How to grow eggs
I have two simple words of advice for anyone thinking about keeping some hens: do it!
My wife and I got our first three birds (which we promptly named Tikka, Double Down and Kiev) six years ago and have never looked back. When I first started looking into the possibility of keeping hens I’d checked local regulations to see if wecould get away with keeping a few in our suburban garden; I discovered that since we lived in a residential zone we were allowed to keep only 12 hens and no cockerels. Twelve! I wasn’t ready to commit to that level of poo and noise (we weren’t parents at that stage) and since we were only eating six eggs a week I figured three would be plenty.
The next question was how to keep them happy and safe. I wanted them to have somewhere sheltered to sleep, somewhere dark and cosy to lay eggs, and a decent bit ofprotected space to run around in. Some online research told me that I could buy anything from a small flimsy henhouse with a cramped run for $200 up to a glorious poultry palace for $2000. Obviously my girls deserved nothing but the best but I wasn’t prepared to fork out that kind of money. Not when I knew for certain that I could build them a house they’d be proud to call home for only about $100 of materials.
Three weeks, $250 in materials and $250 in new tools later, their boudoir was ready. The important thing was not that I’d gone massively over my budget; it was that I had gained both valuable carpentry experience and also some sweet new tools for use in future jobs. Anyway, six years and several gales later it’s still solid as a rock and has never been breached by weasel, dog or toddler. Or hen, for that matter.
All that was left now was to acquire some hens. But which breed? Light Sussex or Blue Leghorn or what? Freshly hatched chicks or just starting to lay? As with the henhouses, there’s a big price range involved. Our decision was made for us when we heard that our local vets took on a batch of old battery hens every year to save them from “retirement,” kept them for a month until they grew their feathers back and stopped acting strangely, then sold them on.
For $45, we had three jolly Brown Shavers who spent every day happy that they were able to walk around and scratch in the dirt for bugs. I wasn’t expecting too much from 18-month-old birds who’d had a hard life, but they did us proud; from the first day we had them we had three eggs a day (with occasional off-days of only two) for a whole year until tragedy first reared its ugly head.
One morning, I went out to top up their water and collect the eggs and only two hens were out on patrol; Tikka was nowhere to be seen. This happens sometimes when one is tucked away in one of the nest boxes laying an egg, though usually they squeeze their knees together and poke their heads out to see if I have any particularly tasty treats for them. Leftover pork belly is always far and away their favourite. Bizarre — do chickens in the wild sometimes gang up and take down pigs? Or do they just know in their bones that their ancestors were mighty dinosaurs?
But I digress… Tikka didn’t poke her head out that morning and I just assumed she must be beyond the point of no return in the egg-laying process and so decided to come back for them later. But that afternoon when I came back, still no sign of Tikka! With dread in my heart, I lifted the lid of the nest boxes, and there she was without a mark on her, but lying on her side cold and stiff.
I was saddened and mystified – had I done something wrong? Failed her as a hen-keeper somehow? I described what happened to our vet and learned of a chillingly common hen disease that fit her symptoms perfectly.
I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of Sudden Death Syndrome, but apparently even a mild case can be extremely serious. Honestly, this is actually a thing. After generations of breeding to produce superb plumage, muscle mass orintensive laying, chickens have become pretty useless at certain basics such as staying alive.
In six years I’ve lost five hens; one to being egg-bound; two to the dreaded Sudden Death and one to me chopping off her head (well she was eating all her eggs like a crazed baby-eating cannibal). Only one (Double Down) has died gracefully of old age, passing away whilst sleeping in the sun after a lifetime of record breaking laying and a final year of eggless retirement.
After the untimely death of Tikka and (a year later) the execution of the infanticidal Kiev, Double Down was left all alone — and hens need company. So we got two more birds, Biryani and Nugget. These were not rescue hens; they were born and raised on organic, free-range principles and had become snooty; frankly, they were assholes. These girls I’d bought to keep my hen company instead bullied her mercilessly.
The term “pecking order” comes from chickens, who will tear feathers out of each other and peck at the back of other hens’ heads until they bleed to establish their dominance. It’s not pretty and it quickly became obvious that Double Down, although twice the size of the others, was at the bottom of the pecking order.
Also, due to the lack of human contact and handling they’d had, I had to chase the new girls down and tackle them whenever I wanted to move them into the garden for a run-around or back into their house afterwards. My previous hens had run up to me excitedly whenever I appeared, as I was the Great Bringer of Treats. It took months for Biryani, Nugget and I to see eye-to-eye but eventually we formed an uneasy truce that lasted to the end of their lives three years later. I never bought fancy hens again.
My current three girls came all together straight fromthe battery farming cages and we watched them learn how to chicken. They were friendly from the start, but had only half their feathers and had no idea what any food other than ‘layer’s mash’ was all about. Over the course of two months of access to dirt and grass they learnt how to eat greens, how to scratch the dirt then jump back and inspect the ground for worms, how to look ridiculous chasing after a butterfly, how to dig deep holes for dust-baths then all pile in together in bliss, how to race each other for the caterpillars I throw them from my brassicas, and above all learnt that chopped-up pork belly is the finest feast a chicken could wish for.
So once again we have happy hens who will follow me around the garden, don’t get spooked by our daughter or any of the neighbourhood’s 20 tabby cats, and provide an impressive output of unusually large and tasty eggs. It’s like an excerpt from The Good Life. One other thing; we’ve changed the theme of the names we’ve been giving our birds. We’re still keeping it culinary, as the whole reason for the exercise is the unbeatably fresh eggs, so our latest chooks are called Julia, Delia and Nigella. I hope their namesakes won’t mind.
British-born, Queenstown based, Will Eaglesfield is executive chef of No5 ChurchLane and Eichart’s. Out of the kitchen you will find him foraging for bounty for his impressive range of preserves or pottering in the garden with his chooks.