Fun Facts About Chickens and Eggs
When you bring urban-raised kids to a farm, you get many great questions. Sometimes to answer these questions, a science lesson in anatomy and sex-ed must be incorporated, as well as digestive processes and nutrient recycling (POOP!).
"Can we hatch these eggs?" a group of earnest sixth graders ask me.
“No,” I explain, “those eggs will never become chicks because there isn’t a rooster in here with the hens – remember we learned the rooster is the only male chicken.”
“Why do they need a male?”
Really? “Um, well…” I stammered looking to the teacher for help. She nodded at me, “it’s okay, we’ve had sex-ed class.”
1) Will the eggs become chicks?
Those eggs will never become chicks if there isn’t a rooster because they need to be fertilized. Regardless of whether there is a rooster or not, chickens on the farm lay an egg every one to one and a half days. To contrast, women only menstruate and release an egg monthly (thank god).
Some people prefer to buy eggs that have been fertilized by a rooster, believing that it conveys certain health benefits or tastes different. In any case, once you remove these eggs from the heat of their nesting mother they will stop developing. The eggs you see in a carton are long gone - therefore don't encourage your kids to try making them hatch by sitting on them. You'll get lots of quiet time, but one very disappointed kid.
2) Why don't chickens always sit on their eggs?
So if the chickens don't know themselves which eggs are viable chicks and which are not, why do they get up and leave the eggs?
When a chicken is sitting on her eggs we say she is "brooding." Chickens will only get 'broody' from time to time, according to some mysterious cycle. At this point the hen is overcome with the mothering instinct and sits her bottom down on those potential offspring. Of course, brooding makes it more difficult for the farmer to collect eggs, and it means the hen isn't out there eating and pecking and doing its other normal chicken duties. So selective breeding has created breeds of laying hens that are less likely to become "broody" or motherly.
3) Don't eggs have to be refrigerated?
At the farm, the kids noticed that after collecting the eggs we don’t refrigerate them right away. Not until we clean them that is. This is because when the eggs are laid, they are coated in an oily substance called the bloom, that seals the pores on the eggshell and prevents bacteria from entering. However, because our buying customers prefer their eggs to not have any feathers, mud, blood, or dried egg on them, we lightly wash our eggs before cartoning them. The water removes the oily bloom, making it necessary to refrigerate the eggs.
4) Why are eggs different colors?
It depends entirely upon the breed of chicken. Eggs can be white, brown, green and blue. So why are our grocery stores overrun with white eggs? Many people just happen to have developed a preference for white eggs. However there is no nutritional or taste difference between differently colored eggs.
Be generally wary of eco-labels claiming free range, pasture raised, or cage free - they're not regulated or certified operations. See my hub on Ecolabels.
4) Why are chickens put in pens with sheep or cows?
Chickens like to eat the insects found in sheep or cow manure. This has two benefits: (1) The chickens act as a natural pest control, keeping bug populations down, and (2) As they search for the insects they scratch at the poop, spreading it across the ground and helping to fertilize the soil.
Free-range or pasture raised eggs bought from a local farmer may cost more than a carton at the grocery store, but that's because you're buying a superior product with many more health benefits.
5) How are pasture raised chicken eggs better for you?
According to the USDA, pasture raised laying hens produce eggs with 10% less fat, 34% less cholesterol, 40% more vitamin A, and 400% more omega-3 fatty acids. This is because the birds are eating what they were evolved to eat: insects, worms, and grasses, and are getting the nutritionally complex benefits from this natural diet.
The alternative to pasture raised chicken eggs are eggs raised in CAFOs, or factory farms, where millions of chickens are crowded together indoors and fed a diet of grain. Some CAFOs also keep their chickens in individual cages too tiny for the chicken to stand up. Such conditions cannot produce healthy chickens (see my hub on CAFOs). Unhealthy chicken, unhealthy egg.
6) How do chickens chew?
They don't! Chickens don't have teeth so how do they break down their food?
As they grub around, chickens swallow bits of dirt and sand that travel through the stomach and into the gizzard, a muscle in the stomach that mushes the grit around with the food to help break it down.
At the end of the day, the kids’ questions keep you going – they make you laugh and they stun you with their earnesty and logic.
“If it’s called the Kids Workshop Barn, why are we eating lunch in it?” one sixth grader asked me, though I could barely hear him through the howling wind and rain. Herding him to shelter with his classmates, I said “Well probably because we need to change our sign.”