A good couple of years after apparently going through the “the change” and only a few months since she was regularly crowing at dawn, Andy Ninja’s back on the lay. They’re not particularly beautiful eggs – sometimes crimped like they’ve been extracted with forceps or she’s stopped for a breather mid-lay; sometimes exceedingly delicate; often broken – but eggs nonetheless. She seems to favour the long abandoned compost bin: quiet, private and less heavily policed by huffy uber-femmes than the nestbox. And thanks to my laziness in the composted-cardboard-shredding department, eggs laid there are even honestly labelled.
At the very same time Andy starts producing her miracle eggs, The Phantom Egg Eater has returned. It’s a suspicious coincidence. The veteran, yearning for the good old days when she trotted up to the house to lay an egg a day, regular as clockwork. The aging chicken willing to do anything to return to those glory days….
…anything… even taking other hens’ eggs… younger hens… pretenders to the throne… taking their lesser eggs and transmuting them, creating… yes!…. my very own marvellous eggs…
Okay, so I had fully worked up a vision of a tormented yet triumphant Andy Ninja, guiltily gorging herself, all to restore faded reproductive glory. But natural justice must be done: I needed proof.
In the quest to catch the egg eater in the act, I hot footed it to the bottom of the garden at the first triumphant cackle yesterday morning. Andy is just lifting herself off a still-warm mid-life egg. This one’s intact and I’ve stolen it before she has a chance have any kind of peck. She retreats, a picture of innocence. Content of the paragraph
But here’s a plot twist: as soon as Andy leaves the compost bin, Shyla the Australorp moseys in. Is she settling down to lay? No – moments later she reappears, looks around (are any witnesses?), and darts away. So it’s Shyla!
But wait! A minute or two later, Luna the Barred Rock arrives on the scene, ducks into the compost bin, peers about and then pops out again. Nothing to see here.
Oh my god! They’re all at it. It’s like Murder on the Orient Express!
I need a plan.
Someone on a backyard chicken forum recommended a strategy for dealing with egg-eaters: fill a cracked egg with hot English mustard. The culprit will gulp down what it thinks is the yolk and learn its lesson rather sharply.
No English mustard in the house, just a rather toothsome wholegrain French. And no broken egg. So why not cover one of the plastic ones with mustard and do a bit of pre-emptive operant conditioning? It seemed like a good idea at the time.
Only I forgot: the chooks like to snuggle up to the fake eggs as they settle down to lay, scooting their little plastic treasures from one side of the nestbox to the other if need be. With their beaks. I race down to the henhouse to find Luna and Treasure looking they’ve just eaten their first vindaloo. I do the only thing an empathetic chicken keeper would: given them a cooling slice of watermelon*.
So, chicken tongues soothed. But I’m still no closer to bringing to justice the Egg Eater.
This morning Andy popped out a broken egg, so it’s back to a more standard use of the mustard technique. We still don’t have English mustard so it’s a pretty disturbing looking yolk – if chooks are anything like as smart as animal behaviour researchers say they are they wouldn’t touch it with a 40 foot pole.
This time there’s no sign of repeat offenders panting in the evening breeze. But by nightfall the egg and its condimenticality have disappeared entirely. No shell fragments. No spillage.
Now, it is possible that the hens as a group are very very tidy eaters with a surprising love of spicy flavours. Alternatively, maybe somewhere nearby there’s a diamond python with a serious stomach ache.
*Okay, rather suffering from mustard-mouth, Luna and Treasure might have simply been hot, since chickens don’t sweat and it was a steamy old day. Did I mention that chicken breathe using air sac that extend into their bones?!!? Oh yes, I did. Well, they also maintain a consistent temperature by dumping heat into those air sacs (and connected pneumatic bones). Dinosaurs probably did it that way too… according to Mathew J Wedel in “Vertebral pneumaticity, air sacs, and the physiology of sauropod dinosaurs” Paleobiology 29(2) 2003 pp.243-55.
Literally and figuratively cool….