Every year, as fall starts yielding to winter, the flock begins their molting ritual. Feathers start blanketing the coop floor, sometimes in such a startling amount that first night that an impromptu head-count and 12-point inspection is warranted to rule out attack wounds. It’s interesting how each lady (and gentleman) goes about molting in her own way. Some bear no hint of feather loss whatsoever, sneakily dropping feathers here, there, in no great quantity. Others appear a bit light in feathery bulk. And Brownie Girl, Daddio’s favorite, molts right down to her skivvies, looking as close to a plucked chicken as a still-breathing, still-clucking hen could be. You can imagine our alarm the first year we witnessed it – we nearly opened a Poultry Intensive Care unit right there in the coop.
So the molting commenced in late fall this year, triggered by the change in daylight. The most important thing to know about molting is that it’s extremely hard work. So hard, in fact, that a chicken must stop all laying operations and devote her focus solely on growing new-and-improved, Now-50%-Fluffier! new feathers. So hard that those who tend a small flock of laying chickens are forced into an egg fast, watching their egg supply dwindle right before their eyes, sadly turning away their devoted egg customers with a tear and a pitiful shake of the head. So hard to grow those new feathers, but not nearly as hard as the mournful squeak of the shopping cart, as it slowly approaches the refrigerated egg section of the food coop. ‘Uncle’ we cried, ‘you’ve got us! We were wrong to take your delicious eggs for granted. Your eggs are truly the most robust, with the orangest yolks, the most delicious flavor, and no doubt the best nutritional content. You, the Lovely Ladies, are artisans, true masters of your craft! We vow never to forget that again. Please lay some damn eggs!’
The Ladies held a conference, with quiet clucking and muffled chatter that went long into the night. Meanwhile, leaving nothing to chance, I procured the brightest compact fluorescent light bulb that federal regulations would allow and installed it in the coop, programmed by timer to supplement the dwindling daylight and trick the girls into resuming regular ovulation. And in time, (a long time) that first egg reappeared. Then a second. Within a week, we had more eggs than we could juggle in our bumbling hands and pockets, requiring once again, the egg basket for all visits to the coop. A call was made to the Egg Customer. ‘Your dozen eggs are ready! (you know, the ones you ordered two months ago!)
This is the third winter we’ve tended these chickens. That first winter, fresh from moving in and inheriting the flock, you can imagine our panic when the laying ceased. I ran to the Chicken Book, all dogeared and bookmarked, trying to diagnose the devastating poultry disease that had consumed our flock. After an embarrassingly long time, I realized it was simply molting. Last winter, the second of our charge, we had freshman hens in the coop, raised the spring before, who were not yet mature enough to undergo the ritual of molting. They kept the eggs a-coming while the veteran Ladies were on hiatus.
And here we are now, still circumspect after it was brought to our attention that we were taking those eggs for granted. After the brief resumption of normal laying operations, we’re again facing a shortage. One, maybe two, eggs grace the straw-laden floor of the coop these days. (that’s about 4-8 eggs short of the normal quota) I’ve engaged the alarm; we are again in a state of Chicken Drama, code Orange. I’ve gone through the litany of possible culprits: Light (the bulb is still working, bright as ever, on schedule) Heat (it’s not been that cold, and I’ve lined the coop with insulating straw) Food & Water (there’s been plenty) Calcium? Seems to be fine. How about thieving critters? It seemed that we might need to engage the giant rat traps hanging from pegs on the coop walls, until it was brought to our attention that the thievery must be happening in broad daylight, when Critters are inactive. This points the blame right back to the chickens, who’ve eaten their own eggs plenty of times before. Even so, production is still way down.
So I’ve called a Business Development meeting with the Ladies. I plan on explaining how this is no way to run a business: hooking unsuspecting folks with the highly-addictive, mind-altering deliciousness of those eggs and then pulling the rug out, withholding them altogether. In as diplomatic a way as possible, I plan to ask them what concessions they require: more scratch, full of delicious corn and grain? Ok. It’s yours. More regularly-freshened water? Fine. An even-bigger supply of oyster shell and grit? Done.
Just lay us some eggs, already! (or I may have to line up the stockpots)
Should you be among the Fortunate, finding yourself with a plethora of eggs, I recommend you mix up a batch of this delicious Eggnog to ring in the New Year. It’s a seasonal family favorite, though it’s been a little too scarce this year, considering our shortage. We may have to grease up the shopping cart wheel and mosey back over to that refrigerated egg section….(shudder)
A few notes about the ingredients: the sugar called for is Sucanat, or evaporated sugar cane juice. It imparts some lovely carmel-ish undertones to the brew – do try it if you can find some. Raw (turbinado) sugar would work just as well. If you must, (I say with much snobbery) plain, old white sugar will suffice, but understand that you won’t reach the same level of enlightenment. And fresh-grated nutmeg: absolutely run out this very minute and buy yourself some whole nutmeg and grate it on your box grater and prepare to never, ever look back at pre-ground nutmeg again, which is a mere shadow of Fresh-Grated Nutmeg Greatness. That dingy brown, pre-ground poser does not deserve to bear the same name as the Nutmeg, grated by your hand. (Cluck cluck – what cooking snobbery today!)
With that, I wish you all a Happy New Year. Meet you here in 2010.