Chickens, like all animals, have a language unique to their species. Each sequence of sounds that they chirp, cluck and crow has a social, emotional or personal meaning. And if you spend enough time around these feathered friends you’ll begin, as I did, to hear the stories they are telling.
The rooster’s trumpeting call summoning his hens to dinner,
The rapid peeps of chicks as they search for their mother,
The oscillating clucks of a hen as she gives birth to an egg…
Of all the chicken calls I learned during the year I spent volunteering on different organic farms, I think it was the hen’s egg-laying song that shocked me the most. Somehow I had thought it would be a quiet process, that the hens would sneak away to their favorite hiding spot and peacefully begin their nest. While hens do try to find solitude, as the laying process begins, they also start to emit an unmistakable pattern of rapid and rolling clucks accentuated by a noticeably louder “Bwak!” at the end of each sequence. They sing this song with such intensity, wide-eyed and agitated, until the egg has finally been pushed out. It is enough to make anyone grateful that they weren’t born an egg-laying hen.
Although today’s egg-laying hens are the descendants of the Red Jungle Fowl (Gallus gallus) which laid around 60 small eggs a year, most modern domestic hens have been bred to lay over 300 large eggs a year.
If free to behave “naturally,” most chickens will lay the number of eggs they desire for a proper nest and then stop producing more eggs until her chicks are old enough to fend for themselves. The time before her eggs hatch, while she sits on her nest warming and protecting her eggs, is called the “brooding” stage.
If a chicken’s eggs are removed on a regular basis, she will continue to lay, in a futile attempt to follow her instincts and form a proper brood. In fact, a chicken’s nesting instincts are so strong that they will continue to try to build a brood whether or not there is a rooster present to fertilize their eggs.*
* It is believed that chickens cannot tell which eggs have been successfully fertilized.
By now my empathy for these little feathered females must be evident, but regretfully it was not always so present. During my time working around chickens, there were a number of experiences that changed my perspective on eggs and opened my heart to the hens that laid them. The first started with making a homemade “farm fresh” omelet out of eggs a friend had collected. I cracked open a couple of eggs with no problem. But on the third, instead of a yolk and egg whites, a small, partially formed chick flowed into the skillet. My stomach lurched into my throat. Somehow seeing the beginning of a body in one of the eggs I was about to eat seemed so different to me than simply ingesting an unfertilized ovum. Suddenly eggs were no longer something you simply picked up at the grocery store. Instead I saw them as the beginning of a chicken.
The second experience that changed my perspective was the day I was faced with taking eggs from directly under a nesting hen. On this particular morning I was helping trim back some lavender on a farm I was volunteering at. My host and I were well into chopping back the lavender when we suddenly heard an agitated clucking below us. As we moved back one of the bushes we discovered a large black hen who had started a nest. She was attempting to shield her brood from the intruders hovering above her, but this hen was not a rescue. She had been brought onto the farm to produce eggs, and even though she had been clever enough to attempt a nest away from the chicken cage, her eggs were not considered her own.
How we got her to move off her nest is a bit foggy in my memory, but I believe I distracted her while my partner in crime quickly picked her up. And then I snatched her eggs out from under her. I quickly placed the eggs in the fridge for the farm staff to take home, as we didn’t think she had been sitting on the nest long enough for chicks to form.
When I went back outside I found the black hen frantically weaving in and out of the lavender, calling to her fellow chickens, some of whom ran over to her aid as she continued searching for her missing eggs. I tried to push my guilt aside and continue on my day. But when we returned for lunch, hours later, she was still there moving slowly in and out of the lavender and muttering to herself as she searched in vain.
I voiced my guilt to my host and we debated about whether we should put the eggs back. Finally it was decided it was too late, the eggs had been cold too long and we had to let it be.
Each egg laid had in some way drained her body of calcium and other essential nutrients*, unnecessarily shortening her life to feed her captors. And now, no matter how long her small sad eyes searched, all her work was lost.
* Some chickens (if they have not been de-beaked) will eat their own unfertilized eggs if the egg is broken, if they are under stress, to replenish nutrients lost from laying (if they are lacking nutrients), or if there is not enough nest space.
What is an egg to a chicken?
Every chicken, like every person, is different. Some are absentminded, nesting in the middle of the yard. Others are aggressive and secretive, attempting to peck at the heels of any passersby. And still others are like the lavender mother hen, bonding to each egg they lay.
No matter the personality, no matter where or how the egg is laid, no matter if it is fertilized or not, each egg is the beginning of a chicken. And with each minute that I watched that large black hen search and call, hours after her nest had been robbed, I knew that no matter how we defined her relationship to her eggs, they were not ours to take…