By Joanna Lucas,
Peaceful Prairie Sanctuary
The Egg "Hunt"
At Peaceful Prairie Sanctuary, the eggs are given back to their rightful owners, the Birds, who not only eat them with great enthusiasm, but eagerly anticipate, and participate in, the daily egg collecting rituals-following you around as you inspect the usual cubbyholes, watching your every move with breathless expectation, anticipation, chasing you from barn to barn, storming through open (or shut) gates, and voicing their eagerness in a constant stream of comments, questions, counsel, and complaints. [Watch youtube video here: http://www.youtube.com/embed/imNDOrhYnq4?rel=0 ]
This egg "hunt" was fruitless—much to everyone's (emphatically expressed) disappointment—but, while it yielded no treats for the hens, it attested, once again, to the important but overlooked fact that chickens not only love to eat their own eggs, but they need the nutrients that are otherwise leeched from their bodies by being forced to lay eggs at such an abnormally high rate. ("Layer" hens have been genetically manipulated to produce 250-300 eggs a year, one almost every day, compared to the nestful of eggs that their free-living cousins lay only once a year, and only to keep the species going.) [Watch youtube video here: http://www.youtube.com/embed/-MRD3M-CbpA?rel=0 ]
The Egg Feast
If the first "egg hunt" was fruitless, today's expedition resulted in the much anticipated prize: the Egg Feast. Eggs are such highly valued resources among chickens—prized both as delicacies and sources of necessary nutrients—that the birds rush to devour them as soon as we crack open the shells.
What's remarkable is that, despite the egg's treasured treat status, and despite the mad urgency with which the birds race to consume it to the last golden drop, they remain courteous, cooperative and restrained while sharing the treasure. If any disputes arise, they are settled quickly, effectively and harmlessly by voice warnings, stern eye contact, or quick, and mostly symbolic, pecking gestures that are intended to alert, not to inflict harm. What's even more remarkable is that the dispute is not about the food prize, but about the "offender's" conduct, and the rebuke is not meant to secure a larger piece of the egg pie for the plaintiff, but to teach, or enforce, social expectations, boundaries and behaviors.
When someone joins the feast "correctly", there are no objections. For instance, no one minds Jasper, the turkey. He comes to the banquet the right way: he approaches slowly, quietly, respectfully, pecking around (not at) the egg a few times before taking a real bite, and he deferentially steps aside when Zena, the white hen, joins the group. But when Vinny, the gander, waddles in, honking and hissing, whirring and rattling, swinging his neck wildly, and bobbing his head in excitement, he gets told off and shooed off in no uncertain terms. The scolding is not about denying him a share of the treat-there was hardly any treat left by the time he got there-it's about teaching him good chicken manners. And Vinny complies.
But perhaps the most memorable, and moving, aspect of the Egg Feast—an occasion one might expect to find fraught with competition and contention-is the roosters' selfless conduct. When the eggs are tossed on the ground, and the hens hustle to eat them, none of the roosters tries to partake of the delicacy. They merely patrol the area, walking around the hens, and watching over them as they enjoy their treat. Only Jiri, the newest, youngest, and most inexperienced rooster at the sanctuary, eventually takes a few tentative bites, but only after the hens have consumed the most coveted part of the egg: the calcium-laden shell. He's a rookie. As he matures, he too will learn to limit his participation in the Egg Feast to surveilling the area, and to alerting the absent hens of the good thing they're missing, the way Roy, Ivan and Igor, the established roosters, do.
Egg production on ANY scale, from hobby farms to factory farms, is predicated on the mass killing of "unproductive" birds—the roosters, who do not lay eggs, and the hens themselves when they become "spent" (unable to lay eggs at a profitable rate), at 1.5 to 2.5 years of age, a fraction of a chicken's lifespan. The day-old roosters are killed by suffocation or maceration at the very hatcheries that supply backyard egg enthusiasts and big producers alike with laying hens. If the roosters are hatched on the farm, they are killed on the farm, usually as adolescents.