Eggshells in a Nutshell: White Eggs

What's Up With Eggshells?

  • Eggshells have three layers:  That thing that some people call the "skin" on the inside of an eggshell?  It's real name is the mammillary layer and it's a thin protein membrane. 
  • The brittle middle layer, the testa, makes up the bulk of the shell and is made up of columns of calcite crystals held together by a protein matrix (imagine tiny crayons or pencils stacked together with their tips pointing out around the egg) – the spaces between the columns form pores.  Moisture and gases can go through these pores—so an eggshell is porous like cloth, not airtight like plastic wrap.  This middle layer provides the form and structure to the eggshell.
  • Calcite is a form of calcium carbonate – it’s the same stuff that’s in the shells of oysters and other marine animals.
  • The outer layer, a very thin layer of fat and protein, is called the bloom or cuticle. Think of it as paint or varnish that seals the pores of the testa to keep the stuff in the egg from evaporating and to keep bacteria out.  When an egg is washed, the bloom is washed off, which is why a washed egg spoils faster than an unwashed egg.
  • As an egg passes through a hen’s oviduct, the inner mammilary layer is applied first, then the testa, and finally the bloom is applied right before the egg is laid.  The bloom is still wet when the egg emerges from the hen.
  • It typically takes a hen 25 hours to make an egg.  20 of those hours are used for making the shell.
  • Calcite is white, thus eggs are white.  Eggs that are not white contain pigments that give them their characteristic color. 

Learn about brown eggs here!
Learn about blue and green eggs here!

White egg courtesy of Jennifer the Polish Hen
A few of the white egg laying Hipster Hens
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A Blind Hen

Bonnie the Cream Legbar hen cautiously wanders the coop, bumping into other chickens as she goes.  Bonnie has become functionally blind.  Her left eye is opaque and gray and her right eye has a tiny constricted pupil that never changes.  Her eyes worked just fine when she first hatched, but I noticed that she had eye problems as long ago as early last summer when her pupils became tiny constricted dots and she stopped going outside.  She knew her way around the coop, but outdoors was just too chaotic for a blind chicken.

The pupil of one eye is a tiny constricted dot while the other eye is opaque.  Result:  Bonnie is functionally blind
Blindness in chickens can result from environmental factors, it can be caused by a number of infectious agents, or it can be congenital/genetic.

The main environmental cause of blindness is ammonia buildup in the coop air.  When ammonia reaches high levels it can dissolve into the moisture in a chicken’s eyes to form ammonium hydroxide.  Ammonium hydroxide is the caustic and pungent smelling stuff in glass cleaning products.  Living in high levels of ammonia is like having a constant spray of window cleaner going into your eyes.  As you can imagine, it is highly irritating to chickens’ eyes and eventually can ulcerate the chickens’ corneas and cause blindness.  Anyone who has ammonia blindness occurring in their coops needs only to look in the mirror to find the cause.  High ammonia levels occur when excessive amounts of chicken manure pile up and there’s inadequate ventilation in the coop—in other words, the cause is someone doing a really bad job of taking care of their flock.  I can scratch this off the list as the cause of Bonnie’s blindness—I’m pretty obsessive about keeping my coops clean, and ventilation has never been an issue.  Also, if ammonia was the problem, I’d be seeing issues in many hens, not just one.

There is a long list of infectious agents—bacteria, viruses, and fungi that can cause blindness.  Marek’s disease is an alarming example of a virus that can cause blindness.  Marek’s is caused by a tumor-forming herpes virus that can cause the iris to shrink and the pupil to take on a weird shape in one or both eyes.  It also affects other organs in the chicken and often leads to death.  It’s also very contagious.  The good news is that most of my flock, including Bonnie, have been vaccinated for Marek’s.  While vaccination isn’t 100% effective, I would like to think that the chances of Bonnie having Marek’s is pretty slim.

The thing about most infectious agents is that they usually cause eyes to get red and produce a discharge, and I’m just not seeing that with this little hen.  Plus, if it were an infectious agent, I would expect other hens to have symptoms of blindness.

That leaves congenital blindness.  I lean toward that diagnosis.  When Bonnie and her sisters went through their first baby molt last spring it was obvious that Bonnie was different.  The other girls all started growing tail feather and Bonnie never did.  The compact roundness of her body was also a good indicator that Bonnie was missing her tail bone, a condition referred to as “rumplessness”.  Rumplessness is not a bad thing—as a matter of fact rumplessness is a necessary standard of perfection for certain breeds, such as Auracanas.  But Cream Legbars are not rumpless, so for this condition to show up in Bonnie suggests a genetic mutation or reversion.  Bonnie is also quite petite.  Her sisters are now all much bigger than she is.  So it’s not hard for me to conclude that Bonnie’s blindness is hardwired into her genes and a result of a spontaneous mutation. 

A shot of Bonnie and her sister, Nicky, from last summer.  They could be twins except Nicky has a tail.
What’s the prognosis for a blind chicken?  My worst fear is that blindness is just one manifestation of a congenital condition and that there could be other negative symptoms that haven’t shown up yet.  So I keep track of this little hen pretty closely.  I give her a daily dose of Veterycin Ophthalmic Solution, which maybe is an unnecessary precaution.  Bonnie doesn’t like getting eye drops very much, but she stoically tolerates them.  Other than that, she just calmly lives her life in the best way that a non-seeing hen can.  She doesn’t go outside much, but she’s active in the coop.  She knows where the feeder and the water fount are, she manages to get on the roost every night, and she has no problem finding her way to the nest boxes to lay a pretty green egg every day. 

The “Raising Chickens” website suggests that one big problem with blind chickens is their interaction with the other members of the flock:  “Once vision is lost or severely impaired a chicken has little hope for survival; eating, finding water and roosting will be impossible. It’s unrealistic to expect one with serious chicken eye problems to do well in a flock setting, though chickens with one good eye seem to adapt.  Even still, such a handicapped chicken could be expected to be picked on and bullied by other members of the flock. Being allowed access to enough food by the rest of the flock is not guaranteed, so making sure a partially blind chicken isn’t slowly starving to death is important.”  A dire and pessimistic vision of Bonnie’s future, to be sure.

I prefer the scenario that Gail Damerow lays out in  “The Chicken Health Handbook”:  “A chicken can usually do relatively well despite being blind, provided feed and water are readily available, the chicken has companion chickens, and the blind bird is confined to a limited area where it won’t lose its way or be vulnerable to predation.” 

I think the difference between these two assessments may lie with the infrastructure and flock that the blind chicken finds itself in.  Bonnie lives in Coop Two, which is populated entirely with the hippie peace freaks of the poultry world.  Most of the nine chickens in Coop Two live there because they had issues in the more competitive, aggressive atmosphere of Coop One.  These are chickens who were on the bottom of the pecking order because of their small size, their meekness, or their physical shortcomings.  Snowball was the only Silkie living in a coop full of chickens much bigger than he was.  He eventually stopped leaving the roost, ever, and would have starved had I not held him on my lap and hand fed him every day.  He became the founding member of Coop Two.  Angitou the Polish Hen not only had problems seeing around her elaborate crest, but when she got pecked after running into other hens she would panic and run, which resulted in her being chased and maliciously pecked.  In Coop Two she fits right in.  Willow the Buff Orpington started getting picked on when she got old and lame.  Coop Two became her new home.    These Coop Two chickens obviously get along happily with each other.  For me to go further and suggest why they get along, would require me to do some extreme anthropomorphizing.  So let’s just say that the Coop Two chickens are incredibly nonaggressive toward each other and I’ve rarely seen any aggression aimed at Bonnie in spite of her blindness.  I would like to think that my little blind hen is going to be just fine.

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10,000 Page Views!

The Hipster Hens are at it again!  They’ve pulled out all the balloons and confetti and are celebrating the 10,000th page view on Randy’s Chicken Blog that just happened Sunday afternoon.  I started the blog and put up the very first post on March 1 of last year, so we’re nearing the first anniversary of this endeavor.  I’m sure the chickens will all want to party again when March 1 rolls around, but what can I say?!  They’re just party animals!

Since that first post, I’ve written 58 more – I’ve talked about broody hens, baby chicks, sick hens, conflict in the coop, poultry equipment, quite a bit about the cruelty of battery cages and efforts to get rid of them, and I’ve branched out to talk about the woods around the coop and the wild plants and animals that live there, I’ve discussed a few good books about chickens, and I’ve talked about, well…life, the universe, and everything!

Along the way, I’ve seen a slow but encouragingly steady increase in readership.  Thanks to all of you!  Who are you?  Well, thanks to the demographics info I get from Facebook and Google, I can tell you! Some of you are “fans” who have “liked” the Facebook fan page – but many of you are casual readers.  Most of my casual readers live in the US, but a significant number of you are in France, and there are also quite a few of you in Russia, Brazil, Canada, the UK, and Germany.  Kudos to you international readers who have used the “translate” button on the page to translate my posts into Spanish, French, German, Portuguese, Arabic, and Danish.  Many of you US casual readers are clustered in the Twin Cities area, but you are also in Wisconsin, Iowa, Nebraska, New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago and well – all over!

And you Hipster Hen fans, I love every one of you, don’t you know!  Most of you are in the US (Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois, Nebraska, Wisconsin, West Virginia, California, Oregon, Florida, and yup – all over!)  Special words of appreciation to you international fans – Three of you are in Australia, and one each are in Ireland, the Philippines, Serbia, Tanzania, and Iraq.  You know who you are!  Thanks, mates!  Go raibh maith agat! Salamat! Tak! Хвала! Shukrani!   شكر !

About three quarters of you are women 35 or older.  I really appreciate your support.  Tell all your male friends!  Most folks who blog about chickens are women.  I’m not sure why that is, but I’m not, btw, and more guys need to find out how cool chickens are!

Topics of future conversation:  I’m going to start building a chick nursery inside of Coop 1 soon and will be getting ready for baby chicks in June.  I’ll also be putting together a float for the local 4th of July parade – it will be pulled by my trusty John Deere, driven by yours truly, and will be colorful, festive, producing chicken themed music, and endowed with real live chickens!  Beyond that, is there any topic in particular that you would like to hear about?  Let me know!

Finally, I thought I’d end this post by highlighting the top five posts to date.  These are the posts that have had the most page views up to this moment.  Glad you liked them!  Thanks for your support!  Stay tuned for more!

Top Post:  Poop (December 14, 2016).  Wow.  Why did this take off?  It’s basically some good practical information on dealing with chicken manure – bedding options, using a poop tray under the roost for easy collection, and some composting tips.

Second Place:  Sweater Girls (November 1, 2016).  So I found myself in the ridiculous situation of trying to convince the Hipster Hens that it would be a good idea for them to wear chicken sweaters.  Pandemonium ensued.

Third Place:  A Dog Story (November 14, 2016).   How my good friend, Bailey the Labrador Retriever, came to be the Protector of the Hipster Hens here at the ranch.

Fourth Place:  Sometimes Hens Get Sick—Sometimes Hens Die (July 31, 2016).   Two hens get sick, one gets better and one passes on.  Dealing with sick hens and nursing them back to health and dealing with grief when one doesn’t make it. 

Fifth Place:  RIP, Bailey the Labrador Retriever (January 10, 2017).   Sweet Bailey moves on to dog heaven.  More about her life and her passing.

More to come, everybody.  Stay tuned!

The Chicken Encyclopedia – A Book by Gail Damerow

The Chicken Encyclopedia
An Illustrated Guide
Gail Damerow
Storey Publishing

I discovered Gail Damerow’s “The Chicken Encyclopedia” back when I first got the notion that I should get a few chickens.  I decided I needed a few good informational resources before plunging into this new project and I found this book on Amazon.   It was a serendipitous find since I knew nothing whatsoever about it when I ordered it.  As it turns out, this is a book that has never made it onto my bookshelf because it’s in constant use.

The thing I noticed about the book when I first pulled it out of the packing box was all the great chicken pictures.  My wife, Kathy, found those pictures useful as well.  When Kathy and I first talked about maybe getting a few hens, she was on board—with this stipulation, “I don’t care what kind you get, but they have to be pretty.”  So the book was a great tool for her.  She went through and put post-its on all the pages with pictures of chickens that passed her “prettiness” test.  My follow-up was to actually read the text next to those pictures and decide if the pretty hens she marked would be good and practical choices for us.  All of the major chicken breeds, from Ameraucana to Yokohama are pictured and the accompanying text includes a physical description of the breed, its history, and other characteristics—broodiness, egg color, temperament, flight ability, etc.  The same information is presented in succinct chart format in the appendix in a section called “Breed Traits at a Glance”.  When I’m considering a new breed of chicken for my flock, this is the first resource I turn to.  

The book is also a good resource for chicken diseases.  When I find one of my hens to be under the weather, this is the first book I pick up.  (The second book I pick up is Gail Damerow’s “The Chicken Health Handbook.)  All of the common (and not-so-common!) chicken health problems are listed, from anemia through X disease.  Each entry gives a description of the malady, symptoms, background information, and suggested treatment options. 

It’s also contains good practical information for beginners:  How big should a coop be?  What equipment do you need?  What should chickens eat?  How long does a chicken live?  How often do chickens lay eggs?  There are lots of other books that walk you through how to get started with your first flock, but having all the things you need to think about laid out in short sections that are arranged alphabetically makes the whole project seem somehow less daunting, and it certainly makes the information more accessible.  

And then there’s lots of great trivia and cool informational nuggets—stuff you probably don’t need to know to raise chickens but is simply fun to find out about: 
  •   A chicken’s respiratory system includes, in addition to the lungs, nine thin-walled sacs located throughout the chicken’s body and even in some bones.  They are called “air sacs” and you can read all about them in the “A” section of the encyclopedia.
  •  The yellow color of the skin of yellow-skinned hens comes from natural dyes in the food they eat.  The hens use this stored pigment to color the yolks of the eggs they lay.  Over time, as hens are actively laying eggs, their skin becomes nearly white as the pigment is used up.  This process is called “bleaching” and is an entry in the “B’s”.
  •  Many foods that contain cholesterol are high in saturated fats.  One rare exception—a food that is high in cholesterol but low in saturated fat, is the egg.  Eggs also contain lecithin, which interferes with cholesterol absorption.  Eggs from pasture-raised hens can contain 25% less saturated fat and cholesterol than eggs from confined hens.  Because the pigments from the green plants pasture-raised hens eat cause their eggs to have darker yolks, dark yolks are a good indicator of lower levels of saturated fat and cholesterol.  This information is all part of a discussion about “cholesterol”, an entry in the “C’s”

Those are A, B, and C examples. The book continues in this vein through the entire alphabet.  If you’re interested in chickens, are considering starting a flock, or already have one, I suggest you get a copy of this book for your very own.  Then I suggest you read it cover to cover.  Even if you think you know everything there is to know about chickens, I guarantee you’ll learn stuff from this book.  And you’ll be completely entertained. After you’ve read it cover to cover, I suggest you keep at close at hand for reference.  If you’re like me, you’ll use it a lot!

Randy's Chicken Blog participates in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by linking to products available on Amazon.