As a child one of my responsibilities was hunting eggs that the hens sometimes laid in various barns and sheds all over the farmstead rather than in the nest boxes in their coop. That was fun— like hunting Easter eggs every day. Sometimes a hen would set on a secret nest of eggs that I failed to find and in a little while, out into the barnyard might come a bunch of chicks.

I am still an egg hunter and it is still fun. The idea of having to hunt for one’s breakfast sounds strange in these days, even primitive. It would be interesting to know how many others still do it. (Any idea?) Although most of the wildness has been bred out of the domestic hen (except bantam breeds), she will, if given the opportunity, occasionally start laying eggs in what she thinks are hidden places in barns or sheds outside the chicken coop. One hen starts a nest, but often others will use it too. It is up to the flock caretaker to match wits with them and find the eggs before they get too old or a raccoon or opossum gets them.

Over the years, our hens have used the same “secret” places over and over again, but switch from one to the other when someone or something keeps removing eggs from the nest that they are currently favoring. The two feed boxes in the cow stalls often become nest boxes now that we have no cows. Another favorite spot is the horse manger now that we have no horses. Still a third is in a narrow space between the sheep hay feeder and the barn wall. Occasionally a really independent old biddy will take a notion to make a nest up in the hay mow. This year’s favorite hideout is a pile of hay I put in the machine shed “temporarily” when rain was threatening and I didn’t have time to add it to the outside stack. The photo above shows one of these hay pile nests (yes, those are old crosscut saws hanging on the wall behind the nest along with my broadcast seeder, called by some modern garden farmers a “hand-cranked thingie”).

Finding these nests can be a challenge and requires keeping a sharp eye on the hens as they wander around the barnyard. The best time to find a new nest is in the morning right after I let the hens out of their coop. The ones refusing to lay in the regular nest boxes make a beeline for their secret nests and all I have to do is follow them. However, I have to be a bit secretive in my spying because sometimes a hen will not go to her nest if she sees that I am watching. I don’t always find a nest until there’s a bunch of eggs in it. Then I have to throw them away, not knowing for sure how old they are.

There’s a lot to be said in favor of “wild nesting.” In the coop, nesting space is usually limited and hens, crowding in, are apt to break an egg occasionally. That means egg yolk or even manure gets on the egg shells. Then the eggs have to be washed. Yolk is hard to get off, so generally one has to soak the egg a bit to loosen the yolk stain. Egg shells are porous. Washed eggs lose quality in storage quicker than unwashed eggs. It is possible that washed eggs can pick up off tastes from the wash water. With only a very small flock where eggs are collected carefully by hand twice a day, eggs are almost always clean and do not have to be washed. This is especially true when hens can roam a farmstead and make nests wherever their little hen hearts desire.

The Defenders of Animal Factories Today (DAFT) say that we small flock keepers should not be smug about having our own eggs in these days of perennial salmonella outbreaks. Small flocks can get salmonella too, the Farm Bureau spokespeople are saying— with a certain smugness of their own, it seems to me. And they remind us that all one has to do is cook the egg “thoroughly” to avoid the danger. As my wife says, “might as well not eat it in that case.”

I wonder if eggs from small, free-roaming flocks really are as prone to salmonella infection as factory hens. For seventy years I have been the beneficiary of small chicken flocks and for fifty years I have hunted for my breakfast eggs. Never once have I gotten sick from eating them.