BERKSON: Howling at the moon to help ‘the chickens’

Life Sketches

Howling at the moon
to help ‘the chickens’

Terry Berkson, who has an MFA in creative writing from Brooklyn College, lives on a farm outside Richfield Springs. His articles have appeared in New York magazine, the New York Daily News Sunday Magazine, Automobile and other publications.

During a cold snap several years ago, night temperatures up on our hill on the west side of Canadarago Lake were hovering around 22 below zero. Worried about my chickens freezing their gizzards off, I hung a 100-watt bulb on a wire in our small coop inside the barn and let it burn 24 hours a day.

I’m sure it raised the temperature a bit, but it also increased egg production. In fact, after a few days of continuous light, my chickens started laying eggs like crazy. Concerned that they might burn themselves out, I consulted neighbor Jim McNulty, who had attended Cornell University and now lived at the foot of nearby Panther Mountain. He agreed the hens could become exhausted, but warned that if I suddenly cut off the light, I could drive my chickens into a molt, which was bound to kill them in this cold weather. At the same time, to keep the water in the coop from freezing, I installed a heater in the water bucket. Between the light and the heater, I was worried about causing a fire.

Again, McNulty advised me to do away with the water heater and put snow in the bucket, which would quench the chickens’ thirst and wouldn’t freeze like water. I was impressed. He also informed me chickens in a draft-free coop didn’t need the 100-watt bulb. Removing it was no small step because beloved Pee Wee, a chick I had saved by performing a virtual Caesarian on an egg in water, was among the flock I was about to pull the plug on.

So, I anxiously disconnected the dangerous water heater and shut the switch on the bulb. Time and temperature proved McNulty to once again be right.

Roger Vaughn, of Vaughn’s Poultry Farm, suggested I put the smaller light back to where I originally had it at 14 hours a day. This would give the chickens their rest and at the same time allow enough light for egg production. I followed Roger’s prescription. My chickens thrived, but egg output, as expected, was definitely down. Meanwhile, I had come to rely on the increased volume because a dozen eggs from me, a kid from Brooklyn, makes a great gift to friends.

I was really impressed by the effect of sunlight on living things. I had often heard that deprivation of daylight during winter could put you in a down mood. Seeing what a profound effect light had on my chickens reinforced my belief that the sun’s absence had a depressing effect on me and on people in general. I shared this knowledge with my wife, Alice, who waved a wet paintbrush at me and said, “I think you’re spending too much time with those birds!”

Now, I was wondering what other things might influence my chickens’ output, so, I again telephoned McNulty.

“Did you ever hear of the Hawthorne Effect?” he asked.

“No,” I told him.

“It boils down to any change in a hen’s environment could make her feel threatened and put her into a survival mode, causing her to temporarily lay more eggs.”

“I thought we’re not supposed to frighten them,” I said. “I always approach the coop quietly.”

“That’s on a regular basis,” McNulty said. “You do that so they don’t become nervous chickens and lay less eggs. But, tonight, go out to the coop, scratch on the door and howl like a coyote.”

“What if someone sees me?”

“Hey, do you want more eggs?”

When the moon came up, I waded through snowdrifts to the coop to execute McNulty’s instructions. Coincidentally, I heard a real coyote wailing back up in the hills behind the barn. I returned his call a couple of times. With both of us howling, I expected an abundance of eggs to soon follow.

When I walked back to the house Alice was putting a 100-watt bulb in our normally dim T.V. lamp.

“What’s that for?” I asked.

She rubbed the side of my neck and patted me on the back. “I heard you out by the barn,” she said sympathetically. “Maybe more light will raise your spirits and make you feel better.”

“That was for the chickens!” I tried to explain.

“Yeah, yeah, for the chickens,” Alice agreed.

According to McNulty’s Hawthorne Effect, I can’t use the same disturbance on a regular basis and still get more eggs, so, I asked my wife about other ways of worrying the chickens. She went to the cupboard, took out a roasting pan and handed it to me.

“What am I supposed to do, bang on this?” I asked.

“No,” Alice said. “Just show it to them.”


One thought on “BERKSON: Howling at the moon to help ‘the chickens’

  1. Michael Barton

    Just finished Corvette Odyssey again after reading it the first time many years ago. It was a gift from my son so I will hold on to it and perhaps read it for a third time a few years hence. It was a good read.

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