by Meredith Chilson
Photos by author
Finally. There are beginning to be a few more eggs in the nest boxes.
The older hens are finishing up their molt—the new feathers are looking lovely, all strong and shiny. I’ve been adding a bit of protein to their diets in the form of mealworms, and I think this may have speeded up the re-growth process. I also supplement their layer feed with flax seed, and occasionally, meat scraps. There are plenty of sources that recommend hardboiled or scrambled eggs for extra protein—but I feel it a bit odd to be buying eggs to feed to my hens so that they will start laying eggs again!
Experience from last winter, with these same older hens, has prepared me for only a few eggs from them until spring, but even a few of their big, hard-shelled beauties will be worth the wait.
The chicks that hatched in May are also beginning to lay regular sized eggs routinely. The five Barred Rocks were the first – at about 20 weeks, I noticed that their combs were turning bright red, and it wasn’t long after that the first pullet eggs appeared in the nest boxes. Soon after, the young Rhode Island Reds, Tina and Ginger, began greeting me with the squat that signals egg-laying time is near.
That leaves only the four Speckled Sussex from this spring’s hatch. Oh yes, the Speckled Sussex.
|Henrietta–one of the Ya-Ya Sisters|
I chose Speckled Sussex from the Meyer Hatchery catalog after several months of indecision. I allowed myself an order of a dozen chicks, total.
I knew I wanted Barred Plymouth Rocks because they are beautiful, they lay brown eggs, do well in cold weather (I live in Western New York where temperatures often drop below zero for a while in the winter), and well…they are beautiful. They were cute little chicks and they have developed such friendly personalities that our choice of name for the five of them was perfect: we’ve called them the “Ya-Ya” Sisters since day one.
I chose Rhode Island Reds because I’ve had that breed since I first started keeping chickens—they were my first favorite. I know them to be cold hardy, good layers and willing to be picked up and held by my grandchildren. We’ve had several entertaining Rhode Island Red hens with really interesting personalities.
And then, I chose Speckled Sussex. I loved the pictures of the heavy hens. Their full-breasted bodies made their heads look small! The description of “mahogany colored feathers with white spangles on the ends” made me think of proud British ladies wearing feathery capes. The Sussex were also described as “very cold hardy”, as well as very good brown egg layers with a calm disposition.
When chicks first arrive here, whether by hatch or by mail truck, it’s usually early spring and still chilly. We keep them in a circular pen, under a heat lamp, in our attached garage. My husband and I, and any other interested observers, take our coffee out and sit in lawn chairs and watch the babies, much like others watch TV (and much like we still do, out in the yard!). From the beginning, we noticed a couple of things about the Speckled Sussex chicks.
For one thing, they had stripes. We couldn’t decide whether they looked more like chipmunks or chickadees—thus the names Simon, Theodora, Alvin and Dee-Dee. They were really, really cute, those striped babies.
|Really cute babies–see the stripes?|
And…they were fast. While the other chicks were casually wandering around the pen, rooting in the litter a bit maybe, these little birds were zipping around the water jug, over the feeder, and in and around the other birds. They were skittish, too. The Rhode Island and Barred Rock chicks were easy to catch, pick up and hold. The Sussex had no interest at all in being held and cuddled. They’d jump and hop and dive away from hands that might or might not have wanted to capture them. Knowing no other local farmer that raised this breed of chickens, I kept going back to the page in the hatchery catalog that listed the disposition as “calm”. I was never able to use that term with this particular bunch of chicks.
On mild spring days, I like to take chicks outside and introduce them to the feel of grass between their toes and let them scratch around in the yard. I have a wire pen that works nicely for this. Let me rephrase—the wire pen worked nicely for the young Barred Rocks and Rhodies. If I was able to capture any of the Sussex chicks and take them outside to the pen, they immediately began pacing the perimeter and trying to wiggle through the wire or use their developing wings to fly out. Once they all gathered on one side of the wire and crowded and pushed until the pen tipped over and all the chicks were no longer contained. Not that the vocal beckoning made any difference, but I’m sure my neighbors may have wondered why I was calling, “ DeeDee! Simon! Theodora! ALVIN!!” After that
adventure, the Speckled Sussex were no longer let out into that outside pen.
By the time the young birds had grown feathers, the days were longer and milder, so they graduated to the “Teenager Apartment” in the coop. As I’ve described in other posts, I introduced the chicks to the older hens through use of our chicken tractor/summer house. The Speckled Sussex hated it. They spent the whole day trying to get out of it—if I opened the door to add water or another chicken, they’d rush the opening and escape. Usually they tried to get back in their coop apartment; occasionally they’d just rush aimlessly around the yard.
I researched the Sussex breed and found an article written in 2010 by Janet Vorwald Dohner inMother Earth News. According to this article, the Sussex chicken is a wonderful free-range forager, as well as a heavy layer. The free range part did not seem to apply to my fearful chickens that preferred the inside of the coop to the wide, wide world, but I had hopes that the heavy layer part would.
I am aware that some birds do not start laying until they are eight or nine months old. I have read, too, that those that do begin laying eggs later often have fewer reproductive issues than those that lay at an early age. The short daylight hours and the cooler temperatures also may be a deterrent. All my research tells me that when the birds are physically mature they will lay eggs.
|Notice the spangles on her feathery cape!|
At nearly seven months of age, my Speckled Sussex hens sport gorgeous, almost iridescent feathers (with spangles, as promised!), and they have filled out as beautifully as the hens in the hatchery catalog. We may even have to wait until spring for eggs, but while we wait, I review what I’ve learned from these birds….and I realize I’ve learned quite a bit.
It seemed that they didn’t like to be out in the big world, so I didn’t put them in the summerhouse for long periods of time—only an hour or so a day until they gradually adjusted. I believed part of the problem might have been all the open air—the lack of security, so I covered part of the screened tractor with a tarp. It seemed they didn’t like to be handled, so I waited until they were on their evening roosts, and then I petted them and talked softly until they relaxed a bit. At first they pecked me each time I reached toward them, but eventually they let me pick them up without too much complaint and grew a bit friendlier. I thought about the article that promoted these birds as wonderful free-rangers, and I realized that their skittishness, fear of unprotected areas, and nervousness are all skills that would keep them alive on an open range. These are natural instincts for this breed of bird.
So, just as my Speckled Sussex hens remind me that their instincts really do take precedence over my preferences as far as temperament—I will remind myself, too, that some time in the future, their biological clocks will naturally “ding!” –and the beautiful hens will present me with eggs in the nest boxes. I’m sure of it.
|Photo Op for Alvin|