Natural Perspectives: Our chickens and their eggs

Sometimes it pays to procrastinate.

When Vic and I last wrote about our three chickens, it was mid-December and none of the hens were laying eggs. Despite spending an exorbitant amount of money setting up our henhouse, the darned hens weren't laying any eggs.

It was frustrating.

If you recall, I had hatched a plan to acquire a fourth chicken since my new, barred Plymouth Rock hen wasn't laying. But you know how it is around the December holiday period. No spare time. I didn't get around to getting that fourth hen.

Good thing, because in early January all three hens began to lay again. Their molt was over, and the days were getting longer. That's all it took.

And they've been laying ever since. We are getting as many as 15 eggs a week. We are swimming in eggs once again.

I am now wise enough to know that the hens will lay best in the spring, and will slow down in summer. They quit for a while when they molt in the fall, and then quit altogether during the winter. That leaves us with no eggs for long stretches at a time. I hate to admit it, but I was reduced to buying eggs at the store this past winter.

Right now the problem is too many eggs. I've given away some of them, but now I have found something else to do with the spring surplus. I have hatched yet another plan.

I consulted the blogosphere to see what others do. It turns out that you can freeze raw eggs. Not the intact egg. Just the contents. I am freezing the spring surplus to use during the winter dearth of eggs.

I crack two eggs into a bowl, break the yolks with a fork and lightly mix the whites and yolks. I add a tiny bit of salt to help stabilize the proteins.

Then I pour the raw eggs into a Ziploc sandwich baggie and lay the baggies flat in the freezer. When the eggs are frozen, I put the small bags into a large Ziploc freezer bag for extra protection. Raw eggs freeze well, but cooked eggs turn rubbery if frozen.

The frozen raw eggs can be thawed out later to make scrambled eggs or baked goods. Since I had to buy three-dozen eggs last winter, I expect that I will need three-dozen frozen eggs to make it through the upcoming winter.

It turns out that there is a lot to learn about chickens and eggs.

I learned part of what I know from Vic. He pointed out to me that while female mammals have two oviducts, one on each side of the abdomen, chickens and other birds have only one. And that one oviduct lies smack in the middle of their abdomen.

The reason has to do with flight and balance. Mammalian eggs are very tiny, even microscopic. We human females can have one ovum in an oviduct on one side and none on the other and not be off balance.

Not so with birds. They lay huge eggs in proportion to their bodies. If they had two oviducts, one on either side, they would be off balance if they had an egg in one oviduct and not in the other.

I'm not sure how much time you have spent looking at the backside of a chicken, but if you take a peek, you will notice that they have only one excretory opening. It is called the vent.

All of their business is conducted through that one opening. The eggs come out there, as does all of their waste. They don't have three separate exits, one each for liquid waste, solid waste, and eggs. Nope, everything collects in the cloaca and exits through the vent.

That's why it is really important to wash eggs before they go into the refrigerator. One nice thing about store-bought eggs is that someone else has already done that job for you. Bottom line, if you are squeamish about getting chicken poop on your hands, then having a hen house isn't right for you.

I learned most of the rest of what little I know about eggs and chickens way back in my salad days as an undergrad at Purdue University. As an agriculture major, I was required to take a course in poultry science.

Eggs are really marvelous examples of engineering. If you break one onto a plate, you can look at its structure. The yolk is filled with lipids (fats) that will nourish a growing chick. The actual ovum is a tiny white disk on the surface of the yolk.

There are also two types of egg white, a thick layer that stands up higher on the place, and a thin outer layer. The fresher the egg, the higher both the yolk and inner egg white will stand on the plate.

If you look carefully at the yolk, you will see two curly white things like bungee cords at either end that extend into the egg white. Those are called chalazae. They help cushion the yolk and keep it from banging into the shell. Your assignment for the week is to work the word "chalazae" into conversation.

When a hen ovulates, the yolk emerges from the ovary. If there is a rooster in the neighborhood, the ovum gets fertilized and will eventually develop into a chick. But hens don't need roosters to lay eggs.

Fertilized or not, the yolk travels down the oviduct. The oviduct secretes first a thick egg white, then a thin egg white, then a membrane that surrounds the yolk and white.

The last step is the mineral shell. During the last five hours, the pigments are laid down on the shell. Some breeds lay white eggs, but others lay various shades of brown.

Here is an odd "bonus fact" for you. The egg travels down the reproductive tract narrow end first. But in the uterus, it rotates, and is laid large end first.

The whole process from ovulation to laying the egg takes only 24 hours. You can get a detailed description of egg formation and see a diagram of a hen's reproductive parts at

After a hen lays an egg, she usually announces it to the world. Our girls will cluck for five minutes after laying an egg.

That's my signal to gather eggs and make an omelet. Unless I procrastinate.

VIC LEIPZIG and LOU MURRAY are Huntington Beach residents and environmentalists. You can reach them at

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