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Field Notes: Fresh Eggs through the Winter

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When we moved to Northern Wisconsin in 2019, our property contained an old pigeon coop, insulated, screened, and well lit. So of course, weeks after we moved in, my farmer father lovingly showed up with 40 fertilized eggs in a hatching incubator so that my boys could get the experience of growing their own chickens and collecting eggs. 26 hatchlings and 3 years of fresh eggs later, my knowledge of both chicken biology and Northwoods winters have grown and this knowledge will hopefully help as we look to introduce a couple of new hens to our flock this summer.

Our first biology lesson occurred as the chicks hatched. Temperature and humidity were key in the incubator to help the inner egg membranes detach from the shell. As chicks pip or use their special egg tooth to break through the shell, they encounter a internal protein layer that creates nanostructures that make the inner part of the shell easier to break through than the stronger outer calcium carbonate layers. To protect developing chicks, the white albumen of the egg contains strong antimicrobial components, and the yolk has antibodies that transfer to the chick as it hatches. It can take up to 24 hrs for chicks to hatch after they first break through and during that time they absorb as much of their yolk as possible. The energy and antibodies from the yolk allows the chicks to survive at least 2 days before they need water and food.

So much happens inside the egg that dictates the success of the hatched birds. One example that I find amazing is the development of chicken eyesight. A chick inside an egg will turn so that its right eye is facing the light just prior to hatching. The light-exposed right eye will therefore develop near sightedness and be used for searching for food on the ground. The left eye develops facing the shaded body and will be farsighted. When predators fly over the top of a flock of chickens, look for them to turn their left eye to the skies in search of overhead predators!

One of the hardest things about hatching the chicks was to keep myself from plucking off shell pieces as the chicks emerged or nudging along the hatching of a struggling chick. We learned the hard way that ‘helping’ a hatching chick doesn’t often lead to a happy outcome. Only one of three that we tried to help managed to survive and his name was Hobble Wobble. While beautiful, noisy, crooked limbed, and friendly to the end, he wouldn’t have made it without the assisted hatching and persistent additional care and attention of a certain 10 year old.

After distributing some chicks to friends and harvesting some noisy roosters, we ended up with 6 laying hens. Within a week of moving the birds from our garage to our outside coop, we had muddy fox prints all around and regularly saw the new visitor loping across the driveway. Fortunately, the coop has chicken wire dug at least 10 inches down into the ground and has held multiple fox, skunk, and mink visitors at bay!

Hens that lay are a whole new adventure. First off, I had no idea that new layers produce the cutest, tiny eggs called pullet eggs. The eggs will increase in size gradually until the hens reach full adulthood. Once they are up and running, layers can pop out an egg once every 26 hours! They do have seasonality in laying. Like many birds, my hens molt in the fall as days get shorter and cooler. Egg laying will stop as they invest energy in a new fluffy feather bank to warm them through the winter. And, older layers sometimes take the whole winter off, focusing their energy on staying warm rather than cranking out eggs. Artificially lighting the chickens with 16 hrs of light per day can keep them laying through the winter months but this will get harder and harder as they get older. Our plan is to introduce a couple of new hens this summer so we can keep eggs coming next winter but give our older ladies a well-deserved break to recharge during the colder seasons.

Incredibly, many chickens can adapt to extreme cold conditions. Since we have many nights in the Northwoods below -10 we provide some heat in our coop, but are always impressed how most chickens can survive and thrive in cool conditions if provided proper bedding, shelter from winds and moisture, and food and water. Some chicken varieties are more cold-adapted than others but overall keeping them safe through the Wisconsin winters has proved easier than I expected. They don’t make a lot of appearances in the winter outside of their warm coop but as temperatures increase, they have started to emerge pecking and waiting to grab up those first spring insects.

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Gretchen Gerrish works for UW-Madison's Trout Lake Station through the Center for Limnology. She studies how evolutionary and ecological processes interact to allow natural systems to deal with change over time.