In a recent extended cold snap, 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 hundred watt bulb on a wire in our small coop and let it burn twenty-four hours a day. I’m sure it raised the inside temperature a bit, but it also increased egg production.
In fact, after a few days of perpetual light, my chickens started laying eggs like crazy. Concerned that they might burn themselves out, I consulted Jim McNulty who attended Cornell University and now lives at the foot of Panther Mountain. He agreed that 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 a little worried about causing a fire.
Again, McNulty in his fowl wisdom advised me to do away with the water heater and put snow in the bucket, which would quench the chickens’ thirst and yet wouldn’t freeze like water. I was impressed. He also informed me that the chickens in a draft-free coop didn’t really need the hundred-watt bulb. Removing it was no small step because beloved Pee Wee, a chick you might remember from a previous story (the one that I saved by performing a caesarian in water and who turned out to be an egg laying Pee Weena) was among the flock that I was about to pull the plug on. So, I anxiously disconnected the dangerous water heater and shut the switch on the hundred-watt bulb. Time and temperature proved McNulty to once again be right.
Roger Vaughn of Vaughn’s Poultry Farm, suggested that 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 affect of sunlight on living things. I had often heard that the deprivation of daylight during winter could put you in a down mood. Seeing what a profound affect light has had on my chickens, I had no doubt about the sun’s absence having a depressing affect on me and people in general. I shared this knowledge with my wife, Alice, who waved a wet paintbrush at me and said, “I think you’re still 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. “That’s why 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 or don’t you?”
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 hundred watt bulb in our normally dim T.V. lamp. “What’s that for?” I asked.
She rubbed 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 and 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.”