What is an Egg to a Chicken?

Chickens, like all animals, have a language unique to their species. Each sequence of sounds that they chirp, cluck and crow has a social, emotional or personal meaning. And if you spend enough time around these feathered friends you’ll begin, as I did, to hear the stories they are telling.

The rooster’s trumpeting call summoning his hens to dinner,
The rapid peeps of chicks as they search for their mother,
The oscillating clucks of a hen as she gives birth to an egg…

Of all the chicken calls I learned during the year I spent volunteering on different organic farms, I think it was the hen’s egg-laying song that shocked me the most. Somehow I had thought it would be a quiet process, that the hens would sneak away to their favorite hiding spot and peacefully begin their nest. While hens do try to find solitude, as the laying process begins, they also start to emit an unmistakable pattern of rapid and rolling clucks accentuated by a noticeably louder “Bwak!” at the end of each sequence. They sing this song with such intensity, wide-eyed and agitated, until the egg has finally been pushed out. It is enough to make anyone grateful that they weren’t born an egg-laying hen.

Although today’s egg-laying hens are the descendants of the Red Jungle Fowl (Gallus gallus) which laid around 60 small eggs a year, most modern domestic hens have been bred to lay over 300 large eggs a year.

If free to behave “naturally,” most chickens will lay the number of eggs they desire for a proper nest and then stop producing more eggs until her chicks are old enough to fend for themselves. The time before her eggs hatch, while she sits on her nest warming and protecting her eggs, is called the “brooding” stage.

If a chicken’s eggs are removed on a regular basis, she will continue to lay, in a futile attempt to follow her instincts and form a proper brood. In fact, a chicken’s nesting instincts are so strong that they will continue to try to build a brood whether or not there is a rooster present to fertilize their eggs.*

* It is believed that chickens cannot tell which eggs have been successfully fertilized.

By now my empathy for these little feathered females must be evident, but regretfully it was not always so present. During my time working around chickens, there were a number of experiences that changed my perspective on eggs and opened my heart to the hens that laid them. The first started with making a homemade “farm fresh” omelet out of eggs a friend had collected. I cracked open a couple of eggs with no problem. But on the third, instead of a yolk and egg whites, a small, partially formed chick flowed into the skillet. My stomach lurched into my throat. Somehow seeing the beginning of a body in one of the eggs I was about to eat seemed so different to me than simply ingesting an unfertilized ovum. Suddenly eggs were no longer something you simply picked up at the grocery store. Instead I saw them as the beginning of a chicken.

The second experience that changed my perspective was the day I was faced with taking eggs from directly under a nesting hen. On this particular morning I was helping trim back some lavender on a farm I was volunteering at. My host and I were well into chopping back the lavender when we suddenly heard an agitated clucking below us. As we moved back one of the bushes we discovered a large black hen who had started a nest. She was attempting to shield her brood from the intruders hovering above her, but this hen was not a rescue. She had been brought onto the farm to produce eggs, and even though she had been clever enough to attempt a nest away from the chicken cage, her eggs were not considered her own.

How we got her to move off her nest is a bit foggy in my memory, but I believe I distracted her while my partner in crime quickly picked her up. And then I snatched her eggs out from under her. I quickly placed the eggs in the fridge for the farm staff to take home, as we didn’t think she had been sitting on the nest long enough for chicks to form.

When I went back outside I found the black hen frantically weaving in and out of the lavender, calling to her fellow chickens, some of whom ran over to her aid as she continued searching for her missing eggs. I tried to push my guilt aside and continue on my day. But when we returned for lunch, hours later, she was still there moving slowly in and out of the lavender and muttering to herself as she searched in vain.

I voiced my guilt to my host and we debated about whether we should put the eggs back. Finally it was decided it was too late, the eggs had been cold too long and we had to let it be.

Each egg laid had in some way drained her body of calcium and other essential nutrients*, unnecessarily shortening her life to feed her captors. And now, no matter how long her small sad eyes searched, all her work was lost.

* Many chickens (if they have not been de-beaked) will eat their own unfertilized eggs to replenish nutrients lost from laying.

What is an egg to a chicken?

Every chicken, like every person, is different. Some are absentminded, nesting in the middle of the yard. Others are aggressive and secretive, attempting to peck at the heels of any passersby. And still others are like the lavender mother hen, bonding to each egg they lay.

No matter the personality, no matter where or how the egg is laid, no matter if it is fertilized or not, each egg is the beginning of a chicken. And with each minute that I watched that large black hen search and call, hours after her nest had been robbed, I knew that no matter how we defined her relationship to her eggs, they were not ours to take…


Related Stories:
What is Pain to a Fish?
Bruno: A New Perspective on Happy Cows
Waking up: Vegetarian to Vegan



Ganaisha Calvin
Ganaisha Calvin4 years ago

thanks for sharing

Schnee S.
Viky S4 years ago

Thank you. That's why I'd never eat an egg.
As for unfertilized ones-- I just find it disgusting, 'cause they still were parts of a body. Tastes differ.

Sherry Coleman
Sherry Coleman4 years ago

If the eggs of that hen were not yours to take, where else would you get your eggs from ? What you discribe as empathy for a single hen is nothing bur a psychological problem: you developped a relation to the chicken and then you felt guilty of robbing whereas to other chicken you don't feel guilty.

Dale O.

Geetha S, the only way that people write articles like this is to try and impose their values and beliefs onto the rest of us. You say:

“One of things I had read long ago is that, if you make a person feel guilty or feel bad, you get a bit of those bad vibes rubbed off right on to you.”

An interesting concept as a lot of vegans and some vegetarians operate on a Guilt All Others principle. Some remind me (including Jane B) of right wing fundamentalists who often screech invective and point fingers and tell us that we must be like them or we are somehow selfish and unfeeling. However, all one can do is to find food that is raised in good conditions and not shoved into battery cages.

Dale O.

Interesting viewpoint, Kaitlin F as you grew up on a small farm and it must have been fascinating. Jane B, many people who are not Catholics eat eggs. Get over it, even atheists eat eggs or didn’t you think of that? Not every Catholic or Christian is a pedophile or whatever problem you blame the Pope for this time. People are entitled to believe in a faith if they choose to without being labelled as a cult member. I don’t agree with a number of the doctrines Catholics have when it comes to women’s rights, etc., but I don’t screech at them in a thread about chickens.

Dale O.

Many people eat eggs or even chicken. Guess what, there are even some non-believers who are just as twisted and warped as you claim all people who follow a faith to be. To label everyone in one group as twisted and evil be it all believers in a faith or all people eating eggs or beef is in and of itself also acting twisted and evil. As for Kye J’s smug belief that meat eaters “don’t give a bugger about anyone other than themselves,” you are just as intolerant and judgemental as any other smug self-righteous vegan. This is about eating eggs by the way, not eating meat, but then you categorize anyone eating eggs in the same category as meat, honey, dairy, yogurt and cheese eaters because they aren’t vegan as you are. Like it or not, the entire world is not going to become vegan to suit you.

Dale O.

The statement that "...no matter where or how the egg is laid, no matter if it is fertilized or not, each egg is the beginning of a chicken."

Fascinating, but that’s like telling me that all unfertilized eggs from women are the beginning of a fetus and a baby. A highly inaccurate statement when the egg is not fertilized, more emotive than anything else. Both women and hens have had a lot of unfertilized eggs in their lives which become neither babies nor chicks.

Dale O.

I eat organic eggs from small farms where the hens live a good life, are never caged (they go into the barn at night which is spacious, roost where they feel like it, have open boxes to nestle in and spend the night with the door shut so that the foxes, weasels, fishers and other hungry wildlife don't eat them.

In the early morning the hens go out until it gets dark where they voluntarily go into the barn and settle down for the evening. In the day they run around, unrestricted. I once saw one with a mouse in her beak, yes they will eat meat, even cat food if they can pilfer it and believe me they are only too happy to try and push the cat out of her dish and wantonly swipe cat food. They will also swipe dog food as well.

Dale O.

I feel no regret whatsoever for purchasing eggs from hens that live long lives and yes, some do have some chicks of their own every now and then. If you want to believe their eggs are not ours to take, go ahead and believe it. However, as you already know most of those hens would not be alive if they are not on a farm or wherever, to produce eggs or be eaten. They would not exist at all for the most part.

The vegan minority hasn’t seized political power and imposed laws banning the use of any chickens for laying eggs or as our food (or other animals to be raised to be food). Therefore people will continue to raise hens. If we didn’t eat eggs or chickens, there would be few living on the planet with the exceptions of a few pets but most people aren’t going to raise hens strictly as pets with no eggs to be eaten for example.

Dale O.

By all means, all hens should never live in battery farms or poor conditions. I don't buy factory farm eggs. Vegans won't eat eggs and some vegetarian do eat eggs or dairy. This isn't going to change, the only thing that needs changing are the conditions on factory farms. For those of us not purchasing from factory farms and from small time operations that are run humanely, we will continue to do so. Some say that even free range chickens live horrible lives but one simply has to check out the farm if one lives near a rural area. If not, do your research, there are many ways of finding a source. There is a lot of anthropomorphism going on here, which is not always dealing with facts, but of imposing human vegan/vegetarian sentiments on hens. No one doubts that they are feeling beings but one can still get eggs humanely. Not every hen is going to need to produce chicks from every egg that she lays any more than every woman wants to have a baby from each of her eggs passed during her life time.