The Egg Hunter


As a child one of my responsibilities was hunting eggs that the hens sometimes laid in various barns and sheds all over the farmstead rather than in the nest boxes in their coop. That was fun— like hunting Easter eggs every day. Sometimes a hen would set on a secret nest of eggs that I failed to find and in a little while, out into the barnyard might come a bunch of chicks.

I am still an egg hunter and it is still fun. The idea of having to hunt for one’s breakfast sounds strange in these days, even primitive. It would be interesting to know how many others still do it. (Any idea?) Although most of the wildness has been bred out of the domestic hen (except bantam breeds), she will, if given the opportunity, occasionally start laying eggs in what she thinks are hidden places in barns or sheds outside the chicken coop. One hen starts a nest, but often others will use it too. It is up to the flock caretaker to match wits with them and find the eggs before they get too old or a raccoon or opossum gets them.

Over the years, our hens have used the same “secret” places over and over again, but switch from one to the other when someone or something keeps removing eggs from the nest that they are currently favoring. The two feed boxes in the cow stalls often become nest boxes now that we have no cows. Another favorite spot is the horse manger now that we have no horses. Still a third is in a narrow space between the sheep hay feeder and the barn wall. Occasionally a really independent old biddy will take a notion to make a nest up in the hay mow. This year’s favorite hideout is a pile of hay I put in the machine shed “temporarily” when rain was threatening and I didn’t have time to add it to the outside stack. The photo above shows one of these hay pile nests (yes, those are old crosscut saws hanging on the wall behind the nest along with my broadcast seeder,  called by some modern garden farmers a “hand-cranked thingie”).

Finding these nests can be a challenge and requires keeping a sharp eye on the hens as they wander around the barnyard. The best time to find a new nest is in the morning right after I let the hens out of their coop. The ones refusing to lay in the regular nest boxes make a beeline for their secret nests and all I have to do is follow them. However, I have to be a bit secretive in my spying because sometimes a hen will not go to her nest if she sees that I am watching. I don’t always find a nest until there’s a bunch of eggs in it. Then I have to throw them away, not knowing for sure how old they are.

There’s a lot to be said in favor of “wild nesting.”  In the coop, nesting space is usually limited and hens, crowding in, are apt to break an egg occasionally. That means egg yolk or even manure gets on the egg shells. Then the eggs have to be washed. Yolk is hard to get off, so generally one has to soak the egg a bit to loosen the yolk stain. Egg shells are porous. Washed eggs lose quality in storage quicker than unwashed eggs. It is possible that washed eggs can pick up off tastes from the wash water. With only a very small flock where eggs are collected carefully by hand twice a day, eggs are almost always clean and do not have to be washed. This is especially true when hens can roam a farmstead and make nests wherever their little hen hearts desire.

The Defenders of Animal Factories Today (DAFT) say that we small flock keepers should not be smug about having our own eggs in these days of perennial salmonella outbreaks. Small flocks can get salmonella too, the Farm Bureau spokespeople are saying— with a certain smugness of their own, it seems to me. And they remind us that all one has to do is cook the egg “thoroughly” to avoid the danger. As my wife says, “might as well not eat it in that case.”

I wonder if eggs from small, free-roaming flocks really are as prone to salmonella infection as factory hens. For seventy years I have been the beneficiary of small chicken flocks and for fifty years I have hunted for my breakfast eggs. Never once have I gotten sick from eating them.


Gene – I recently posted an entry on my blog regarding the very topic of salmonella in eggs, and the fact that as a kid the farm raised eggs we ate never made us sick. We never even questioned that they might.

It was unheard of to think that an egg gathered from the henhouse the prior or same day would ever make us ill. I’m glad someone else took the time to point this out.

Deb S, what a great story, an egg retriever! Beth Greenwood, yes rotten eggs float, but some that don’t quite float are still too old for me— I can be choosy since we have plenty of eggs most of the time. Gershon, yeah, soylent brown eggs. Paul, when I was milking cows in Minnesota many years ago, we had a couple of very smart hens who would roost right on the cows’ backs in below zero weather. Cows didn’t seem to mind a bit. Gene Logsdon

My eyes were drawn to the two big saw thingies. Back in 1981, I learned that the cords on chainsaws break at the same time the store to buy a new one closes. A chainsaw that isn’t sharpened correctly cuts a U in the log instead of through the log.

So, I asked my father who lived near Tunkchannock, PA to check at the local hardware store – Gay Murray’s (Times have really changed) to see if they had a big 2 person saw. Gay said, “Yeah, there are two up on the 4th floor, just under the leak in the roof. The bottom one should be good.” So, he went and got it and said “I’m going to have to charge you full price, you know.” The date on the tag was 1942 and the price was $7.00.

Back on topic. The recent eggsplosion on of interest in salmonella will likely be used to DAFT’s advantage to impose yet another layer of expensive inspections on the small producers in order to try to drive them out of business. Perhaps it would be best to make plastic eggs filled with genetically modified corn syrup and soybean oil that looks and tastes somewhat like eggs. The shells could be made from genetically modified cotton. This should provide a lot more jobs. Maybe call them Soylent brown eggs. Green isn’t far off.

We still don’t have a truly predator-proof free range, so our chickens lay their eggs where we can collect them easily. But I, like Gene, have spent many years collecting my breakfasts–and a few suppers, since omelets and scrambled eggs make great quick suppers when time is tight and the body is tired–from a variety of interesting places on the ranch. The all-time champ was the hen who laid for at least a week in the coffee can full of old nails; didn’t break a one. In our family we have a standard answer when the chickens aren’t laying well and somebody wants to lick the cake bowl: “No, those are store-bought eggs.” On all other occasions, we lick the bowl, use raw eggs in salad dressings and ice cream, and cook fried eggs with very runny yolks. Never a problem with salmonella or anything else. My bet is that salmonella doesn’t flourish in healthy free range flocks nor in healthy humans eating organically raised food, harvested and consumed fresh. Both have strong immune systems that either don’t get infected in the first place or can immediately take care of the contamination. By the way, Gene, in cool weather, my experience has been that if you check for freshness by seeing if the eggs will float in a sink full of water (old eggs float), you can use them with minimal risk. Might be able to do it in summer as well, but with 100+ temps the norm around here I opt for collecting frequently and feeding anything doubtful to the pigs, just in case.

The point, in my eyes, is that if your farm were traced back to be the source of salmonella poisoning, how many eggs would have to be recalled? Half a billion? No, more like 200. Even if EVERY person who eats the eggs your hens produce GOT salmonella poisoning, how many would that add up to? Millions? No, probably 10. Small scale wins.

My yard birds operate much in the same way. Living in the barn with the rest of the stock in the winter only to disperse around the builings in better weather. Eggs can be found almost anywhere, and broods of chicks, 14 being the largest in memory follow behind the hens. We sell a few dozen of the clean eggs and eat the rest ourselves. The hens grow old and die only to be replaced by hen raised pullets in a natural cycle. In the event of excess roosters there is always a quick trip to the shed in preperation for Sunday supper.

I doubt very seriously that the small flock has the same issues. They said that the source of the salmonella was traced back to the feed, which doesn’t excuse them in my book. I agree with your wife that you may as well not eat eggs that are cooked all the way.

I’m looking forward to having my own small (very small) flock one day. And looking for my breakfast.

My chickens are confined to a pen (Fort Knox style) and electric fence run because predators have decimated birds we tried to free range in the past. So finding eggs shouldn’t be a problem (pullets are due to start laying any day now, I can’t wait!)

My geese, however, are free range. During the spring laying season they are quite creative at building nests in hidey holes around the farmyard and house. But I have a secret weapon. WhyNot, my 12 year old Kelpie dog is a consummate egg finder. She is also a maniac retriever. So if I call her at the right moment (post find, pre-crunch), she will bring me the goose egg and lay it gently at my feet. I swap her eggs for dog biscuits…a fair trade.

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