My chickens have been on strike since before the government shutdown and they’re still not back to work. They’re not even willing to enter into negotiations; they want nothing to do with me right now.
They’re not upset about living conditions. They’ve a lovely, two-story, maintenance-free condo with weekly changes of fresh bedding. It’s not about the neighborhood. They’ve got almost 1000 square feet (remember I’ve only three hens) to roam and find bugs and plants to add to their nutritionally-balanced meals and protein-rich treats. I also do my best to keep predators out by having built a coop with two layers of fencing, closing their coop ramp every night, and installing an electric fence around the garden. It can’t be about the hours either. They get plenty of breaks to dust bathe. They particularly love to rest under the raspberry canes.
So what’s their deal? Why are they upset? First you need to imagine being covered with feathers. If you can do this, then imagine losing such feathers in large clumps, progressively, all over your body. Then imagine the pain or discomfort, not to mention the embarrassment, you might feel while those feathers are growing back. Wouldn’t you want nothing to do with your job for a while? My girls are molting.
Molting is an energy intensive process leaving no reserves, in the form of protein, to produce an egg. Chickens undergo their first molt around 18 months of age and then yearly, usually beginning in late fall. The natural process is stimulated by decreased length of day and subsequent light. Some chickens undergo a milder molt – more like we shed our hair and skin – and some continue to lay eggs, though not every day, and are back in production in three to four weeks. Other birds go through a drastic molt, looking like a botched plucking job, which can take 12-16 weeks. The Australorp breed is known to be good layers and so I hoped they might continue to produce sporadically while molting, but sadly this is not the case.
Molting, combined with shorter days, means many chickens may not lay an egg for a good four months. Pretty good paid leave, until you remember that feeling of new feather production. Feathers are 85% protein. Chickens require a good diet to regrow them and to recharge the reproductive system. Commercial operations with artificial lighting have a problem where chickens do not naturally molt. In the absence of a molting period, chickens’ egg production and quality decline, and chickens become overweight. Therefore many such operations in our country starve their chickens all at once in order to induce a simultaneous molt. This practice is controversial and banned in the UK and most of Canada. I see it as yet another case where operations of scale, though they might decrease costs and raise profits, have negative side effects that may not make sense.
Many chicken husbandry magazine articles encourage putting a light in the coop during the winter to stimulate the hobby farmer’s chickens to keep producing. I think it best to let nature tell my girls when to lay and when to rest.
Recently I cracked open a store-bought egg, my first since last January. I caught myself wondering about the light in the coop idea. That egg yolk was pale, bland, almost sickly looking. I miss my eggs. A lot. Then I thought of the chickens that lay these store-bought eggs. They are trapped indoors with no room to move, beaks often cut so they can’t hurt each other, and fed only an “all vegetarian” diet. Chickens are omnivores. I think that advertising is supposed to comfort me that no animal by-products have been added to these chickens’ feed, but the wording annoys me. Plus, I’m pretty sure those chickens aren’t eating worms and grasshoppers.
I’ve decided I can wait for my girls’ natural rhythms to start producing eggs again. There is something magical about finding an egg in the nest box that never became mundane despite it happening day after day. A hiatus will just heighten the feeling. The expectancy is a delicious feeling akin to childhood anticipations. I’m looking forward to the magic starting once more. I sure hope it’s soon!