There are a few questions about chickens that I get asked all the time. By now, most of you should know the answers.
Do you need a rooster to get eggs?
Everybody? — NO.
What do you do with your chickens in the winter?
All together now – just like what war is good for – absolutely nothing. (okay we do use a 100 watt lightbulb and a water heater but you get my drift).
Another question that seems to be popping up more and more as people ponder whether to get chickens or not and one I got recently from a Mike, a reader from York Maine is:
What do you do when the hens stop laying eggs?
There is no easy answer to this one. At least for me, who sees our chickens as family pets. Yeah and go ahead and call me soft but if we didn’t have soft people, what a dreary place this would be.
Chickens lay eggs for around 4-5 years. Then they stop, they run out. They sort of go into a chick-menopause state (hopefully minus the need for the pounds of chocolate and glasses of red wine).
There is a caveat to this, however. A normal chicken will lay for that long. Chickens that are genetically bred to lay eggs (unimaginatively called layers) will run out of their finite egg supply faster. Chickens that lay only occasionally (bantams and exotics) might lay longer as they only squirt out an egg when they feel like it. And finally, birds that are induced to lay through the use of artificial light during the winter months will also wear out faster. In the eternal words of all mothers “there is only so much I can do.”
The point here is that even under the very best of conditions, at some point a chicken is going to stop laying eggs. She is going to stop being productive and when that happens you’re going to have to figure out what to do with her.
I’ve always rather blithely replied to this question saying that our chickens are welcome to live out their retirement days in our backyard (after all, no one turned me into Sunday Dinner when I stopped laying eggs) but I’m afraid it’s not that easy.
When chickens stop laying eggs they don’t sit on the front porch drinking iced tea and knitting baby blankets. Retired chickens are meant to be culled. It’s part of “THE WAY”. In a wild flock of chickens (and there are such things) you would never see any retired hens. They slow down the flock, they endanger everyone else, they don’t contribute, in short, they are not wanted. They become the decoys that save the rest of the flock.
The other thing is that nature never really intended to care for older chickens. They lose their feathers, they tend to get sick, they start having health problems. They start to endlessly repeat stories about the good old days.
We have a dog – Digger who is a Maltese rescue from Tennessee. No one knows how old he is except that he is very old. Until our house, he had a rough life living on the streets and grabbing what little food he could find. He is without doubt, though, one of the best dogs we have ever had. (The other being a rescued Greyhound – I think there’s something about being grateful that someone cares about you).
Anyway, these days, Digger is not doing so well. Trevor and I figured out that he sleeps about 22 hours a day. He has tumors on his skin. He can’t hear anything, his eye sight along with his teeth have long disappeared. It takes a bit for him to get going and in the cold New Hampshire winter, because he can’t seem to generate enough body heat he needs to be covered with warm blankets and kept near a heater.
But he does recognize our touch and he loves nothing more than to cuddle up next to us giving us a lick or two when it moves him.
He is still part of our family. He still eats, still makes it outside to do his business and perhaps most importantly he is not in pain.
I’ve warned the kids though, that the day he is in pain (and I’m talking about the un-retractable pain that signals oncoming death) is the day I will take him in to have him put down. I love this little dog too much to let him suffer just because we are not ready to say good-bye.
I hope that I will be able to keep to the same standards when our chickens, our birds of wonder also wear down after their life of service to us is over. Their comfort need not be sacrificed for my inability to let go.
In another post, I’ll write about ways to ethically kill a chicken (you’ll not find me cutting off the heads of any of my friends) and what you can do with the carcass.