Posts Tagged ‘broody hens’

Tale of a Broody Hen

Some of my hens turned broody in the spring. I don’t keep a rooster in the flock to fertilize their eggs or give them any hope of motherhood but still they sat, staring ahead as if sheer will and concentration could turn those blanks into babies. They only came down from the nest once a day, heads low and plumage fanned out like visiting royalty as theycartoon-chicken-on-nest steered an imaginary brood of chicks to feed and water.   Most of them gave up after a couple of months. Chicken eggs only take twenty-one days to hatch. Every day after that further dissolved the illusion in their little minds that it was ever going to happen for them. They abandoned the nest and the cluck-clucking sound distinctive to broody hens, drew in their feathers and resumed their place in the pecking order with admirable stoicism.

One chicken, whom I’ve affectionately come to know as Millicent, refused to give up her dream of a family. Every day I took away the eggs she sat on, so until the other hens laid more the next day, she had to imagine the eggs as well as the chicks, and still she sat, week after week, month after weary month. She began to be distressed and confused, abandoning one group of eggs by midmorning to sit on another, desperately hoping for one of them, any of them, to hatch.

cartoon-chicken-on-nest-02I finally took pity on her in August and ordered a flock of day-old chicks for her from Frey’s Hatchery in St. Jacobs. I could have ordered fertile eggs for her to hatch out herself but they only sell fertile eggs in lots of a single breed and I wanted an assortment of yellow, black and brown chicks scuttling about the barnyard with the hen, just like my mother had when I was small. Albert and his mother said it wouldn’t work – no self-respecting hen would deign to rear a chick she hadn’t hatched herself, but then neither of them had probed those flickering, broody eyes, seen the desperation tinged with madness there…you’ve got to know your chicken.

On September 8, I set out for St. Jacobs, a good hour and a half from home. The day was an unseasonably warm 84°Farenheit but air conditioning kept me comfortable on the way. The drive home was another story. At one day old, chicks are unable to regulate their own body temperature so their environment must be 95°Farenheit. Free of drafts. Or any other relief that an open window might have afforded me that sweltering afternoon. The scenic route lost all appeal; I gripped the wheel and sped up the inside lane of the 401 for home, my cargo cheep-cheeping in chorus from the passenger seat and sweat pouring from my hair down my neck and back. Clearly, I’d underestimated the merits of unicolour chicks. I cracked the windows before I got halfway home; I couldn’t help it. By that time it must’ve been closer to 200° in there anyway.

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On being introduced to Millicent, the chicks cheep-cheeped their raucous and unanimous vote: she would do very well for an adoptive mother, even though they had no other prospective mom to compare her to. Until the day before, they had incubated in a sterile, noisy mechanical mother devoid of softness, gentle clucking sounds and every other comfort a hen provides except heat, yet they instinctively ducked under Millicent’s feathers and she automatically stood up a little to allow them even though her brain struggled to make sense of this new development. Her first contact with her chicks should have been a stirring under her feathers as they began to peck their way out of shells accompanied by peeping, twittery progress reports whenever they stopped to rest, and she keenly felt the omission. It took a moment for her to decide that adopted chicks were better than no chicks at all but once she was sure, she commenced to cluck and wing her noisy brood of children into obedience and order.

Not that she’d let herself be cheated of any more birthing rites of passage if she could help it. Fertile eggs almost never all hatch no matter how devotedly the hen cares for them, or if they do, they don’t all come out at the same time so after most have hatched, the hen continues to sit on the remaining eggs for a day or so, just in case. So did Millicent. Her mail-order children darted to feed, to water and back to her, repeated the circuit, then mixed it up for interest’s sake but she remained resolutely parked atop her imaginary eggs for another thirty-six hours. I’d taken every egg out from under her when I brought her the chicks but to her mind, this was no reason not to give them a fighting chance.

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I moved the little family to a small pen for a week, a sort of chicken nursery where they’d be safe from jealous hens and other predators. Then I pulled up a lawn chair and sat down to watch them. Some people look at fish aquariums in order to relax and unwind…I look at chickens. Presently, Sniper the German Shepherd shuffled in to join me. Looking at her look at the chicks is an amusement in itself. Something in me resonates with the expression flickering across her face when she gazes on the tiny, defenseless chicks. I’ve felt the same emotion when I look at a plate of cream puffs. Thankfully, she’s an obedient dog who respects her boundaries as well as any dog can.

The chicks are a delight to touch, too. At one day old, each downy ball is so light, you almost can’t feel it when you pick it up. There’s a barely discernible skittering as it explores the palm of your hand, like a spider if spiders didn’t ignite irrational fits of terror in otherwise serene and sensible middle-aged women. Three of the chicks are roosters, so we’ll have to see if they’re as sweet-tempered when they’re fully grown as they are now. I’m a little nervous when I think that within a few months, they could morph into brawny, spiky thugs who mug me whenever I cross their terrain but if they do, I reckon they’ll rehabilitate well enough in the soup pot. Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.

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.

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 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.

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