Natural Perspectives: Adventures in egg laying

As egg farmers, Vic and I seem to be abject failures.

I got a nice young Barred Rock hen from Centennial Farm last fall because one of our three hens had died. I had hoped that the new hen, named Miss Hillary, would be a good layer.

But so far, she's been pretty worthless.

She laid two eggs last fall and then immediately went into molt and stopped. For a month, that poor, bedraggled thing just moped around, taking dust baths, and not producing any eggs.

By the time her feathers grew back, it was winter. Hens don't produce eggs during the short days of winter. It is during the lengthening days of spring that they are at maximum production.

When spring arrived, things turned around. All three of our girls began laying again. I even had enough of a surplus to freeze some extra eggs. But when summer arrived, Miss Hillary went broody on us.

A broody hen stops laying and sits on eggs endlessly, trying to hatch baby chicks. A broody hen's body temperature goes up while she is broody. She tries to protect the eggs from any farmer who wants to remove them from under her. She won't budge from that nest. And unfortunately for our egg production efforts, a broody hen doesn't lay eggs.

Miss Hillary moved the eggs laid each day by Henrietta and Chicken Little underneath her to incubate them. I tried to explain to her that without a rooster, those eggs were infertile and would never hatch. But reasoning with a chicken is impossible.

I had to be diligent about removing eggs from the coop or they would overheat. Although Miss Hillary spread her wings, ruffled her feathers, and did her best to guard the eggs, she has a good disposition and didn't peck me when I reached under her for the eggs.

I checked with my chicken-growing friends on the Internet. They said that one solution is to separate the broody hen from the others, and put her in a place with no nest and no eggs for a few days. I tried that. It didn't work.

The next solution seemed rather drastic. Dunk her in a tub of cold water to bring down her body temperature. That sounded too traumatic — for me!

After two months, Miss Hillary was still broody and still wasn't laying. We were getting very few eggs because Henrietta had stopped laying for the summer. She is 4 years old and her best laying years are behind her. Chicken Little was valiantly carrying the load of providing us with eggs. But she is 3 years old and not laying every day any more.

The only solution was to get some new chickens. Young ones. I had been getting adult hens whose best laying year — the first one — was already behind them. I decided that I needed to raise my own laying hens from chicks.

Miss Hillary has been useless as a layer. But I hoped to get some use out of her precisely because she was broody. A broody hen will often accept baby chicks and raise them as her own. But she needed her own housing to do this because a non-broody hen will peck a chick to death.

I bought a dog-training crate from Petco in which to safely house Miss Hillary and her adopted chicks. To keep her brooding, I put Miss Hillary in the crate with nesting material and a golf ball to simulate an egg. She began incubating the golf ball.

I bought three baby Barred Rock chicks from the feed store in Midway City. I have a license from the city of Huntington Beach for six hens, and so that was the maximum number of chicks that I could get since I already have three hens.

The guys at the feed store said that I should put the chicks under the broody hen at night. Supposedly, she would wake up in the morning and think that the chicks had hatched. But, the guys said, we had to keep the chicks warm until we put them under the hen. Otherwise they would catch pneumonia and die.

I bought a heat lamp with an adjustable dial so I could adjust the temperature to 95 degrees. I also bought a thermometer. I set up a plastic storage box with bedding material, chick starter mash and a water container. I adjusted the heat lamp and waited for dark.

But every time I went into the backyard to introduce the chicks to the training crate, Miss Hillary woke up and came to the front of the cage to greet me. Finally, I tried showing her a chick. She clucked to it with a new call that I hadn't heard before. That seemed like a positive sign.

But when I tried introducing a chick into the training crate, Miss Hillary pecked at it. The chick ran for its life right through the bars of the cage, which were too wide to hold it in. After two such attempts, I gave up. I was saddled with raising the chicks myself.

I put Miss Hillary back into the coop with the other two hens. The sight of the chicks must have cured her, because she is no longer broody. She has gone into molt and still isn't laying. Neither is Henrietta.

I'm pinning my hopes for egg production on the three new girls, Cheep, Peep and Cluck. They should be old enough to lay by January. Assuming they turn out to be girls.

VIC LEIPZIG and LOU MURRAY are Huntington Beach residents and environmentalists. They can be reached at

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