There is a sound in a U.S. post office that is considerably rare and completely unique: the steady, eager peeping of hatchling chicks in transit. This past week the post office in downtown Point Reyes Station served its usual small town social functions, but was also a brief stopping point for hundreds of newly-hatched birds that will grow up to be laying hens for our famously delicious eggs. Chicks are hatched in central California and are 3 days old by the time they reach Rogers Ranch in well-vented cardboard shipping boxes. Their first living space on the ranch is a warm, dry, and insulated “brooder” – essentially a wooden box with water, feed, dry bedding (we use wood shavings and rice hulls, a byproduct of rice processing), and heat lamps that are set to turn on when the temperature drops too low. Right now, when the birds are young and still fairly vulnerable, they feel great when the temperature is in the mid-80s. The chicks have 2 months to grow up and feather out before they’re moved to pasture.
This is a remarkable process to watch. Leave the ranch for a week and you’ll come back to what seems like a completely different bunch of birds. They grow quickly; their colors change and they lose their baby down feathers. Their social order (truly the “pecking order”) begins to establish as groups of birds are mixed together into one large flock.
And then one day they’re out to pasture, scratching for bugs, nibbling on grass, moving around the fields after the cattle, flourishing in the sunshine and open space. Three great big, white Great Pyrenees-cross dogs live with the chickens all the time, guarding against the ranch’s local predators.
Right now we are in prime time for egg production. A hen’s instinct to produce and lay an egg is dictated in part by daylight; one theory is that short summer nights provide less exposure to nocturnal predators and hence better survival rates for freshly-hatched chicks, and the nutritional needs of these omnivore birds can be best met in the fertile spring season. Whatever the reason, it’s a fact of nature we allow to take its course – enjoy the eggs now before the supply drops off in winter!