It wasn’t even quite 7 a.m. the other morning when I heard a cacophony outside in the coop. I grabbed my cup of coffee and strode out to see what was up. An early morning intruder? An internecine conflict that needed to be addressed?
Like guilty children caught misbehaving, the hens went instantly silent, peering innocently at me. Who? Us? And, of course, no one pointed fingers – although I am convinced that if chickens actually had hands they might rule the world.
It wasn’t until my second-and-a-half cup of coffee that it occurred to me that all that morning racket might have been the beginnings of someone’s egg song, the triumphant, throaty ballad that signals a pullet’s readiness to join the ranks of egg-laying hens. The egg song, a raucous, primal, repeated arpeggio of GRAAAACCCKKK-AWK-AWK-BAGOCCKKK that calls to mind the fact that chickens are descended directly from dinosaurs, may not be a welcome wake-up call for neighbors, but for any flock keeper who has poured time, starter feed and treats into hand-raising birds over several months, it is a welcome harbinger of a long-awaited payoff. We might be getting eggs sometime soon!
There is a thread on the backyard chickens.com website entitled “How many eggs you get today?” that is currently at 35,000+ posts and counting. Eggs are a flock keeper’s tangible proof to outsiders that we are not completely out of our minds for doting on our chickens. There is no way the rest of the world will ever understand our emotional attachment to these ridiculous creatures, so we offer eggs to our neighbors instead of trying to explain about the sweet curiosity and sociability of our birds or the way the sun catches the iridescence in their feathers, or the way the day seems to end more poetically when one listens to their soft rustlings and cooings as you shut down the coop for the night.
When I turned the calendar page to June, I realized that today is the day our three new girls turn 20-weeks-old, a magic number that reminds the flock keeper it’s time to switch over from starter feed to layer feed (higher calcium content) and to make sure there is oyster shell available to them; these changes help assure strong shells for the eggs they will hopefully soon produce. Oh, and about those treats? Be advised that “feeding a lot of treats can cut back on egg production”, a factoid I am including for the benefit of the Chicken Emperor, who proffers scratch to our birds like the proverbial candy man…
And when will they actually begin to lay? Well, every hen is different. Some will lay at 16 or 17 weeks. And some will try the patience of their keeper and hold out as long as 40 weeks. The average point of lay for a young hen is said to be around 24-25 weeks of age.
Besides the “egg song”, there are other sure signs that a hen is thinking about a career in egg production. One is “squatting” behavior. Pullets tend to be skittish and will run off when you reach out to stroke them. But when they are close to laying, their reaction to your approach or your hand laid on their back will be to stay put and squat down. This, of course, is related to their readiness for mating.
Another sure-fire indication that flock keepers swear by is a significant deepening red hue of the comb and wattles. Compare Ava the Australorp’s appearance in mid-March:
Yup. She’s getting closer to laying. Yesterday I found her “nesting” in the coop, having shredded an entire countertop of pine shavings and newspapers and then settled in to think about her future in egg production.
An interest in nesting is a major indicator of incipient laying. Many flock keepers, myself included, provide faux eggs or golf balls on the nesting counter as an encouragement. Nugget has been hopping up frequently to visit the golf balls on our nesting counter and I don’t think it’s because she’s planning to try out for the WPGA.
A somewhat more scientific way to assess a bird’s readiness for laying is to measure the pelvic bones underneath the vent area. In young pullets, the bones are about one finger’s width apart; in a hen that is ready to lay, the bones will have spread to a 2-3 finger’s width. I haven’t done that yet with our birds, but I am guessing that Nugget and Ava may start laying within the next two to four weeks. Bella, our Buff Orpington, seems to be slower to mature. She remains a bit skittish and her comb and wattle haven’t enlarged and turned deep red, but she’ll get there, too:
We may miss the first eggs since we are New York-bound, but we know that friends Dave and Karen, with some help from Chloe, will keep a close eye on the girls. I hope they get to enjoy the thrill of finding the treasure that is a first egg while we’re away. Poached, scrambled or over easy, there’s nothing like a fresh egg from a backyard hen!