My neighbours have built a chicken coop (‘a chook shed’ as we Aussies say) in their suburban backyard with high hopes of having fresh eggs for breakfast for many years to come. It’s a good plan and one to which people the world over have subscribed for many, many centuries. Today’s domesticated chickens are, apparently, descended from the Red Jungle Fowl of South Asia. The Romans are thought to have brought chickens to Britain with them and it’s the descendants of that Roman poultry that have become the focus of some intense archaeological studies in the past few years. What particularly drew the archaeologists’ attention was the discovery of substantial increases in the quantity of chicken remains that could be dated between the 9th and 12th centuries. Though chickens had been an easy and popular feature of even the humblest farms prior to, and following those centuries, several studies noted that the 9th – 12th century increase correlated with a surge and expansion of the farming and fasting practices of the Benedictine monks: they abstained from the eating of meat from quadrupeds but, as birds (and their eggs) were not considered to be ‘meat’ – having only two legs – the raising of chickens on their monastery lands was a good way of feeding the monks and honouring their fasting obligations. The spread and influence of the Benedictines in these centuries very soon saw their fasting practices adopted by large portions of Christian society. A simple case of chicken and egg.
It got me thinking about a chicken and egg experience of my own.
One year, in an effort to give our city-born-and-bred daughters a taste of ‘rural life’, we hired a farmhouse cottage for the July school holidays. The cottage was ‘rustic’ to say the least, with bare, unsealed floors, lumpy beds and no heating except for a wood-burning stove in the little living room. This left the kitchen and bedrooms bitterly cold in the Oberon winter. Still, we reasoned that frosty breath in the morning, and icicles on the windows were part of the adventure. A blanket of snow in the surrounding yard was also a bonus. In the yard, too, much to the delight of three little girls, was a chicken coop with one – and only one – fat, red hen. The farmer, greeting us on our arrival, told the children that the hen’s name was ‘Henrietta’ and, pointing them to a bag of chicken feed, he said that they could feed her each morning and evening. They were beside themselves with joy and, as soon as the farmer took his leave, they were in the coop with Henrietta.
“Be gentle with her,” I instructed.
“We will, Mummy, but we just love her. Do you think she’ll lay some eggs?”
“Well, I certainly hope so,” I replied. “That’s what hens do.” What I, as a city-born-and-bred mother did not know, however, was that chickens don’t lay very reliably when the mercury is sitting below freezing most of the day and night.
Now, whether it was indeed the freezing weather, or the hen’s nervousness at being so greatly loved by three little girls, the first week passed without my daughters discovering a single egg in Henrietta’s coop.
“Mumma, you said she’d lay eggs,” they moaned as they tramped despondently back into the cottage empty-handed again.
Our days at the farm were ticking by and, with only four mornings left, I decided to take the egg production business into my own hands. After the girls were asleep that night, I crept out to the chicken coup with a torch in one hand, and a fine, brown egg from a carton purchased at the local supermarket in the other, and I carefully placed the egg next to a somewhat alarmed chook.
The next morning the girls made their way doggedly to the hen-house, mumbling that it would be another waste of time. I smiled quietly to myself as I heard their excited cries.
“Mummy, Mummy, look. Come quickly,” they shouted.
I ran out, arranging a fake look of surprise on my face as I went, but my pretence turned to real surprise when the girls stood in front of me with an egg each in their hands.
“Mummy, Henrietta’s laid three eggs,” they said, proudly holding up their discoveries for my inspection. There, in front of my eyes, were three brown eggs – and only one of them was store-bought.
Over the remaining days of our farm stay Henrietta managed to produce two eggs each morning, without any prompting from me and, nearly twenty years on, Henrietta lives on in the memories of my daughters – and of me, especially – as a chook who could take a hint. Like most of us, all she needed was a little encouragement.