Are you thinking about adding Barred Plymouth Rock chickens to your flock? Then get the scoop from Molly Cooper on the benefits of this popular egg-producing breed!
Imagine the future of suburban chickens if a hen had to have a rooster present to lay eggs. Few cities allow anyone to keep crowing roosters, so it’s fortunate that hens lay eggs whether or not a male is around. Huge factory egg operations are also lucky that hens lay without a rooster present. If roosters were necessary to stimulate laying, commercial eggeries would need larger facilities to house male birds that eat but don’t lay. Egg costs would be higher!
Roosters are fun to watch as they strut around the coop showing off their gorgeous feathers. Having one makes keeping chickens more interesting while producing fertile eggs that will hatch. Roosters protect their hens from intruders. Having a rooster in the flock lets people observe the rather unusual chicken mating process which is very different from how mammals mate.
A rooster often employs a type of foreplay by prancing around the hen and clucking before mounting her. The transfer of sperm happens quickly without the penetration normal in mammal mating. The cloaca, or vent, of the male and female touch and sperm are exchanged. It’s called a “cloacal kiss” and requires a bit of avian gymnastics for both birds to position themselves so their cloacas meet.
Just what is a cloaca? Unlike humans and most mammals, a female chicken has but one rear orifice with three functions. It is where feces and eggs exit her body and sperm enter. The rooster’s cloaca has only two functions. One is to pass feces. The other is to transfer sperm to a hen.
A hen doesn’t need to mate every day in order to lay fertile eggs. She stores sperm in her body and her eggs will be fertile for at least a couple of weeks and sometimes much longer before she needs to re-mate. One rooster will easily keep eight to a dozen hens fertile.
Mammals produce liquid urine which leaves the body through the urethra. Urine contains urea. In contrast birds have no need for a urethra since they don’t urinate. Instead they coat their feces with uric acid that exits their body through the cloaca as moist chicken poop.
Not producing liquid urine allows birds to have lighter bodies than mammals of similar size. It is an adaption that helps them fly. Fortunately, the lack of liquid urine makes keeping chickens easier. If they produced copious urine, bedding would quickly become saturated and smelly if not changed often. Instead, moist chicken feces quickly dries and becomes incorporated into the coop’s bedding. As long as it stays dry changing litter doesn’t need to be done often and the coop stays dry and odor free.
A chicken’s cloaca is an amazing organ. To keep eggs about to be laid away from feces she inverts her oviduct within the cloaca so there is little or no contact inside her body between feces and egg, which comes out clean.
If hens required a rooster in order to lay, few suburbanites would be able to keep chickens. And, if birds produced liquid urine coops would quickly become smelly and need frequently cleaning. Far fewer suburbanites would be willing to do much more coop cleaning and simply not keep hens. So, these simple adaptations meet several needs.
It’s not unusual for one or two hens in a small flock to eat their share of feed, relax, and rarely lay an egg. Although most flock owners don’t attempt to make money selling eggs, spotting and eliminating freeloaders saves feed dollars and keeps the eggs coming.
The trick is figuring out which hens aren’t laying. There are several ways to spot the lazy hen, and backyard flock owners have an advantage. Unlike large laying operations backyarders normally only keep a few hens and visit the coop regularly. Even better, small flocks are usually composed of several different breeds with varied colored and patterned feathers. That makes it easy to identify specific hens and helps track down a nonlayer.
How Many Eggs Should a Hen Lay?
The number of eggs a hen lays in each week varies greatly depending on the breed or strain, nutrition, weather, age of hen, and season or day length.
Hybrids developed for maximum egg production are laying dynamos as are many white egg breeds. If well-nourished and healthy, each bird will lay five or six eggs a week and sometimes more. In contrast fancy and exhibition breeds are often poor layers and may go for weeks without producing a single egg. Even when they are in full production two or three eggs a week per fancy bird is normal. Hens of any breed lay the most eggs during their first lay cycle and produce fewer eggs as they age.
Most backyard flock owners keep time tested standard brown egg breeds such as Barred Rocks, Buff Orpingtons, New Hampshire Reds, and Wyandottes among others. They are good layers that may not be quite as productive as hybrids but each should lay four or five eggs a week.
Even the most productive breeds and hybrids sometimes include slackers. Here’s how to find her.
Anyone with only five or six hens of varied breeds can usually pinpoint the non-layer through observation. Hens usually sit in the nest for several minutes before laying. Take note of which hens never seem to be in a nest and the culprit may be found. If the entire flock is of one breed they all look the same, making it harder to find a non-layer by observation. In contrast if a six hen flock is composed of six different breeds or strains with different colored feathers no bird has a look alike. That helps identify the individual that never seems to be in a nest.
An even easier way to spot a nonlayer is to configure a flock with birds that lay distinctively colored eggs. For example, Americaunas lay blue/green eggs, Rocks or Orpingtons produce light brown eggs, while the eggs of Marans and Welsummers are dark brown. Leghorns and Minorca produce snow white eggs. A flock of hens that each lays eggs of a different hue makes it easy to tell which one isn’t working.
Experienced flock owners use several techniques to spot a nonlayer, even if all birds are of the same color. Here’s how they do it.
The Eyeball Test
Hens that are run down, lethargic, and sickly looking usually aren’t laying. In contrast, birds that look great with complete healthy feathers, good size, and bright yellow legs and beaks may be prima donnas putting all their nutrition into looks rather than eggs. Hard working laying hens gradually get a little rough looking. As the months go by their feathers get worn. Breeds with yellow legs and beaks gradually see this color diminish as egg laying drains pigments from the body. It takes much work and nutrients to produce plentiful eggs and working girls show the strain. Good layers usually have healthy combs, while the combs of non-layers are often shrunken.
A Close Examination
Hens are easiest to handle when they are sleepy. So, the best physical way to locate a non-layer is to enter the coop at night with a battery lantern, flashlight, or headlamp so you can use both hands. Gently pick up each bird. Position her between your elbow and ribs with her head facing backwards. It may take gentle pressure from the arm to keep her wings from flapping, and by holding her feet between your fingers she’s not mobile and will likely sit quietly. Gently place the palm of the other hand on her pelvis. Bones that are easy to feel span the cloaca, where both droppings and eggs emerge. If a hen is not laying, the bones will be close together. If she’s laying they will be three or four fingers apart, providing plenty of room for the egg to pass out of her body. A laying hens vent or cloaca is usually moist and pale in color. A non-layer’s may appear yellowish.
What to Do With the Non-Layer
For many flock owners a non-layer is quickly destined for the stew pot. Usually nonlaying hens are plump and delicious but are old enough to have tough flesh. They are best stewed. Some flock owners would never dream of butchering a bird. It’s OK to let a non-layer stay in the flock, even though she’ll continue to eat expensive food without returning eggs!