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10 New Hens

January 12, 2010

February 24, 2009

We have 10 new residents in the henhouse. I gathered one egg from the nest boxes today. Let’s hope they get settled in and get down to business. I’m providing them electrolyte- and vitamin-enhanced water for their stress, as well as the usual grain and produce.Buying hens is a tricky endeavor. Starting small is great, but costly and time consuming. Day-old chicks are purchased from a hatchery and come to the post office in a cardboard box. The PO calls around 7 a.m, eager to get the chirping fluff balls out of the back room. Heat lamps, water and starter feed are readied before the arrival, and the chicks are deposited on fresh litter. Then the waiting commences. They must reach fighting weight before they are merged with the big hens. Hens can be deadly to little chickens. They love to peck everything, especially anything smaller than them and running around. So separate digs are required. The new batch won’t start laying until they reach five or six months of age.

Due to the lengthy and intensive process of raising chicks to laying age, it is not common to find fresh young layers for sale. I have been given older hens, assured that they were still laying every other day, and found that they produced at best half that amount. Soon the question of how eager you are to feed hens that don’t produce comes up. Coyotes cleared up that issue for me, and I was glad I hadn’t paid for the old birds.

Every once and a while someone offers young layers for sale. Hopefully it is a friend of a friend and you have their phone number and home address. We recently went out on a limb for no other reason than to express blind faith in humanity. Hmmm… After wrangling back and forth in email and weird phone calls from blocked numbers, we ascertained that the hens were “under a year old” and “just started laying.” I prepared to inspect vents (where the eggs come out of) and look for obvious signs of age. I briefly fantasized about bringing along a .22 under the guise of looking for a wayward coyote – the sellers were just that unnervingly sketchy.

Lo and behold, the hens were fit and trim with tight feathers and sleek bodies. They looked alert, if thirsty, and as young as advertised. In the back of the dog carrier I noticed some long beaks, but I assumed they were indoor raised with nothing to peck at. The guy selling was familiar to me, having worked locally, and his lady pregnant and vacuous. They still had a hard time giving a straight answer to almost any question, but I racked that up to stupidity, one of the theories I had been working on over the two months it took to get the birds.

You know, I still couldn’t figure it out. After all the time it took to nail these people down, I expected to see a truck loaded with hen crates. String everyone along until you have enough orders to make it worth the drive? They showed up in a fuel-inefficient truck with one big dog crate in the back, holding our 10 chickens. They drove to Orleans from off-Cape. They sold the birds for $10 each… at eight months old; prime laying age. How could that possibly be cost-effective? Did they steal them from a huge egg farm? Were they all worthless roosters? Avian influenza? Marked non-layers from a factory that were unloaded for a couple bucks a piece at auction? I had pondered the scams before delivery. I still don’t get it. I thought of a time-tested Gypsy scam, and I write that with utmost empathy for and close friendship with Roma Gypsy folk. The seller does the business, checking out the buyers, their house and the hen house. The seller then returns to the hen house in the wee hours and steals not only the birds they sold, but every other chicken to boot. But all the birds were there in the morning. If you think I’m crazy, the sellers we dealt with pulled out a couple of “fresh laid” eggs from the crate not long after they arrived – big brown eggs, not at all what one expects from a young bird, and what kind of chicken lays an egg in the back of a truck doing 60 or 70 on the highway…in February?! My hens won’t lay if you yell “HI!” too loud.

I have a very bad habit of wanting to see how a story ends…while I live through it. We are at almost a week with no eggs. One of the new hens displayed considerable illness soon after arrival and died quickly. She had an overload of coccidiosis, in my opinion. Ragged, ruffled feathers and a tendency to stand around with her head twisted around and buried under feathers gave her away. This was one of the hens in the back of the load. There were four such birds and all have the characteristic dull look of a hen that has lived too long and laid too many eggs in a boring environment. They also all have the same red twist ties around their legs. Again, hmmm…

The chicken energy drink is a big hit with the new ladies. I am hoping this bizarre period of egglessness will subside and everything will get back to normal. If we don’t get back on track with eggs, I may fill the chest freezer with containers for ice and schedule a butchering day. I bet I can figure out how to make stewing hens palatable. I can’t wait to see how it all turns out.

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