I’ve just had a couple of soft-to-medium brown-shelled boiled eggs for breakfast, liberally flavoured with ground Himalayan salt and cracked black pepper and accompanied by perfectly-cut dip-sized toast soldiers (okay, enough with the multiple hyphenated adjectives) and that got me thinking about chickens and eggs. The classic question is which came first: the chicken (by which I mean a hen) or the egg? I won’t dwell on this old chestnut except to summarise five possible answers thus:
- The scientific answer—the chicken because egg shells contain a protein found only in the ovaries of chickens hence the shell cannot pre-exist the chicken.
- The dialectical approach, one based on logic and linear cause-effect relationships that concludes there is no logical explanation. The egg created the chicken just as the chicken created the egg. A Catch-22 situation.
- The evolutionary approach which traces the development of a chicken through thousands of years of evolution starting with the first cell that developed in Darwin’s warm little pond.
- The Biblical explanation that affirms that God created all winged creatures on the fifth day of creation and having done so urged them to go forth and multiply, that is, produce eggs (Genesis 1.21).
- Small child’s approach: the egg “because we have eggs for breakfast and chicken for dinner!” Can’t argue with that.
The answer I prefer is “Neither; the rooster came first” (Jane and John dialogue in the 2014 sci-fi movie Predestination).
But the question that intrigues me more is do hens mourn the loss of their eggs when the egg breeder removes them every day?
First some facts. Hens reproduce by laying and sitting on sperm-of-rooster fertilised eggs until they hatch as chicks. A hen has a pipeline of eggs at various stages inside her reproductive system (her oviduct) and will pop an egg roughly every twenty-five to twenty-six hours. Just like a human female, a hen is born with all the ova (yolks) she’ll ever need to last through her productive egg-laying period. She starts laying eggs around twenty weeks after birth and continues on and off for something like two years, maybe more, until the ova run out or other events conspire to stop her laying eggs. If she’s broody, she will aim to accumulate a clutch of twelve eggs or so, hers and maybe others, in a nest which she will then sit on for twenty-one days until they hatch or otherwise prove infertile.
So, what happens if every time she lays an egg, someone comes along and steals it? Does she get upset? Does she mourn the loss of her egg? Does she become psychologically scarred for the rest of her life? What happens?
I scoured the Web, trawled its depths, even went dark for answers to these questions and found very little; some anecdotal evidence of temporary distress for hens who have become pets and have names and which might have been due to any one of a range of possible reasons but I found nothing scientific. I mean, how do you know when a hen is distressed? Does she hang her head, dip her tail, waggle her wattles, mope and moan, stop laying eggs, avoid the rooster, stop scratching, go to bed early with a headache? How do we know?
The short answer is, we don’t. Clearly there is a case to be made for an in-depth study of the psychological effects of stealing an egg from a broody hen. After all, if we can prove that a hen really doesn’t care until she has got her clutch together, then no harm is done. The hen will just keep on laying until she runs out of eggs. But, if we can prove there is a psychological downside, then we can prescribe a stress-relieving drug, on prescription of course, and maybe increase the yield over the lifetime of the hen. Diazepam for hens? Who knows what this would do? Next time you eat a chicken’s egg, pause and ponder upon the possible trauma you may have caused in the hen house. Ponder also on this however. If a hen is broody and we allow her to sit on a clutch of unfertilised eggs (no rooster in the pen), what is the psychological effect of doing this? The eggs will never hatch. Maybe we have a duty to remove eggs from rooster-free hens? Keeps them from going mad.
Now, why the hell did the chicken cross the road? Did she not see the car coming? Bwak, bwak!