I count my chickens with no eggs to hatch

My husband says it's silly to keep feeding and cleaning up after the hens if they've stopped laying. But he doesn't say it too loudly or too often.

My hens haven't laid an egg - not one among seven of them - since August. That means it's past time for them to become chicken soup.

Ruby and Lucy are my Rhode Island Reds; Jenny is the buxom blonde Buff Orpington; Ella the jazzy black Australorp, and Golda the spunky Golden Comet that for most of her life gave me two warm eggs every day. The Barred Plymouth Rock sisters are too standoffish to have names, but they are very good-looking, with gray and black stripes (or bars). They are all beautiful and cheerful, in a clucky, nervous chicken sort of way.

I still tend them daily, with clean sawdust, food, and kitchen scraps. This time of year fresh water is the biggest challenge. One water trough thaws in the mud room while the other one freezes in the coop. Sure, it's cold, but winters in this coastal part of Alaska are not as cold as the Midwest. (Usually it is between 20 and 30 degrees F.)

However, it is much darker.

These days we have just over six hours of light a day. It snows and rains a lot, so there are few days when the sun shines a lot and even then the tilt of the earth keeps it behind the mountains. But the northern light is lovely, like sunrise all day, especially when the mountaintops are bathed in pink alpenglow.

My chicken books say hens need 14 hours of light to lay eggs. They also say hens are born with a finite number of eggs. I know the lack of eggs is not about the light, because three years ago my daughter did her science-fair project on the effect of artificial light on egg-laying.

Our hardy hens laid the same number of eggs that January - eight a day on average from the flock, with a high of 12 - regardless of how long we kept the light on. When it suddenly dipped below zero they did quit for a day, but after getting acclimated, they were cackling happily on their nests again.

I think they have laid all the eggs they are going to. A friend who has been raising chickens here for 30 years cans all her hens at age 3 - before, she says, they get too tough. She says the soft meat makes great soups and enchiladas.

I don't think I could keep jars of Ruby and Lucy in my pantry.

Even if I don't eat them, my chickens have to go if I want fresh eggs again. Borough planners say a family of four in my neighborhood may only have three hens. Since there are seven us, I figure we are allowed five, with two spares. I have been told eagles, bears, coyotes, even stray dogs will get mine if I'm not careful. Last summer a big brown bear broke into neighboring coops and smashed compost piles, but walked right past my hens without even sniffing.

My husband says we should sell them, or give them away and get new chicks in the spring. He says it's silly to keep feeding and cleaning up after them all winter for nothing. But he doesn't say it too loudly or too often. I think he loves me more because I love my chickens.

This morning, the snow finally stopped and the sun was coming up over the mountains. The yard was so bright I had to squint. I brought Ruby, Lucy, Ella, Jenny, Golda, and the Barred Rock sisters some fresh water and carrot peelings. Then I said goodbye and told them how much I had enjoyed their company and appreciated their eggs. I propped the coop door wide open with a piece of firewood so that they could wander off onto an ice floe in the Chilkat River.

A few hours later, all seven hens were clustered together in the doorway, protected from the wind, their faces to the light, sunbathing.

I turned over a pail in the straw and sat down beside them.

The only soup these chickens will ever make is in my soul.

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