A Fowl Deed

Bill (Humpy) Cummings had a chicken farm down on Nauset Road. Because he wasn’t making enough money to support himself and his wife, Helen, using the then current methods of keeping laying hens and selling the eggs, he began to take a more scientific approach.

He calculated that if every one of his hens laid 100 eggs a year, he would come out even, and that every egg more than 100 would be clear profit. He had read a great deal about the 200 egg producing hen in the poultry magazine that he subscribed to. He had spent more money than he could afford to get that breed of hen, but the dilemma was that his best hen wasn’t able to produce more than 125 eggs a year.

But his studies and experiments had not been completely in vain.

He observed, among other things, that the hens always went to their nests to lay as soon as they were done feeding in the morning at first light.

He also observed that they would begin to go to roost as soon as the darkness began to fall. They would stay there until light began to return the next morning.

Fred Higgins
Fred Higgins

Here was a logic worth following up: If a hen laid every morning when the days were 24 hours long, he thought, then she would no doubt keep up the practice if she lived on a planet where the days were half so long. That is, she would have two “laying” periods in the same 24 hours. So, Humpy went to work to change the length of the day.

Humpy relied on the thought that a hen would mistake any form of darkness for night. A flock has been known to go to roost at midday during a total eclipse of the sun. Hence, he reasoned that if he could create a short, dark period along about noon, the hens would take it for the real thing and would go about their business, conforming to the new conditions.

The next time Humpy went to Boston to ship his eggs, he brought home a great roll of curtain stuff that he made up into heavy shades, which he hung in front of the windows of the roosting henhouses.

After the hens had had their breakfast one morning and most of the active ones had laid their eggs, Humpy began to pull down the shades, letting them drop slowly, by degrees, suggesting the gradual sunset. In fifteen minutes the hens were cackling and clucking to themselves as they went to roost. As soon as they were all quiet, Humpy drew the curtains all the way to the floor and let them remain thus for half an hour.

Then he began to reverse the procedure, gradually lifting the curtains, letting in some light, which set the roosters to crowing. As the curtains went up slowly and by the same degrees, and the bright light filled the pens, the hens flew down and ran to their feeding troughs for breakfast. When they had been fed and watered, most of them mounted aloft to the nest boxes and squatted down to lay.

“I was making money hand over fist,” said Humpy, “and dreamt of selling the rights for the use of my great discovery. However, soon, and much to my astonishment, my hens began to shed their feathers and stopped laying . It was cold weather, and a lot of them died before they could grow new feathers, mainly because hens don’t shed their feathers in winter when left to nature. The ones that lived grew stiff and lumpy, so they could hardly move around. They seemed to have come down with rheumatism.

“When I killed one to cook for the wife, the meat was so tough that she couldn’t eat it. It was then that I woke up to the fact that my hens were dying from old age. They had been living two days to my one and were worn out and old before they ceased to be pullets.

This, of course, reinforced the age-old advice that we shouldn’t mess with Mother Nature.

Sam Sherman