Every day the hens line up and each waits her turn to lay an egg in the nest boxes of the hen house. Some hens are co-layers and will sit two in a box together. Birds often like to use the same nest others use, so there will be five or six eggs in one nest and nothing in another. Nature makes the hen secretive about her egg-laying. She will switch between nests over time, satisfying an innate need to hide her eggs. That is why there are five boxes, to provide plenty of choice.
Ameraucana hens start laying when they are between five and seven months old. At Phoenix Farm the hens are hatched in the spring, and they start laying some time in October to December. The eggs begin tiny, size extra small and also are at their very darkest blue color. As the hens grow, the eggs become larger and the longer they lay, the lighter the shell color becomes.
A laying hen ovulates almost every day and forms an egg in the special ducts inside her body. The shell of the egg is still slightly pliable as it passes from the hen. The egg quickly dries and the shell gets hard. Hens lay nearly daily until their first autumn. When the length of day shortens, the birds go into their first molt, or shedding of many of their feathers. No eggs are laid during this time. Then, after two to four months of rest laying recommences as long as the hens receive at least twelve hours of light each day. In winter in Maine we have to provide supplemental light for two hours every morning.
A hen ready to lay an egg is a determined animal. She will not be kept from her nest. Chickens are creatures of habit, once they are accustomed to laying in a certain area, they always return unless they are violently frightened. We chicken growers take advantage of the birds’ instincts by training them to lay in the nest boxes of the hen house. Otherwise, free-range chickens would hide nests all over the place and we’d never get an egg.
The chickens stay locked in the house and hen yard until mid-day because most hens are morning layers. Then, in early afternoon they are allowed to run free to scratch for seeds and bugs and get the sunshine, green grass and exercise that makes them so healthy and their eggs so very tasty. You have not had an egg until you’ve tried a free-range egg from a truly free chicken. Our birds have the run of our entire 75 acres, although they tend to stay within a couple hundred yards of the hen house. This photo, courtesy of my daughter, shows the difference in yolk color between our free-range eggs on the left and regular store eggs on the right.
In the evening chicken habit kicks in again. The birds always return to their roost unless some disaster has happened to scare them away (such as a midnight raccoon raid.) As the light dies, a parade of chickens returns to the house and each bird flies up to its own chosen spot on the roost. There must be great comfort in routine because these birds are calm and content.
It is the chicken grower’s responsibility to keep the birds safe while confined with strong wire, solid houses and locks to repel the many predators of plump, tasty hens. The wire fenced yard is lined with logs along the bottom stopping any animal from digging under and covered with net to keep out the hawks and owls. The underside of the coop is reinforced with wire mesh to prevent any animal from chewing its way in. The chickens are most susceptible to predation while free-ranging. I’m sure if you could ask any chicken, you would hear they prefer to take their chances for the opportunity to roam free.