school parties a lady even asked my mom about what the lady thought was a lemon pie when it was a golden-colored coconut pie.
As a lover of heirloom bulbs I always think about the name of the old classic “butter and eggs” daffodil (Narcissus x incomparabilis aurantius plenus) which was given its country common name because of the two different colors in the double petals. Ironically it was named when egg yolks were dark yellow and butter was pale yellow. But now laying house egg yolks are pale yellow and butter is died dark yellow. The colors are the same, but the namesakes have been reversed.
An even bigger difference with fresh eggs is that they are almost impossible to peel after boiling them. Eggs need to be at least several weeks old before their shells will peel well. That tells you how old store bought eggs are!
I’ve raised many different breeds in my life but now just concentrate on those breeds that lay the most. By nature, chickens only laid in the spring, just like other wild birds do to ensure food for their young. Man has now bred chickens that lay almost year round. Sadly, commercial layers only get to live a few years before they are replaced. My “happy hens” on the other hand get to live as long as they want, even if they can’t manage as many eggs. I suppose that means I’m running a day care, factory, and retirement center all at the same time!
For about the last decade I’ve switched between black and red laying hens so I’d know who belonged to the older class and who belonged to the newest class. But this winter I went crazy and adopted 35 assorted baby chicks from the 4-H agent at work who incubates and hatches them to show school children which came first, the chicken or the egg.
So now I have a full blown chicken zoo with about 50 total chickens…WAY too many. Cousin Pam and her husband Richard will take some to raise, and I’ll thin out the roosters (generally about 50% of straight run hatches). Lately I don’t even keep a single rooster because they eat a lot and make more “social” demands on my hens that I think they deserve! However my Cajun bride fell in love with “Henry” so I’ve currently got a large nerdy rooster in charge. His siblings used to pick on him so they were all thrown off the island.
This leads us to another issue. I normally use my excess roosters for gumbo or chicken and dressing. However, my new boss has changed the facility into a “no kill shelter” I think, so I may be in the Walmart parking lot this spring peddling lonesome roosters.