Chicken Business

Broodiness is a physiological state that makes a hen want many babies, all at the same time, starting now.  Broody hens are easy to recognize.   They toddle about making maternal clucking noises with their feathers fluffed out from their bodies, ready to incubate anything from a golf ball to an avocado pit in hopes of hatching a chick.

About a month ago, five of my hens had a yen to brood.  I don’t have any roosters, so the hen’s eggs are little blanks as far as babies go.  I decided to enquire about the neighbourhood for some fertile eggs.  In the meantime, I left three infertile eggs in the nest for the broody hens to care for, kind of like those fake babies you get in high school, just to make sure that they wouldn’t get discouraged and give up their dreams of motherhood before I managed to find a surrogate chicken with eggs to spare.  I marked the counterfeits so that I wouldn’t accidentally collect them the next morning.  They are (from left to right) the hippie, the beauty and the cynic, although it occurs to me that in the case of the gloomy little embryo to the right, my own dismal artistry is to blame should cynicism be mistaken for an untreated case of hemorrhoids.


 My friends and neighbours had no fertile eggs to spare.  Then in true Jane Eyreian style, I advertised, but it would seem that folks are even less disposed to part with their fertile eggs in my day than they were to hire a governess in Jane’s.  Finally I called Frey’s hatchery in St. Jacobs who agreed to sell me five dozen eggs for a trifling eight dollars and twenty-five cents a dozen.  Albert almost came out of his chair when I told him my plans.  He thought I was barmy to drive an hour and a half one way to pay almost three times a decent price for chicken eggs.  But for me, it’s not just about acquiring more livestock.  It’s about the fun I have settling the hens into cozy straw nurseries, of hearing those first cheep-cheeping sounds as the chicks chisel and hammer their way out into the world, and of watching each proud mother lead a row of perfectly formed baby chickens into the meadow for Scratch & Peck 101, a sort of poultry kindergarten which covers elementary techniques for unearthing deliciously squirmy things to eat.

Even the expedition to St. Jacobs was a pleasure.  There’s nothing like listening to Sarah Brightman’s sweet, clear soprano on the stereo while cruising the summer countryside, of measuring the open road not in miles but in arias, just me and Sarah.  In our small town of Aylmer, Ontario, you can drive a John Deere through the main stoplight hauling a loaded manure spreader and no one will bat an eye.  But play opera and classical music with the windows rolled down at your peril if blatant staring and necks craned to get a better look at you unsettle your nerves.  The long drive to Frey’s Hatchery was a chance to listen to the music I like, as loud as I liked and on the way home, the unborn chicks in the backseat enjoyed it with me.  I don’t know if chickens are able to distinguish music from other sounds, but if they are, these may be the first in the history of the world to break out of their shells cheeping the melodic theme to “O mio babbino caro”.

Two of the hens got cold feet about motherhood so I adopted their eggs.  No, I’m not going to sit on them for twenty-one days (I did read one woman online contemplating the odds of successfully hatching chicken eggs in her bra.  I don’t know if she actually tried it or not, but either way, we don’t hold with such nonsense in this house).  I set the unwanted eggs in our incubator.

I have successfully hatched eggs this way but it’s tricky, even with the new-fangled automatic egg turner.  For the next three weeks I have to keep a careful watch over it, not allowing the temperature to stray from 99.5 -100ºFarenheit and making sure the humidity hovers at 85 – 87 ºFarenheit.  The outcome for this lot is iffy already because I had to tweak both the temperature and humidity quite a bit yesterday.  I will candle some of the eggs (hold them over a light in a dark room) in three days.  If an egg is clear, it is either infertile or it was fertile but died.  An egg with a dark spot in the middle means that a live chick is thriving inside and everything is tickety boo.

The three hens are lucky; God created them with an inner thermostat and hygrometer preset for the job.  They don’t have much to do for the next three weeks but sit.  And they do.  Sitting on eggs is deliberate and concentrated, a terribly serious business to a broody hen.

The four of us can hardly wait out the days and hours until July 31st.  That’s when the babies are due.  I’ll let you know when they get here.


3 responses to this post.

  1. I love chicks! When the kids were in kindergarten one of the teachers brought eggs into the classrooms so the kids could watch them hatch. I think I was more excited than the 4 and 5-year-olds!! I’d go in after all the kids had left and take the chicks out of their cage so I could nuzzle their downy feathers! I think the teacher thought I was nuts – obviously she was not a farm girl.
    Can’t wait to hear about your exploits as mother hen!


    • That’s an interesting point, Holly. Sometimes I feel as if my attachment to animals is something I was supposed to outgrow along with my barbie dolls. Maybe part of our psyche is perpetually trapped in an infantile state. Oh well. It’s fun in there, isn’t it? 😉


      • Yes, but infants are innocent, trusting, faithful and able to laugh all the time…and who doesn’t want to be like that?
        CS Lewis said “When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.”
        A very wise man indeed. 🙂


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