Mustard our prize double-yolker laying hen is moulting. The household has been thrown into gloom as that means our daily three or four eggs will drop to two or three if we are lucky.
We are relatively new to keeping chickens and last year, when our skittish white spanish hen Bustle suddenly lost most of her feathers, stopped laying and looked like she needed a month at an expensive spa, we thought that her days were numbered. Luckily after some swift research on Google, we realised that she wasn´t suffering from some appalling chicken ailment but was just updating her look with a new and pristine set of feathers. The whole painful episode is called Moulting and is the chicken equivalent to having a really bad hair day for about two months.
It starts with the sudden appearance of a lot of feathers strewn around the chicken coop. At first we thought the other ¨ladies¨ had been picking on her, which had happened a year earlier when she had been the new girl in the coop. We had been told that it was important to introduce a new chicken to a flock at night when the rest of the ¨ladies¨were fast asleep. That way when they awoke in the morning they would think that the new girl had been there all along. I was highly sceptical of this plan because our other hens are brown and Bustle is a luminous white. She wasn´t exactly going to blend in.
Nevertheless, Teenage Son and I crept out when it was pitch black carrying Bustle in our cat carrier and sneaked up to the hencoop. The other three hens were fast asleep balancing on the perches so we carefully opened the cat carrier door and tried to extract Bustle and put her on a perch. She had been gently dozing and when she was rudely awakened by a large hand trying to drag her out of her bedroom, she began to squawk and cling on to the edges of the carrier door. Teenage Son and I had been whispering quietly so as not to wake the other hens but that quickly became impossible as we wrestled with an outraged hen that refused to be rehomed. Meanwhile the other hens were starting to stir and as Teenage Son whispered desperately ¨she won´t let go!¨ I said ¨just gently but firmly pull her out and shove her in the coop¨. There was a moments silence as he pulled against the straining hen who was clinging onto the edge of the door and then her grip slipped and he pushed her into the coop. All hell broke loose.
Bustle flapped and squawked wildly and promptly knocked the other chickens off their perches. Convinced that the local fox was paying them a visit, they became hysterical and flew around the coop in panic. “That went well” said Teenage Son as the flapping and shrieking continued and we ran back to the house bent double with laughter. After her awkward introduction, poor Bustle had to put up with being at the bottom of the pecking order (the saying really does come from chickens) and her plumage suffered for a couple of weeks as every time she offended her flock mates they would mercilessly pull out some feathers which would blow around the coop.
Moulting, on the other hand, involves the loss of nearly all the feathers until the chicken looks like it has escaped from someone´s oven. At one point, Bustle had no tail at all apart from a small pink nub. As well as the indignity of losing their feathers, a chicken in moult stops laying eggs. This can go on for months and with Bustle the egg yield suffered to the point where Husband would mutter darkly about putting the unfortunate hen in the stew pot. Luckily just when I began to consider buying another hen to provide enough eggs for breakfast and to keep up with Teenage Daughter´s prolific baking, Bustle surprised everyone by producing a beautiful pearly white egg to match her new feathers.
After all this drama, things returned to normal until yesterday when I noticed some brown feathers in the coop and Mustard looking distinctly dishevelled. I wish a quick visit to a chicken beautician would sort her out but I´m afraid we must expect fewer eggs for breakfast until her Great Reveal some time in mid April when she will be transformed back to an object of beauty and hopefully begin laying her trademark double yolkers again.