Chickens: Obsessive-Compulsives of the Bird World

My grandmother used to marvel at how little I grasped of the basic workings of a chicken. But then she was born in 1908 and grew up in a farm town in east-central Illinois. I spent my formative years in a Chicago suburb dropping quarters into video games. It gave me a totally different perspective on live poultry.

It wasn’t until a few years ago that I encountered my first chicken farmer, and of course I had no end of questions for him. The information I picked up was fascinating. For instance, I had no idea that hens need not know the ways of a rooster to start producing eggs. So-called “blood spots” are not, as is popularly thought, tiny chicken embryos. They happen when a blood vessel breaks somewhere near the yolk as the egg is forming.

However the most interesting stuff I learned had to do with the laying behavior of hens. I’d always wondered why hens lay eggs so consistently…almost every day. I mean, it always seemed impossible to me that a bird would behave like that in the wild. Sure, the whole point of chicken breeding has been to bring out the most desirable traits of chickens. I’m sure that over the eons we’ve changed chickens considerably. Still, what base behavior is it that causes chickens to be such prolific egg producers?

Well I found out. Chickens, it seems, are the world’s most obsessive compulsive birds. Left to their own devices they lay their eggs in “clutches”, which is to say collections of about 7-to-10. Each breed has its own magic number. A hen putting down a clutch of eight will lay at the rate of about one egg per day until she gets to eight, stop for a week or more, then do it again.

So far so good. However if, in the course of laying that clutch, a fox comes along and swipes an egg, the hen will lay another to replace it. If a snake then happens along and swallows down another, she’ll lay another one to replace that one. Yet another predator, yet another egg and so on and so on until she can get up to the magic number eight. If it takes a year, so be it. Hens are that uptight.

On the farm, we humans take the place of that random predator, swiping the egg every day and making the hen start from, er…scratch. And so the hen continues the Sisyphean task of finishing the impossible clutch, producing up to 250 eggs every year, over twice as many as a “wild” hen would lay. Fascinating.

Does it bother the hen to made to perform such an impossible, repetitive task? If she’s anything like me, probably not all that much. I mean I pick up my daughters’ shoes from the very same spot in the hallway every darn night, and even though I’m continually frustrated to find them right back there the following evening, I pick them up again anyway. Chickens aren’t the only ones with OCD problems, you know.

7 thoughts on “Chickens: Obsessive-Compulsives of the Bird World”

  1. What a great piece! I love the lede, and I had no idea that we humans were to blame for making chickens produce eggs so obsessively. I feel a little guilty. But not so guilty that I’ll forego an omelette this morning.

    1. Amen! Let’s eat!

      And thanks for the kind words, Beth! I greatly appreciate the compliment.

      – Joe

  2. Again, I learn so much from reading your blog…I do. But now that I know hens are OCD about their egg laying I feel a little sad…quasi guilty (probably more my catholic upbringing than this). But I wonder if this need to achieve a full clutch causes the birds any anxiety. I know I would go crazy if I had that sort of day every day for the rest of my existence. Maybe the medicate them?

    I’m hoping to get over feeling complicit in this sadistic egg stealing criminality soon…I have cakes to bake!

    1. Hmm…anti-depressants for chickens. Interesting. You may have a brand new business idea on your hands, Ellen. Let me in on the ground floor of the IPO, OK?

  3. Well, well I learn so many interesting facts here. If you haven’t read Betty MacDonald’s The Egg and I you should. It’s about how she and her husband started a chicken ranch in Washington State (I think it was in the 1920s). Conditions were primitive to say the least.

    1. I’m aware of the movie with Claudette Colbert and Fred MacMurray, but I don’t know the book at all. I recall that part of the reason both were so successful was because of the boom in egg farms spurred on by the post-WWI boom in demand for fresh eggs. Sort of like fish farms in the 80’s and organic agriculture in the 90’s, egg farms were hip enterprises once upon a time.

      Thanks Ellen!

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