Flash in the Pan 

Easter bugs

Humans have always found reason to celebrate spring. What's not to celebrate, after all? As we welcome the sun back from its hiatus, life sprouts from the rotted remains of autumn, and the world is reborn. Fertility symbols like the Easter egg were common in many such vernal celebrations, like the pagan holiday Ostara, named after the fertility goddess √Čostre, which some believe is the root of the word Easter. In Persia, eggs have been painted for thousands of years as part of the spring celebration of Nowruz.

Vernal egg symbolism is all the more poignant for small-flock chicken farmers, because spring is when one's hens start laying lots of eggs again after a winter break (big producers, on the other hand, use lights and heat to skip winter). Not coincidentally, this is also the time of year when newly hatched chicks could stand a decent chance of survival, thanks to the warming days. Consequently, spring is when egg hatcheries begin shipping their day-old chicks.

My first flock arrived 10 years ago, just after midnight on Easter Sunday. The post office, of course, is closed at that time, but I got the call to come get themas happens when live animals are shipped. I've been rocking a flock ever since.

Those who raise backyard chickens will inevitably go through an obsessive phase, as the fledgling flockster (this word comes from Harvey Ussery's book The Small-Scale Poultry Flock) ceaselessly dotes on his or her birds, inundating friends with stories, photos and birthday party invitations. The eggs themselves are what drag many flocksters into the game. For others, egg appreciation starts with a love for the hens, which deepens feeling for their eggs. Which one comes first depends on the flockster.

Flocksters and celebrants of Easter alike use eggs in their respective rituals. And lately, with the widespread availability of hens that lay eggs of various hues, members of both contingents find themselves among prettily colored eggs. My little flock includes a blue egg-laying Araucana, a blue-green-ish egg laying Ameraucana, and two black Australorps that lay light and dark reddish-brown eggs. When I pull these precious gems from the hens' nesting boxes, I get the thrill of an Easter egg hunt, in patriotic shades of red, white and blue. On a daily basis.

Easter usually falls near Earth Day, which is in many ways a modern rendition of Ostara, the pagan spring equinox party. Earth Day is an appropriate tie-in for Easter, because whatever you do, and whatever you call it, if you celebrate spring you're also honoring the earth and its cycle of seasons. The hen is a reminder that if you take care of Mother Nature, she will take care of you.

click to enlarge ARI LEVAUX
  • Ari LeVaux

Proper care of my ladies this year included two bags of stale marshmallows that I found in the cupboard. After dumping them in the chicken yard, I was surprised to see the hens completely ignore the marshmallows. Then I had to deal with my kid trying to climb into the chicken yard and eat them. A few days later, one of the hens realized that if you peck hard enough on the dried outer skin of those white things, there is soft sweetness inside. At that point the marshmallows quickly vanished from the chicken yard, and the next day I found four eggs: red, white, blue and green.

Though I won't make a habit of feeding marshmallows to my hens, I'm not above pampering them. Thus, while buying some chicken feed the other day at the feed store, I picked up two healthy snacks for the girls.

The first was a gallon-sized pail of dried bugs. Chicken Grub Insect Medley, to be specific. The ingredients include dried mealworms, dried silkworm pupae, dried crickets, dried shrimp, dried earthworms and this helpful note: "NOT FOR HUMAN CONSUMPTION."

As you hold the tub of creepy-crawlies with the lid off, every vibration of your hand will make them all appear to squirm around. The sight made the ladies in my coop as happy as it made me squeamish.

Based on how captivating jiggling bugs are, it's obvious how hardwired the human brain is to notice them. It makes sense, as they could represent not only potential menace, but potential nutrition. Perhaps if I were hungry enough, the latter possibility would be more likely, but I experienced no conflict, or hunger, looking at those bugs. My hens experienced no conflict either. Only desire.

The other treat I got for the ladies out back is a mix called poultry conditioner. Marketed as a supplement for competition and show chickens, it is formulated with a bunch of nutrients and digestive aids to help the birds extract as many vitamins, minerals, pigments, proteins and other materials from their food as possible. I figured that these goodies, in addition to making the girls look pretty, would also make them healthier. And a healthy chicken can put more into her eggs than a malnourished one.

Since I started giving the girls poultry conditioner, I honestly haven't noticed if their feathers have gotten prettier, but the eggs have. The color of their shells is richer, and they seem to glow even brighter in the nesting box when I open the coop door.

Perhaps the poultry conditioner, and maybe the bugs too, have something to do with the fact that my eggs look more like Easter eggs than ever.

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