In journalism, we speak of the 5 W’s: who, what, where, when and why. Thereby, I can report that my little flock has begun laying eggs where ever they please, each at the time her physiology dictates, because she cannot help herself.
While I am grateful for the what — eggs being a raison d’être for the keeping of hens — I am perplexed by my girls’ inability to grasp the where. Wild birds have this thing called a nest, in which they lay eggs. It looks like this:
The forebears of today’s domestic chicken — Asian jungle fowl — no doubt followed a similar practice, likely with well-concealed ground nests in the manner of wild partridges, quail and other chicken-like birds.
Thoughtful flock-keepers provide modern hens with private, quiet nest boxes lined with cozy straw, sometimes conspicuously seeded with craft-store “eggs” as a pointed hint: Lay here. In the past, this has worked well for my pullets; as ovulation approached, each in her turn became interested in the nest boxes, eventually clambered in to make her first deposit and consistently continued to do the same. The eggs stayed safe and unbroken, and I knew where to find them.
Punky, my golden Polish, was an exception. A beautiful ditz of a chicken with a wild headdress of feathers, she seemed to forget, day to day, that she laid eggs. As the time neared, I could observe her growing agitation, pacing about the yard, fretting to herself. Sometimes, before she remembered what those sensations meant, a perfect little white egg would topple from her vent into the dirt, right there before God and everyone.
Usually, though, Punky figured out what her body was telling her before the crucial moment, and settled into a nest box. After she laid, she would sing to her egg — a soft musical clucking — and use her beak to gently rearrange it beneath her body. This lasted about 45 minutes, after which she would exit the nest box, go about her business and forget it ever happened, until the next time. For Punky, laying was kind of like the movie “Groundhog Day.”
My current flock seems similarly clueless: I have found eggs near a straw bale, beneath the nest boxes, dropped off the roost and laying near the entry to the coop — anywhere but in the boxes.
My pullets-turning-hens are young, of course, and may yet respond to guidance. It’s true, too, that any enduring failure is not their fault. Through relentless, intensive genetic engineering to satisfy our own voracious appetites, we humans have turbocharged the egg-laying capacity of Gallus domesticus and done all we can to discourage her nesting instinct, because a setting chicken quits producing. The typical modern hen is a perpetual potential mother, each year laying scores of eggs she will never incubate into scores of chicks she will never raise. In getting for ourselves, we have taken from chickens in a hundred knowable and unknowable ways.
So, a little compassion is in order, and a lot of patience. I’ll keep appreciating the who of my hens, their beauty and industry and avian affection, and also the sustenance I receive from their practice of the what, when and why of laying.
This post originally appeared in December 2014. With their third laying season now underway, my little flock — older and wiser in the way of hens — has mastered the use of nest boxes.