longest roost illustration

The Longest Roost

The chicken came first. I wasn’t sure the egg ever would.

No matter what I did, my hens refused to lay eggs. I tried coaxing them with treats. I tried tricking them with false eggs. I read books and scoured online forums. Google searches were inconclusive. Even YouTube couldn’t help.

After preparing for nearly a year, I’d finally procured two chickens. I decided on Buff Orpingtons, hardy, docile birds with fluffy blond feathers. They were so young they didn’t have combs or wattles. They looked androgynous and helpless—and totally adorable. I’ve always been charmed by chickens and how they lumber around like tiny dinosaurs. I put them in a cardboard box and talked to them during the drive home.

It wasn’t long before their funny little personalities emerged. Lumi had serious confidence. Once, she flew directly at our 80-pound dog. She was comfortable being carried around like a feather-covered purse, and sometimes she’d follow so closely that I’d almost step on her. She was fiercely protective of Bobble, who was slow and methodical. Bobble was content to trail after Lumi on their daily rambles around our backyard.

I’d been a vegetarian since my teens, and this seemed like a natural next step: I’d acquire some cute new pets. They’d lay eggs. I’d furnish those eggs to family and friends. My dad, who can build and fix just about anything, promised to help, and I promised him the first dozen. We designed and built a pearly white coop, complete with a perch, nest boxes, and a spacious run. He crafted a feeder out of an orange Home Depot bucket, and I bought a water dispenser, a bag of feed, and a pound of gray grit to help them digest their dinner.

Once they settled in, I watched them from the window of my home office when I was supposed to be working. They watched me as I gardened and watered my plants. They grew up fast. Their combs sprouted, pink and tiny at first. They got fatter, and their feathers brightened into a sunny red-gold. Hens begin to lay eggs between 16 and 24 weeks of age, and mine were almost there.

I could hardly wait.

As the days piled up, my anxiety mounted. I enjoyed my backyard pets, eggs or no eggs, but healthy hens are supposed to lay. And by now my Buff Orpingtons each should’ve been popping out three to five big, brown round ones a week.

For generations, pastoral folk who kept chickens had no choice but to be patient. I’m used to immediate information and instant gratification. We fly to the Internet for all our answers: What’s this rash on my arm? What’s the temperature outside? How do you spell lackadaisical? It’s made us impatient and demanding, not to mention unable to come up with answers on our own.

My dad began asking every time he saw me: Where are my eggs? I gritted my teeth and told him it’d be soon.

I spent a ridiculous amount of time peeking beneath the hinged lid of the nest box into the warm, dark bed of cedar shavings. Always cedar shavings. Never any eggs.

“We’ve found piles of eggs in places where we hadn’t even known chickens had been,” mocked page 55 of my trusty guidebook, Chickens in Your Backyard. This prompted me to crawl all over our yard. All I found were some interesting rocks.

The book suggested tossing a fake egg in the nest to encourage laying. Online testimonials promised that golf balls would serve the purpose, so I dispatched three into the nest. The girls ignored the golf balls, except for that time Lumi took a talon to one and drove it deep into the run.

I thought about our ancestors. They had their parents’ and grandparents’ wisdom to guide them. Many of the simple things they knew best are hard to learn from a YouTube video. We’ve lost much of that generational understanding of how to grow crops and care for animals. I had none of this practical knowledge, but I had the Internet, and impatiently I typed pleas into the Google search bar and skimmed list after list of reasons why a hen might not lay.

I knew my hens weren’t too old, and I knew they weren’t molting. (When chickens molt, the floor of the coop looks like a pillow exploded.) It wasn’t too hot or too cold. Hens need maximum daylight to lay, but it was still early summer. And apart from their apparent stubbornness, they looked healthy, with bright, curious eyes and combs that grew redder every day. They had impressive appetites for veggie scraps and the wispy green weeds that blanket our property. While they lived the good life, I was scrolling through online forums, obsessing over chicken puberty.

When I read that hens can be picky about their nests, I put a large square planter on its side and filled it with cedar shavings as an alternative laying spot. No luck.

On the aptly named Chicken Chick blog, Kathy Shea Mormino advised that hens on the brink of laying will lounge in their nest boxes and rearrange the shavings. My freeloading girls were too busy for that. They had dirt to kick up and bugs to chase.

Just a few more Web searches, I was convinced, and I’d have all my answers. In a forum at backyardchickens.com, one user remarked: “I know it is hard waiting but really there is not much you can do to speed up Mother Nature!” She punctuated this gem with a smiley face. I rolled my eyes.

Then it struck me: No matter how much I searched, the Internet couldn’t tell me when that first egg would drop. Nobody could. That was up to nature’s imprecise timeline, and I’d just have to wait.

Outside, Lumi and Bobble were sunning. They’d spilled onto their sides, wings outstretched and feathers fanned, their eyes closed. They looked awfully content, and certainly unconcerned about their delayed life processes. I’d love to say my impatience melted away. It didn’t. But I gave up my searches and tried to mellow out.

Weeks later I was in my office when I heard a jarring sound. Outside the window, Bobble stood erect, her mouth wide open. She was making a noise that sounded a lot like crowing.

I dashed outside, and she unleashed another burst of squawks. My stomach dropped as I thought that, after all my obsessing and careful planning, I’d finally realized why my hens wouldn’t lay: because they were roosters.

I went inside to consult Google once again. Cautiously I typed into the search bar, “Hen making a loud noise,” and waited for the ever-snarky Internet to inform me that my “hens” were male. I felt like an idiot.

But Yahoo! Answers, of all places, offered good news: Loud clucking is a common reaction that hens have to laying an egg.

I leaped out of my chair and ran back into the yard. With a pounding heart I lifted that white nest-box lid. There, nestled in the cedar shavings, among the decoy golf balls: one tiny brown egg.

I plucked it up and examined it with wonder. The egg was still warm, and I couldn’t believe how clean it was—just like the ones at the supermarket.

Our forebears would’ve felt the turning of time with great precision—their lives were dictated by the rhythms of their crops, the cycles of their animals’ lives. This one tiny egg wouldn’t have surprised them. But to me, it was amazing. That a little creature like Bobble could create something so real and perfect, and that she’d done so right in my backyard. It didn’t require all that obsessing and worrying: All it took was a little time.

Tara Nieuwesteeg is a book editor and freelance writer in Dallas. Email her at taranieuw@gmail.com.

Illustration by Paul Blow

Originally Published May 2015