The Guys in the Shell Department

Today we’re going to talk about shell production – the industrial-level, incessantly-cranking-‘em-out-level production of … (no, not artillery shells! been listening to a little too much Dan Carlin, have you?) … egg shells!

A little quiz today, or think of it as Some Questions for Fun:

  1. When is the last time you saw an egg without a shell? Last time you cracked one (or two or three) to make an omelet or some popovers, right? Duh.

Check out these beauties – that orange is what happens when you give your chickens the scraps from a lobster fest.

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Okay, clearly you need a harder question, even at this hour.

  1. Eggs are so beautiful. I sometimes just stare at them. What perfectly beautiful shapes – though you have to think that middle, fattest, section is the hardest moment for the chicken, just sayin’. What lovely variation in color and size my chickens give me:

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(Yes, that’s my raccoon skin underneath them, in case you were wondering.)

Speaking of size, they do vary tremendously. Here are some measured next to coins.

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And others next to a ruler.

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Oh, right, there were questions happening here! Let’s try again.

  1. What is eggshell made of?

(You science nerds will get this in a second. The rest of us are deeply grateful that there are science nerds in the world to tell us such things.)

The code (is it called a code?), uh, formula? chemical name? is CaCO3, which in English is calcium carbonate. Well, the shell is mostly, as in 95%, calcium carbonate. You always wondered how the shell can be tough enough to protect the growing chick inside it but breakable enough for its 21-day-old beak to poke through. According to Labmate, “The remaining 5% features hundreds of different proteins that affect how calcium carbonate crystallises. It’s this perfectly balanced cocktail that allows mineral crystals and proteins to form an eggshell that’s crack-resistant, then use nanoscale adjustments to change the pliability and let a chick break free when it’s ready to hatch.” Cool.

Fun facts (these from the Exploratorium) also include: a. the eggshell is covered with as many as 17,000 tiny pores that air and moisture can pass through (so the chick can breathe while it’s developing) and b. the shell has a thin outermost coating called the bloom or cuticle that helps keep out bacteria and dust (which is why you don’t need to wash eggs and should use them quickly if you forget this rule).

Question #3!

  1. What else in nature is like an eggshell (in being made up of calcium carbonate)?

Give it a little thought before you read on…

The examples are striking. Who isn’t impressed with the stalactites and stalagmites you see in caves, like the gigantic ones at Luray Caverns?

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Also there’s

  • seashells that are the exoskeleton of snails, lobsters, clams (though NOT turtle shells, in case you were wondering – I knew you were wondering)
  • coral that you scuba divers find in reefs and the rest of us watch on Blue Planet
  • pearls that oysters and clams make, in which the individual CaCOcrystals “are laid down in such a perfect order that the result is smooth, hard, shiny, and sometimes even iridescent, as in the rainbow colors of abalone shells.” Who knew? (Thank you, again, Labmate.)
  • whole mountain chains in the form of chalk, limestone, marble and dolomite. IMA Europe says more than 4% of the earth’s crust is CaCO3, and jrank says 7%, so somewhere between 4-7% is probably right.  And you know how much we need chalk (to raise pH in soils with high acidity, clean pewter, keep screws secure and dry your hands for weightlifting, bouldering or gymnastics), limestone (to make steel, cement, fertilizer and even white paper), marble (from columns to countertops, a most gorgeous building material as is) and dolomite (to make glass, bricks and ceramics).Now back to the chicken eggshells.
    1. What happens when someone in the shell department screws up?

    Screws up? What do you mean screws up? Eggs are eggs, right? Smooth on the outside, kinda slimy (when uncooked) on the inside, invaluable in making delicious food and fabulously nutritious.

    Nope. Eggs are not just eggs. All eggs are not created equal.

    A daydreaming shell maker got a little carried away on these ends – made little warts instead the standard smooth finish because of thinking about his girl maybe (hmmm), or that new car, or those ribs for dinner? Bit too much CaCO3 in those places I’d say. Best have a little chat with this worker about focusing when in production mode. Focus, Jack. We have a job to do here.

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    The one assigned to this day’s lot was confused. Gourds on his mind perhaps?

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    This worker forgot (toward the end apparently) what shape we are aiming for in egg production.

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    Now, back to Question #1. When is the last time you saw an egg without a shell?

    Forget the omelet. How’s this? A wildly woobly egg! An intact egg with NO shell to speak of, though maybe a few granules of the calcium carbonate here and there, a spattering you could call it. The bottom flattened out and the top collapsed a bit, but this egg mostly held its shape, its membrane apparently keeping it from gooing all over the place. When we touched it, it squished in like jello. Oh yes, and whoever the shell maker was in this case tried to cover his tracks and squirted a few squirts of the CaCO at the end (see that unshapely blob sticking out toward the right?) – undoubtedly a last-ditch effort to demonstrate that it’s not a complete bomb and maybe he should not get fired. Really, HR needs to have a conversation with this employee!

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Last question: What’s really going on in the chicken coop???

 

 

What To Do With the Roosters!

Chickens fit in my world because they are definitely unboring. For one thing, they are entertaining. They start with being funny looking. This is a young silkie.

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To add to the entertainment, they walk like aliens, sleep standing up, eek out pathetic noises, scratch incessantly to find worms and bugs, and compete hilariously with their coop-mates for every last scrap you throw in there. My carrot peel! No, mine!

Chickens are messy. They poop often and indiscriminately, kick their bedding all around, and redistribute food to all corners of their area. They don’t care if they are wet (yesterday’s ridiculous birds in the rain being a prime example) and they peck you randomly if you hang around in their run, as if your pants leg might have something good to eat on it.

And chickens give you eggs! I know some people don’t like eggs, but most people do, and there are a thousand ways to make them and make otherwise unmakeable dishes with them. For example, macaroni pie – a great thing to do with leftover pasta. Sometimes I make a little extra pasta just to have leftovers, just so I can make macaroni pie. Isn’t language a funny thing? Pasta and macaroni are the same thing. But I make pasta for dinner and macaroni pie with the leftovers of the same thing!

How easy for me to get distracted today by subject of food. I had every intention of continuing the coop construction tale. Instead, I’d rather to go on and on about the virtues of eggs in cooking – not because I don’t want to talk about the coop construction but because I am in avoidance/distraction mode altogether, still struggling with the “relocation” of three roosters yesterday.

Okay, allow me to be more precise: Hens give you eggs! And all I wanted in the first place was fresh eggs. So what do you do with the roosters? They don’t give eggs, they make a lot of obnoxious noise, they boss around all the other birds. Ultimately they make more chicks, which I surely don’t need. If my chickens were truly free range, I could maybe see having a rooster as a kind of protector. But I didn’t want them, don’t want them. The problem is that few people can tell male from female when they are a day old, unless the coloring is different, as with the cinnamon queens. Only the females have the chipmunk-like markings.

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With most chicks, you take your chances and it can be months before you can tell. Sure enough, sooner or later, roosters get bigger than the hens and sprout the comb on top of their heads. This is the biggest brahma rooster.

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Hens don’t have that funny red thing, which is funny, but not AS funny as what turkeys have. What is all that hanging stuff for?!

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This pic is from a recent visit to Yoder’s in Madison, Va. Their petting zoo, by the way, is a favorite spot for me to take visitors. They have goats and llamas and peacocks and turkeys! And you can get an ice cream cone in numerous great flavors (mine is always chocolate, but that is another story) packed full, not a cheap portion, for such a good price.  Their Rueben sandwich is also worth the trip.

See, there I go with food again because I don’t want to face the roosters.

I thought I was lucky because up till a few weeks ago, when the chicks were three months old, I had not heard any crowing or noticed any considerable size difference. I admit I probably overlooked the slow emergence of the red combs on the tops of their heads. What do I know about brahmas anyway? Maybe they are different from other breeds and brahma females have this sometimes?

Once they crow, there’s no denying it. That’s a rooster. Oh no, that’s three roosters! Three out of six. Oh, no! Two of the d’uccles are roosters too! Should I be surprised? How likely is it that out of 32 chicks, none should be male? I had been in dreamland thinking I got that lucky.

Why can’t I be like Renee Zellweger in the movie Cold Mountain? She is the strong, afraid-of-nothing Civil War mountain girl “Ruby Thewes” who comes upon Nicole Kidman, proper young lady of greatly reduced circumstances crouching in terror of a “devil rooster.” Ruby picks up the rooster, snaps his neck and says (perfectly!) “Let’s put ‘im in a pot.”

I can’t do it. I was working my way up to finding a YouTube video on how to kill a chicken (knowing I couldn’t do it Ruby’s way), working up the nerve to even watch the video! I posted an ad on craigslist – I would happily give them away, and that would be way cleaner. I asked every person I knew who might possibly want them if they might possibly want them or knew someone who might possibly want them. Those in the know were clear with me that there are three legitimate purposes for roosters: dinner, lawn ornament and fertilizer of eggs. I want none of those. And no one else wanted them. Every day they were still here, I was aware of the passing of time and my own inability to manage this conundrum.

So yesterday morning, after exhausting other options, I decided to let nature take its course, in a manner of speaking. Chickens are historically jungle birds, I was told, and it’s not a great leap from jungle to forest. I have a perfectly good forest all around my house. We have wild turkeys in this forest – surely these he-man roosters can’t have terribly different defenses. (Note the steps of justification.) So confession time: Before I lost my nerve, yes, the three brahma roosters were successfully relocated about a ten minute walk down my nice trail into the forest to the bottom of the hill.

The forest is full of bugs and other delectables (as well as, I know, predators of all kinds) so these guys would have a good life and a truly free range and a better menu than inside their protected run until… until nature took its course (and a lucky predator came along).

You’d think you could do a thing like this and get away with it. Who would find out? I had no thought of sharing this decision with the world, but I simply do not have luck with such things. In the early afternoon, my cottage guests Hillary and Malcolm said they wanted to take a walk. I went into an autopilot description of the nice trail that encircles my property, then remembered the roosters, then said “Oh, but you know it’s probably pretty mucky down there. You might do better to stick to the road.”

Did they stick to the road? No, they did not. Later they said, “Nice trail! But there were these chickens down there, three of them…” and showed me a picture they took!

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Can I say, “Huh! How about that!” and leave it alone? No, I cannot. I have to admit my part in that scene, feeling guiltier than ever.

“Oh, they looked just fine,” they said. “Very happy.”

Happy until…