We've all played the "Which came first" game when it comes to eggs, but do you really know how eggs are "made?" Before you answer "yes" read the following interview with Rachel Bess, local backyard chicken expert, speaker and artist. She's sharing five things you didn't know about chickens and eggs. It is sure to keep you from awkward moments at the farmers market and in the graces of the hipster set.
CB: Tell us how chickens make baby chicks. Do all hens lay eggs?
RB: All hens lay eggs after they reach maturity, whether or not they have ever had access or have even seen a photo of a rooster. Some lay six or seven each week, some lay one or two. It depends mostly on breed and age. Sometimes they stop laying in the heat of the summer and during winter. They lay best for their first two or three years of life, but a great laying breed, like a leghorn, will lay well for you for many years as long as she's well taken care of.
Baby chicks happen when a rooster mates with the hen, the one mating can fertilize a couple of weeks of eggs, so one mating doesn't necessarily equal only one fertile egg. After the egg cell is fertilized it moves through the reproductive tract and the shell forms around it (the shell always happens further down the line; sperm don't have to penetrate shells). She will lay a "clutch" (group of eggs) over a period of one to two weeks, and occasionally steal some eggs from her flockmates. When she decides her nest is full enough, she begins to sit on the eggs all day and all night.
Until this point the eggs are in a sort of suspended animation, once the eggs are exposed to her stable body temperature for awhile the embryos develop, that's why eggs all hatch on the same day even though they may have been laid weeks apart. She will sit on the eggs constantly, taking very few breaks to eat, drink or go to the bathroom over a 21 day period. The chicks usually hatch on day 21.
CB: I just purchased some fresh chicken eggs, should I wash them right away?
RB: You don't need to wash them right away. Eggs are laid with a protective invisible coating that helps keep bacteria out and reduce moisture loss. It's quite an evolutionary advantage when you've got an egg that's going to sit outside for a week before any hatching attempts begin. They will certainly keep longer if they are unwashed, if you want to wash them right before you use them, you certainly can. With the exception of the occasional egg that gets a little soiled, I tend to not wash eggs.
CB: How do you tell if a young chicken is a hen or a rooster?
RB: There are some breeds you can cross that create hybrids that are called sex-linked birds, the males all hatch out one color and the females another. There are a lot of folklore out there about other methods-- they tend to be right about 50% of the time. There is a fine art to chicken sexing (insert crude joke here), hatcheries pay specialists to examine the bird's vent (the all-purpose orafice where waste and eggs come out and sperm goes in) it's not an easy thing to decipher, which is why even the experts get it wrong about 5-10% of the time.
CB: Can you get salmonella from owning chickens?
RB: Yes, it is possible to get salmonella from owning chickens. Birds can be exposed to it in the environment. Rarely it makes it into the egg (I have heard figures in the range of 1 in every 20,000 eggs).
It's easily killed by heat and it should also be said that plenty of other pets, turtles for example, can give you salmonella. General hygiene is a good idea but it's not like you have a heard of plague rats in your yard.
CB: You talk about chickens a lot. As a chicken expert, is there one question you're sick of hearing?
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RB: There isn't so much a question that's asked too often, but every once in a while a person will start to argue that a hen won't lay eggs without a rooster. I explain that they will but sometimes I end up having to point out that girls still menstruate even if there aren't boys around. Nothing's a conversation killer like tossing a little menstruating into the mix.
I wish that all chicken owners would ask about the importance of keeping their birds cool in the summers here. Most of the people that I talk to about chickens are taking a class about raising backyard chickens, and care enough to be responsible bird owners, it's the second-hand horror stories I hear that are upsetting.