My chickens lay their own Easter eggs

 

My first baby chicks arrived 10 years ago, just after midnight on Easter Sunday. The post office, of course, was closed, but I got the call to come get them, as happens when live animals are shipped. I've been rocking a flock ever since.

Those who raise backyard chickens will inevitably go through an obsessive phase as the fledgling flockster  -- this word comes from Harvey Ussery's book, “The Small-Scale Poultry Flock” -- dotes on his or her birds, inundating friends with stories, photos and even birthday party invitations.

The eggs themselves are what drag many flocksters into the game; Reverence for the egg increases their love for the mother. For others, egg appreciation starts with a love for the hens, which deepens the feeling for their eggs. Which one comes first depends on the flockster.

Flocksters and celebrants of Easter alike use eggs in their respective rituals. And lately, members of both contingents find themselves with prettily colored eggs. My little flock includes a blue egg-laying araucana, a blue-greenish egg laying ameraucana, and two black australorps that lay light and dark reddish-brown eggs. When I pull these precious gems from the hens' nesting boxes, I get the thrill of an Easter egg hunt in patriotic shades of red, white and blue. On a daily basis.

This year, Easter falls right before Earth Day, which is in many ways a modern rendition of Ostara, the pagan spring equinox party. Earth Day is an appropriate time for Easter in my book, because whatever you do, and whatever you call it, if you celebrate spring you're also honoring the earth and its cycle of seasons. The hen is a reminder that if you take care of Mother Nature, she will take care of you.

Proper care of my ladies this year included two bags of stale marshmallows that I found in the cupboard. After dumping them in the chicken yard, I was surprised to see the hens ignore the marshmallows. Then I had to deal with my kid trying to climb into the chicken yard to eat them. A few days later, one of the hens realized that if you peck hard enough on the dried outer skin of those white things, there is soft sweetness inside. At that point, the marshmallows quickly vanished from the chicken yard. The next day I found four eggs, colored red, white, blue and green.

Though I won't make a habit of feeding marshmallows to my hens, I'm not above pampering them. Thus, while buying chicken feed, I also picked up some healthy snacks. The first was a gallon-sized pail of dried bugs.  “Chicken Grub Insect Medley,” to be specific. Ingredients: Dried mealworms, dried silkworm pupae, dried crickets, dried shrimp, dried earthworms.

The ingredients seem to confirm what I'd long suspected, that shrimp are basically saltwater bugs. As you hold the tub of creepy-crawlies with the lid off, every vibration of your hand will make them all appear to squirm around. The sight made the ladies in my coop as happy as it made me squeamish.

Based on how captivating jiggling bugs are, it's obvious that the human brain is hard-wired to notice them. It makes sense, as they could represent not only a potential menace, but also potential nutrition. My hens experienced no conflict, only desire.

The other treat I got was a mix called poultry conditioner. Marketed as a supplement for competition and show chickens, it is formulated with a bunch of nutrients and digestive aids to help the birds extract as many vitamins, minerals, pigments, proteins and other materials from their food as possible. I figured that these goodies, in addition to making the birds look pretty, would also make them healthier. In any case, the poultry conditioner, and maybe the bugs, too, have made the eggs look more like Easter eggs than ever.

Today's Easter reverses centuries of springtime fertility worship celebrations by focusing not on the mother but on the son. But how can you celebrate the one without the other? It's like the famous question: Which came first? This time we know the answer: Both. What's nice about celebrating spring is that you're celebrating the never-ending cycle that is both creation and the creator at the same time. Dried bugs are completely optional.

Ari LeVaux is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News. He writes about food and food politics in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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