Tuesday, December 27:

   Dark and cold and no fresh grass and bugs means the hens have just about shut down for the winter.  Even more significantly, Brer Fox carried off most of the flock of Speckled Sussex we started last spring –for “good foragers” should we read “suicidally adventurous”? – and except for seven SS hens, our mature laying flock consists almost exclusively of three-year-old Rhode Island Reds, definitely birds past their prime.  For two weeks the little girls have delivered me a daily egg count of just four eggs.  It is time to cull the flock.

   There are a number of ways to cull a flock, that is, to reduce its numbers according to some criterion or other.  We have read several ways to determine the laying status of a hen, some of them contradictory; we usually do a quick examination of the bird’s vent, and if it is small, dry, and puckered, we decommission her.  Another way is to see if her pubic bones, which are not shaped like those of a beast but have long projecting points to them, will allow you to fit two fingers between them (my fingers – Shawn’s are too big).  Birds whose pelvic bones are close together are assumed to be moulting, or past laying altogether.

   The problem with these methods, and with any others we have ever tried, is that they are not fool-proof.  A hen you are ready to take your oath is out of lay will turn out to have tomorrow’s breakfast egg nestling in  her now-dead innards.  This is very discouraging to the chicken-herder, and if it happens two or three times one is tempted to turn out all the other condemned in the crate and give up culling.  Yet, when one is feeding a flock of fifty and realizing only half a dozen eggs a day, one may be excused for thingking someone is not pulling her weight.  In this case we tend to be less scientific and more sweeping.

   On St. Stephen’s day we went down to the chicken house determined to reduce our numbers no matter what.  We took fourteen, and found eggs in three.  One we turned loose on second examination. In the final analysis we had enough quart jars of chicken parts to fill two canners, and all the backs and necks to cook down for broth and bits, giving us nineteen assorted quarts of chicken, old layers, the best for stewing, and a big bucket of scrappy bits for the pigs.  When the rain stops we will do a dozen more.  Ladies who are only laying an egg-and-a-half-a-week, beware.

   The bill for hen feed should soon assume more reasonable proportions.