So listen, I’m still a novice chicken-raiser. Really novice. Like yesterday when we were supposed to get pummeled by storms and everyone was calling me, going “Oh my god, THE NUGGETS!” I seriously considered bringing them inside and letting them snuggle under the covers with me and the cat while the storm blew past.
I didn’t do it. But I thought about it for a minute.
Turns out it doesn’t matter how little you actually know about poultry, once you have a small flock running around your back yard, everyone thinks you’re a chicken whisperer. I am not the Master of All Things Chicken (yet) but I’m pretty good with google, actually, so here are the questions I get asked most often, and the truth behind my little feathered friends.
A Nugget By Any Other Name
Chickens, originally, did not scratch around in our domesticated backyards and really fricking fancy coops, but ran free though the jungle. That’s right. Jungle. Chickens are a domesticated species of the Red Junglefowl.
So, babies are chicks..
This is pretty universal.
Females under a year (or until they start laying eggs) are called “pullets”
Males under a year are called “cockrels”
Mature females are called “hens”
Mature males are called “roosters” in the US, or “cocks” pretty much everywhere else in the world.
(Yeah, we all giggled at that because if you spend any time on this website at all, you know the maturity scale tops out at about the level of a twelve year old boy around here.)
The term “chickens” pretty much refers to the birds collectively (as does the term “yardbird” if you’re weird and from the South) and it’s not actually a technical term… apparently it’s just some derivative of the term “chick” that we use universally now.
So there you go.
The Rooster and The Egg
I can’t even tell you the number of variations I’ve had on this conversation over the last few months, but it’s surprisingly high.
Person or persons who shall remain nameless: So you don’t have a rooster?
Them: But you’ll still get eggs?
Me: Yeah. You don’t need a rooster to have eggs, you just need a rooster to have baby chicks.
Them: I’m so confused.
My favorite add-on to that conversation (and this has happened more than once) is:
Me: So, how did you think an egg gets fertilized?
Them: I don’t know. I thought the chicken would lay an egg and then the Rooster would come along and… do something to it…
Me: Just. Ah… I don’t even know… what? What exactly do you think they… No. Don’t tell me. That’s just… definitely not how it works.
And then, in lieu of having a conversation your parents or Health teacher should have head with you about cycles and the “birds and the bees” (a chicken is, in fact, a bird, which means this may be the only real-life application of that euphemism ever), I usually just shake my head and walk away.
But I’m about to buy two versions of this awesome poster from Amanda Visell at Switcheroo, and hang one in my office and one in my house, then I can just refer people to this:
I don’t know Amanda personally, but judging by her description of this poster, we could totally be BFF:
The reproductive cycle of the chicken OR why you don’t need a rooster to lay an egg. Yes, that is actually true, just like humans. Half of you just got more confused.
Just to be clear (and according to this poster) “if the rooster loves the hen very much, he gives her a big hug, the egg gets fertilized in the ovaduct and 21 days later a chicken hatches.”
So. Fifth grade science lesson complete. We clear?
Cool. Because I’m not going into any further explanation about chicken sex.
No Yolk: It’s Not Chick
I get this. I mean chicks are yellow, yolks are yellow, clearly a yolk must be an unformed chick. Okay 1.) gross. 2.) no.
The yolk– which is technically a “yolk sack” but I don’t find that adding the word “sack” as a descriptor makes anything seem more… edible– is actually the protein and vitamins that a chick embryo feeds off of while it’s developing in the egg. Like, when a human baby develops it gets nutrients when mom eats, but clearly an egg is self contained, so the nutrients need to come from somewhere else. Hence, yolk sack.
You may see a tiny white dot on the outside of the yolk. That’s the “germinal disk” and is the part of the cell that would become an embryo if fertilized. By chicken sperm.
Yep, I just said that. By the time this post is over, no one is going to eat eggs ever again.
But think of it this way, the yolk contains all the protein and nutrients to support new life, so it’s actually really good for you. I know we’ve been taught that egg yolks are the devil–ha ha–of cholesterol, but Harvard says you’re wrong about that. But whatevs, eat what you want.
A less awkward question that people also ask often, is why the chickens don’t run away when I just let them roam freely around the yard.
And by “yard” I mean “under the pine trees, on the front porch, side patio, and back deck.”
Obviously they don’t run away because they love me and couldn’t live without me. Or else because chickens, jungle-dwellers by nature, don’t actually like to wander around wide open spaces. I have no idea if this would work if I lived in a house set back in woods, but currently my house and pine trees are surrounded by a lot of area where there’s no place for chickens to do what they do best– duck and run for cover. So naturally they stay close, both to the house and to each other.
The best description I’ve read of how the flock operates is in this article about guinea hens from Mark Bowden:
[The flock has] four modes: eating, sleeping, chattering, and screaming in terror. Here’s what you need to know about a flock: it has no idea what is happening, it is scared of everything, it makes noise constantly, and its long-term memory is about five seconds. You may note a resemblance here to how news disseminates on the Internet and cable TV.
Communication among flock members is very simple. In English, it would go something like this:
“Good over here.”
“I’m okay too.”
“What was that?”
“Oh, my God!”
“Oh, my God!”
“Oh, my God!”
At which point they flee and flutter pell-mell. Unbridled terror lasts for just a few seconds, which is as long as it takes them to forget whatever it was that prompted the stampede. The behavior repeats.
My girls are not quite that bad. Mostly. But that whole saying of “birds of a feather, flock together” totally true, with the exception of the cat who they also try to flock with sometimes. He tolerates this admirably.
The Nuggets also head back into the coop on their own around dusk, and tuck themselves in up on the roost. They do this every single day, without fail.
It cracks me up every time.
So really, all I have to do is close the coop up at night, and let them out in the morning. Eventually I’ll have a specific area fenced off for them to range in so that my hostas are protected from their destruction, and– more importantly– so they’re better protected from the racoons and coyotes around here.
And that, right now, is what I know about chickens. I’ll tell you what though, these nuggets teach me something new every single day.
Like, you know, how best to clean chicken poop off a door mat. And also how to really enjoy the hell out of farm life.