Tuesday, September 15, 2009

We're Waiting, Girls...

Today we are officially on egg watch. Our chickens, two Barred Rocks, and two Rhode Island Reds, are 18 weeks old today. Some sources say they start laying at between 18-20 weeks. Other sources I’ve read say 4-5 months, which works out to 21 weeks maximum. So, technically, it could be any time now.

Rick finished building the nest box a week or so ago, complete with a removable tray for easy cleaning. As I wrote in an earlier post about our coop, the original design included plans for a nest box inside the coop, but we decided to build one that hangs on the outside, to increase floor space inside the coop. I asked Rick to have it ready in early September, because I’d read that a few weeks before they start laying, hens start scoping out good places to lay their eggs.

They have actually started a new behavior. In the past, they only ever went into their coop to sleep. Now, I’ve noticed that they occasionally go back in for awhile, individually, sometimes scratching a depression in the pine shavings and sitting in it for a bit. Is this a “nesting behavior” I should be looking for? Or, are they just bored? I have no idea. I’ve read or leafed through many backyard chicken books and articles, but rarely find the kind of detailed information I’m looking for. Once I learn what I’m doing, I may write a book myself, for people like me who need DETAILS; lots and lots of details and concrete examples.

After Rick installed the nest box, I filled it with straw, and Rick placed a couple of old golf balls in the nest. I felt a little silly about the golf balls. The goal with these, according to my reading, is to encourage the birds to lay their eggs in the nest box and not on the floor of the coop, their pen, or other places where they could get damaged or dirty. Whatever works, I guess.

But it’s hard for me to imagine that traditional farmers back in the day put golf balls or plastic eggs filled with sand (another suggestion I read) in nest boxes. Our city chicks have no older hens to learn from, so maybe this little device is useful. But I can’t help wondering if it’s more of a ritual than a necessity. Kind of like when ancient people drew pictures of animals they hoped to bag in a hunt on the walls of caves; we put golf balls in nest boxes hoping for eggs.

So, all the preparations are made, and now, we wait. I think we’ll be waiting at least a few weeks because, as you can see in the photo above, the girls do not look fully mature yet. Amelia, the Barred Rock in the foreground, appears to be the closest to a mature hen. Red, fully developed combs and wattles are an indication that they are about to start laying. So we expect Amelia to produce the first egg.

As an aside, Amelia is the sweetest and friendliest of our chickens and Rick’s favorite. She’s less aggressive than the other girls, so when Rick gives them Japanese beetles he’s collected, he makes sure she gets her share. He named her Amelia because she was the first and best flier of the group. When she was less than two weeks old, she liked to fly up on top of the waterer to perch. She looked adorable there, but we had to shoo her off, so she wouldn’t poop in the water and sicken everyone. We put small, overturned clay pots in the brooder for them to perch on instead, and they loved those.

Another way to determine whether they are ready to lay that I’ve read about is to check the separation distance of the hen’s pelvic bones (near the vent). When they’re ready to start laying, the bones will separate to 2-3 fingers width. We’re not on such intimate terms with our chickens! I suppose maybe we should be, to check them over from time to time and ensure their health. But they have never liked being picked up, so we don’t force the issue.

I know that some people handle their chicks a lot when they’re little, so they’ll be tame and allow petting and holding when they’re older. We only picked ours up when we needed to. They’re not afraid of us; they run up when they see us and like to hang around near us when we’re in their pen. They tolerate very limited petting. They don’t run off afraid, but they do shrug off our touch and move away. My feeling is that if they want to be left alone, we should leave them alone. Checking the separation of the bones near their vents won’t bring eggs any faster. Might as well be patient.

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