Every afternoon when I get home from work, I feed the chickens and gather eggs. Absolutely fresh home-grown eggs produced by happy, well-fed chickens just 3 1/2 miles from downtown Los Angeles.
If you have only eaten the supermarket variety, really fresh eggs can be a revelation. The whites are firm and, if the chickens have been eating their greens, the yolks are an intense orange. A fresh egg doesn’t run all over the pan. It has integrity. It has taste.
I show my appreciation by taking good care of my 12 hens. They exercise in a pen about 8-by-10 feet, which is completely surrounded by chain link, its edges buried deep to discourage raccoons or any other predator. A tree provides afternoon shade in summer. The coop is about 6-by-8 feet, with six nest boxes stacked near the door and three rails, placed about halfway up the walls, where they roost at night. My husband made the coop out of plywood and old windows, and he gave the hens a great view of Downtown.
Only hens. No rooster. I have wonderfully tolerant neighbors, but I doubt they would appreciate a hearty 5 a.m. crow. Besides, you don’t need a rooster for great eggs; you only need one if you want fertile eggs or baby chicks. (Fertile eggs are overrated. They don’t taste better, they don’t have more food value, and they spoil faster than non-fertile eggs.)
Roosters present another problem. In the city of Los Angeles, the only restriction on keeping chickens is distance. Hens must be at least 20 feet from the owner’s dwelling and 35 feet from any other dwelling; roosters have to be 20 feet from the owner and 100 feet from any other home. It’s possible to get away with less footage if your neighbors don’t mind and don’t complain. Bribing them with fresh eggs might help.
Chickens will eat almost anything, and they produce a rich manure that will enrich your soil better than any chemical. I feed my hens table scraps, too-old dairy products, weeds and garden trimmings, cat food the cats won’t touch (the hens’ favorite), slugs and snails and any bugs I can catch. This eclectic fare is supplemented by commercial chicken feed: scratch--cracked corn, milo and wheat--and laying mash. I keep two waterers and two feeders filled at all times. Clean, fresh, abundant water is important, especially in the warmer months.
Most hens start laying at 6 months and hit their peak in the next year. Commercially raised layers live in tiny cages and spend most of their lives in bright light, which tricks them into laying even more. The life span of a commercial egg-laying hen is about a year and a half. Back-yard hens, allowed to live more natural lives with outdoor exercise and a sensible bedtime, can produce for a longer period. They probably won’t break any egg-laying records, but they should keep a household stocked with eggs for at least three years.
The breed of the hen largely determines how many eggs you will get. Leghorns and their various hybrid derivatives are the laying-est, with more than 300 eggs a year popping out. But they are high-strung, squawk-y and not terribly pretty, and most lay white eggs, which don’t appeal to me. Rhode Island Reds can lay as many as 290 brown eggs a year. Araucanas lay about 200 to 250 colorful eggs a year.
The last, which originated in Chile, come in all colors, from plain black to multi-speckled, and are distinguished by the absence of wattles (those fleshy red appendages around the beaks) and the presence of little feathery tufts on their cheeks and chins. A more important distinction is the color of their eggs, which ranges from olive green to light blue, with an occasional pink or gold. They are the Easter egg chickens. But each hen lays only one color, alas.
Some hens lay first thing in the morning, others take their time. Egg production isn’t easy; a pained squawk is often heard from the nest box.
There are fewer eggs in winter because there is less light. The more they sleep--which they do from sunset to sunrise--the less they lay. There are also fewer winter eggs because it’s colder, and the hens have to expend energy to keep warm that would otherwise go to make eggs. In summer, egg production drops as the temperature rises, and the hens walk around with their wings held away from their bodies, hoping for a cool breeze to the wing pit.
In the 15 years I have been keeping chickens, only one has become a pet--Vera, named after the World War II-era British singer Vera Lynn (who sings “We’ll Meet Again” at the end of “Dr. Strangelove”). Vera the hen is also British, a speckled Sussex, and she sings too. She keeps up a fairly steady chorus that sounds like a cross between an avian purr and a hum, occasionally bursting into a musical cackle. She is also rather smart for a chicken: She comes when she’s called. Not a really big deal, but none of the other chickens I’ve owned have ever figured it out.
Vera is 7--very old for a hen. I doubt if she lays six eggs a year, but that doesn’t matter. She is layer emeritus, and she will never be poule a l’estragon. (Yes, I have slaughtered chickens. Plucked the feathers, pulled out their innards, cut them up. It’s not pleasant, but it gave me the virtuous feeling that I’d earned the right to eat them.)
Vera was a mail-order hen. It is possible to buy chickens locally, as babies and as mature hens, but you get a much wider selection through the mail. I’ve had silver-laced Wyandottes, buff Orpingtons, barred rocks, hybrid layers, hybrid fryers, even a couple of leghorns. Baby chicks can survive without food or water for 72 hours after they come out of the shell. They are fragile, though, so they have to be shipped in batches of at least 25 to maintain body heat. The tiny, peeping fluff balls arrive in a cardboard box perforated with vent holes. I’ve received about 200 chicks this way, and only one shipment suffered fatalities; the mail carrier just left the box on the front porch without calling me, and the babes were chilled. Seven of the 25 died.
For the first few weeks of their lives, chicks are fairly easy to care for. They need a big box away from all drafts, plenty of newspapers or straw to keep the box floor dry, a 25-watt light bulb--poked though a hole in the side of the box and high enough so they can’t touch it--to keep them warm, You can also use a 250-watt heat bulb (which is not a regular light bulb) suspended 18 inches from the floor. The light doesn’t get turned off, unless you can provide another source of heat. Chick waterers and feeders, purchased from feed stores, should be filled and cleaned several times a day. Birds are not tidy.
In about a month, maybe less, they will need bigger accommodations. They could go into a bigger box or a coop--if you can keep the light going or somehow ensure that they don’t get chilled at night. If you already have large chickens, don’t put the babies with them. The older chickens will kill them. Also, if a mature chicken becomes ill, the others will attack it. Life in the coop can be ugly.
It can also be harmonious, if the hens are not overcrowded. There is a pecking order, and it has little to do with size or age. Don’t interfere with it. If a hen is getting badly pecked, I remove her until she heals. If they start pecking her again, I give her away. A normal pecking order should not spell death or torture for even the lowest hen. If it does, the flock may sense something is wrong with the victim, and there isn’t much you can do about it.
In spite of their puzzling faults, I enjoy chickens. I like the cooing sounds they make when they’re contented, the excited pawk-pawk-pawks when they find a succulent bug, the shape of their plump bottoms, the beauty of their sleek feathers.
And their fresh eggs are glorious.