Spring is still a few weeks away by the human calendar, but signs are everywhere evident in the natural world.
Goldfinches arrived in my neighborhood a couple of weeks ago, prompting me to put out the thistle feeder. Robins are squawking in the tall junipers that grace the town cemetery, where I often walk. The songs of the other birds have become more varied; there is a hint of courtship in the air, though there is no doubt more snow to come in the notoriously capricious Rockies.
They are incorruptible, these wild things, attuned to the sun and the wind and the ether with a sensitivity long lost to humans. When I lived in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, I learned to gauge the coming of winter by the wholesale departure of Canada geese, hundreds of them splitting the sky in long wedges, calling to each other in voices that felt melancholy as I watched, tethered to what would soon be a snowbound earth.
I looked forward to their return, through winter’s dark belly and into the brightening year. There were other seasonal signs that came earlier: sweet threads of sap trickling down the trunks of the sugar maples in late February, the tentative emergence in mid-March of the chipmunks, lean and hungry from their quasi-hibernation. But it was the return of the geese — winging their way back to us, their song now joyous in my ear — that meant spring had arrived.
I was surprised recently to find a hint of that wildness still in my good hen Ellie. Modern chickens have been bred so intensively that many of the natural behaviors that do not suit man’s purposes have been eradicated. They lay at an astounding rate — hundreds of eggs each year — far outstripping the summer clutches their wild forebears produce. Even their strongest instinct, maternity, has been bred out of most hens, because when a chicken sits a nest, she quits producing the eggs humans want. Only molting and shortened day length — which typically occur in fall and early winter — keep most commercially bred hens from laying.
So I was concerned when Ellie, who had come beautifully through her molt and recommenced laying eggs a few weeks earlier, abruptly stopped in early February. There was no mistake; a small, sweet-natured hen, Ellie is an Americauna whose green-shelled eggs are easy to distinguish from the brown eggs the other hens produce.
A healthy appearing chicken who inexplicably goes out of production is worrisome; it’s possible some secret and sinister disease has begun to undo her. So I watched Ellie closely, observing her appetite and thirst, gauging her activity, checking the consistency of her poop. She was bright-eyed and beautiful in her new plumage — smoky grey feathers with hints of rust.
I could see nothing wrong. And still, she did not lay.
Then, it occurred to me.
I called the local feed store and explained what I was seeing to Ed, whose family owns the place, sells poultry supplies and keeps chickens. “Did she stop at about the time of that big snowstorm?” he asked.
In fact, she had. A slow-moving storm system had dumped a foot of snow in the area during the last weekend in January, bringing with it renewed cold after a balmy mid-month. Ed said he’d heard from several local flock-keepers whose chickens had subsequently stopped laying. Despite countless generations of intensive breeding, the power of that storm had reached these modern hens with the ancient message of the seasons: It’s winter, and no time to have babies.
This was welcome news, but still I fretted over Ellie, because none of my other hens had been affected. After a few weeks, though, I saw her looking curiously at the nest boxes; then, I noticed her eating calcium, which hens need to produce eggshells. And a day later, there it was in the nest: a perfect green egg. And the next day. Then, she seemed to stop again — until I took a closer look beneath the nest boxes, in a dark corner cozy with straw. The hens had adopted it as their new favorite spot, and Ellie’s green egg was there with the rest.
Along with relief, I felt a sense of wonder. The elemental power of that storm had, for a time, overcome every manmade effort to subvert my little hen’s instincts, to mold her to an artificial purpose.
It had broken through and returned Ellie — at least for a few weeks — to the world of the wild. It had made her, again, incorruptible.