Posts Tagged ‘chickens’

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.


Albert’s Favourite Cook

Albert wasn’t keen on my cooking when we got married.  To this day he maintains that he’s never eaten as many eggs as he did for the first few months of marital life – fried eggs, egg omelets, deviled eggs, scrambled eggs and egg breakfast casseroles. I guess I thought arhode island red farmer who tended a flock of Rhode Island Reds with as much care as he did would welcome the fruits of his labour on the dinner table.

That was thirteen years ago.  Albert says I’m a much better cook now.  I reply in a none-too subservient tone that the only difference between then and now is that I’ve given up preparing any but such delectable dainties as his discriminating palate will accept.  It’s kind of true though.  I like being my husband’s favourite cook and I’ve attained that status, too.  Almost.  There’s not a woman around who can make Albert’s mouth water when the aroma of slow-cooked pot roast floods his senses like I can.  My adversary is a man.

His name is Jacob but Albert calls him Wishbone because he perfectly personifies the cranky cook so named in Rawhide, Albert’s favourite old TV western.    Wishbone cooks for the men at Albert’s annual week-long hunting camp as I explained in an earlier post titled Of Moose and Men.

When Albert returns from camp I’m regaled with stories of savoury dishes and gourmet soups and stews served with soft, steaming tortillas prepared by the culinary marvel that is Wishbone. soup

“Isn’t that something,” I say, all rapt attention and admiration.  “You ate three bowls of his venison stew?  Wow.  He must really be something.”

Dinner hour finds me feverishly cranking a wooden spoon over a bubbling stockpot in an effort to recreate Wishbone’s magnificent dishes out of hints dropped during my husband’s glowing reminiscence and wondering how, from a community known for traditional roles and industrious housewives, my kitchen nemesis turned out to be a crotchety Old Colony Mennonite man.

My first clue that something was different this year came not from what Albert said during his first phone calls and text messages home but from what he didn’t say.  Usually so eager to tell me all about Wishbone’s latest kitchen creations, he seemed not to want to talk about food at all.  Throughout the week though, the disappointed details began to emerge.

For a man whose responsibility it was to feed nine hungry hunters, Wishbone had turned unaccountably stingy with the meat supply.  Meat barely appeared on the table at all.  It seemed to be replaced by an inordinate amount of eggs. uncooked roast

“Eggs?!” I tutted, all wifely concern.

There were grumblings in the camp.  A man who had joined only this year was heard to mutter that the missus need not fret that he wouldn’t return home to her cooking if these be the victuals Jacob was famous for.  Albert eyed an uncooked beef roast that languished in the fridge all week, hoping that today was the day when Wishbone would serve it up, steaming and delicious and ladled over with rich beef gravy.  He tired of the provision Wishbone strangely seemed to consider a fair substitute for meat – cold baloney.  “Baloney!?” I cried in righteous horror.  Wishbone was clearly off his game.

As the men broke camp and headed home late Saturday morning, Albert and I continued our steady stream of text messages.

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And we did.  Tender, slow-roasted beef, fluffy mashed potatoes, corn and carrots smothered in savoury gravy devoured by the trail-weary, ravenous hunter.  The mistress of the house in her spotless apron sat by, a pie server at her right hand with which to dish out cream-filled pastry for dessert the moment he should wish it.  The serene countenance and beatific smile with which she presided over her table almost (but not quite) concealed the glint of triumph in her eye.

Wishbone may recover his culinary prowess; I’m not saying he won’t.  I wish it for him, poor fellow.  But for one year at least, I aim to relish every bit of the prize I’ve waited for so long to claim.  I am Albert’s favourite cook.



Mother Wall’s Wheels

Mother Wall keeps a 1-acre vegetable garden and a large flock of chickens.  She pours her heart and soul into these things; nowhere in Elgin County will you find neater or bushier rows of carrots, potatoes, green beans and parsley.  And nowhere (except my house) will you find such beautiful brown eggs from healthy free-range hens.

But Mother Wall is getting on in years and is finding it hard to keep with her chores, so Father Wall hatched a plan.  He drove her to London a week ago Saturday to look at an EZ-go golf cart that a man had for sale.  Mother Wall approved the golf cart, so Father Wall paid the man $1500 and they took it home.  Now instead of trudging about the farm on arthritic legs, Mother Wall slides into her new ride and motors from house to garden and from chicken coop to house with no effort at all.

I think the golf cart was shocked by the initiation into its new role:  one of its first tasks was to cart two beheaded chickens from chopping block to house where Mother Wall plucked and cleaned them for noodle soup.  Albert and I dropped by last week to check out Mother Wall’s new wheels.  They do haul an impressive machine.


The EZ-go is a sporty two-seater with twelve-inch slicks wrapped around shiny five-spoke mags.  She’ll cruise uncorked for seven days a charge on the 36-volt system that powers her hopped-up electric motor.  She’s clocked 16 miles per hour around the garden without breaking a sweat and handles two passengers with a basket of eggs and various garden implements with ease.  The only disadvantage for Mother Wall is that her short arms have difficulty reaching the ignition, which affords Albert a good laugh at her expense.


She bade me climb in.   I’d barely sat down before she sidestepped the brake and squawked the tires past the gawking neighbours in our flight toward the house.  That is to say, if it were possible for twelve-inch wheels to squawk on a spongy lawn, these would have.

“Reverse took some getting used to”, she explained as we sped up the lane.  “I’ve learned to step lightly on the gas because it really takes off.”

To demonstrate she took her foot off the pedal and pulled a lever beneath the steering wheel.  When the wheels rolled back a loud steady beep – beep – beep sounded behind us.  I looked around.  Then I realized the noise was coming from the golf cart itself – loafers loitering behind our hot rod had no excuse not to get out of the way.


Mother Wall put the golf cart back in drive and steered us past the house into the widest part of the driveway to show off the cart’s sharp turning capabilities.  I clung to the grab rail as she cranked the whip and we flew by the house again, past the gawking neighbours and back to the garden.  I doubt that anyone’s been more proud of their new wheels than Mother Wall is of her golf cart, not an eighteen-year-old in his souped-up Honda Civic nor a CEO in his Mercedes, not even the incurably cool, guitar-twangin’, hair flipping Steve Earle in his sweet little 66.  Speaking of which, there’s never a bad time for a little Steve Earle.  Y’all turn it up real loud.

Mother Wall pulled up at the chicken coop and said, “It’s your turn.”

So I took the wheel and drove up the lane to the cornfield and back.  Jokes aside, I was impressed with how well she handled the dips and ruts in our path.  I know now what I’ll be driving when I’m too old and feeble to tote a basket of eggs from the barn to the egg shop and it won’t be the tractor or an all terrain vehicle.  Imma pimp an EZ-go golf cart with # 74 on the bumper and a cup holder full of Whiskas Temptations to share with furry hitchhikers I pick up on my way to the barn.  I know Mother Wall will be proud.

The Martens House

Mennonites have delightful, lyrical nicknames that represent their characters, or in some cases, label whole families.  I know of Pepsi Wall, Stäla Friesen (Robber Friesen) and De Wille Sawatzkjes (The Wild Sawatzkys) to name a few.  My maiden name is Driedger.  I don’t think we have a nickname.  Or maybe we have one and we don’t know about it.  I doubt that anybody walked up to Stäla Friesen and addressed him as such.

Growing up, our closest friends were De Heena Moatess (The Chicken Martens), so named for the large flock of chickens that Mrs. Martens tended with as much love and care as she gave any of her many children.  The Martens farm was our favourite place to go.  They lived in a large, dilapidated former schoolhouse.  The students within were as unruly as their parents were lenient and broad-minded teachers.  Most children in our community never heard the facts of life from their parents.  The subject was shameful even to whisper about to any but married people, no matter what their age.  But Mrs. Martens discussed pregnancy, sex and menstruation in her children’s hearing as casually as she spoke about the weather.  It is the one subject where Susie Martens’ Low German vocabulary outshines mine.  Old Mr. Martens loved his wife and showed her, openly and affectionately, a shocking sight to conservatively bred little peepers.

They both had smiles as wide and relaxed as their housekeeping standards.  Until Susie and I were about six, we climbed to the second story by a wooden ladder leading up to a hole in the kitchen ceiling.  What were washing and repairs when there were broody hens to set and a winter woodpile to stock?  But dirty dishes and crumbling bricks could not detract from the mood of gaiety and freedom in that house.  The wood stove blazed merrily, children ran amok and newly hatched chicks cheep-cheeped under warm rags in baskets placed in random corners of the house.  When my parents allowed me to spend the night, I curled up under cotton quilts with one or both of the youngest girls in their upstairs bedroom.  The drone of Mr. Martens’ evening prayers floated up through the cracks in the floor and carried us off to dreamland.

This sketch is a surprisingly accurate depiction of the Martens house, from the double row of windows to the laneway on the right.

The old man was trachtmoaka (chiropractor) to the Mennonite community roundabout.  He had no certificate and little to no education, but what he had was better: the ability to see beneath human skin with his hands.  Whether the ailment was a dislocated rib, a pinched nerve or a strained muscle, Mr. Martens’ gnarled fingers could coax it back into place.  Recently my father told me a story about a man who doubted Mr. Martens’ healing power.

“My thumb’s out of place”, he taunted.  “You gonna fix it?”

Mr. Martens took hold of the mocker’s thumb and wrenched from its joint.  He let the man gasp and groan for a spell and then he pushed the thumb back into place.

“It’s fixed.” he said.

Almost everyone in my family had a close friend in the Martens, from my brother Abe and John Martens who were about sixteen years older than me, to me and the youngest Martens girls, Susie and Aggie.  They were as eccentric as their parents and as uncultivated and boisterous as we were shy and reserved.  They came and went without regard to curfew because their parents set none.  Nor did they monitor their children’s friends who came and went just as freely.  But they didn’t miss much; the children exchanged details about their social lives in front of their parents in a way that would have been unthinkable for me.  It made their house an exciting place, but they put me on tenterhooks in public, especially in gatherings of mostly even-tempered and moderately mannered society.  With their bluntness and blase approach to sensitive subjects, one could never predict what wild and outlandish thing they might say.  I tried not to get embarrassed or self-conscious, but that is a very hard thing for a Driedger (at least this one) to do.  Just waking up in the morning is enough to make me self-conscious.

My father was a preacher, and of necessity, he and my mother frowned on Mr. and Mrs. Martens and their unruly offspring, but they could no more stay away from their house than we children.  We held traditional Mennonite hog-butcherings either at their farm or ours.  My mother happily took on much of their harvest canning and freezing so that Mrs. Martens might devote herself to uninterrupted care of her beloved chickens.  Oddly enough, her lack of conventional discipline over her children turned out many healthy and well-adjusted adult Martens.  Susie, for one, never got drunk or smoked a joint in her teenage years or beyond.  Mrs. Martens, now a widow in her seventies, resides in a snug house purchased by her children who still air details about their private lives in her hearing and come and go as they please.

I’m happy to write that Susie and I are still close.  Our differences in temperament have caused conflict between us through the years, but in essence, our friendship remains the same: she still embarrasses me in public and when she drawls “Oh boy”, I know that her patience with my fastidiousness is wearing thin.  She inspires me with her love for God.  Her four children follow in her crazy Martens footsteps.  She was my irrepressable, pregnant maid of honour when I got married,

and I was her…maid of honour.

I think my childhood and teenage experiences at the Martens farm formed my love of Wuthering Heights.  They both feature a huge old house full of rowdy, rustic inhabitants who all talk (or shout) at once around a crackling fireplace.  If you asked them why they do things so strangely they would look at you uncomprehendingly: they’re oblivious (or perhaps indifferent) to the norms and customs of society.

Below are my brother John (sitting) and Jake Martens in their twenties.  I can totally picture John as a dark, brooding Heathcliff in the Martens house.

I think we all need a Martens house somewhere in our lives.  It’s a world apart, a place where people do and say things a little differently than anywhere else, a place where anything can happen and usually does.  Maybe you live at the Martens house.  If so, let me know.  I’d love to come and sit awhile at the fireplace.

Chicken doings

The hens in my new flock are already wonderful layers, but their perching abilities leave much to be desired.  It’s not the poor biddies’ fault.  They’ve had neither mother nor older hens from whom to learn this necessary skill, or likely even a stick of wood to practice on.  They arrived two weeks ago at nineteen weeks old, and every night, they’ve huddled together on the floor like rabbits without a burrow until the ground resembles one wall-to-wall carpet of chicken.

So tonight, Albert and I taught them how to roost.  This did not involve us climbing the perch and flapping our arms, but it was almost as awkward.  Moving chickens for any reason works best in the dark because they can’t see, so they don’t resist or fuss much.  That is why they retire early, and where the expression “go to bed with the chickens” originates – they don’t like to stumble over the nightstand.  Instead, we stumbled about the murky coop, transferring one hen at a time from floor to perch.  Well, Albert carried two at a time, but they clucked and fussed much more than mine did, because you can’t gently lift and comfortably cradle two hens at a time.

Most of them balanced like pros as soon as their toes touched wood, but some lurched back and forth like drunks and a few fell off and had to be helped back up.  As if their night’s events had not taken a strange enough turn, I snapped their photo, blinding them with my camera’s flash before I said goodnight.  I hope it doesn’t give them little chicken nightmares.  They’ve got a busy day ahead and need to be fresh, bright-eyed and ready to greet the  morning.

Whistling girls and crowing hens…

I posted this note in our little self-serve egg store today.


It’s not that the hens are lazy.  They’re just tired.  They’ve laid faithfully for two years and are ready to retire.  Chickens can live for ten years or more in the right conditions and lay eggs just as long, but their peak laying season happens between five and eighteen months.

A hen can even undergo a sex change to become a rooster later in life; no scalpel or testosterone shots required.  This happens through a biological process called protogyny, no word of a lie.

Check out and for the scientific explanation.  It happens rarely, about 1 in 10,000, but it does happen.  First they start to crow, then their combs grow big; they develop a wattle under the chin, sprout long tail feathers and exhibit all the behaviours of a sure ’nuff rooster.  There are conflicting opinions about whether or not these choosters can reproduce.

I have heard many times that crowing hens always come to some bad end, but nobody ever told me that they turn into roosters.  I must not whistle.  I must not whistle.  I must not whistle…

Conversely, when a rooster turns into a hen, it’s called protandry.  So far this has never happened and may be impossible, but if it ever does, that’s what it will be called.

At any rate, our hens have dramatically reduced their egg production over the past couple of months.  I want to beg them to rally for one more month, just until the new shift arrives to take over, but I can’t because I’ve never told them how I’ve been profiteering from their labours all these years.  If they knew, they might strike or demand a severance package.  Or worse, morph into a flock of vicious roosters and attack me.

Crazy in the coop

My hens become big busybodies when I gather eggs.  They hop up next to me to watch and critique every move I make.  They poke their heads into the basket and peck the eggs, crawl over my hands in the nests and make a general nuisance of themselves.  Certainly the ladies are entitled to a sense of ownership over their embryos.  But I’m entitled to my sanity.  So I hatched a win/win plan.


I started bringing treats with me to scatter on the floor and serve as a distraction so that I could collect the eggs in peace.  Every household scrap got saved for this purpose.

"Table scraps" translated into Chickenese means "Chateaubriand with bearnaise sauce and cabernet".

This works well.  Too well.

Now, instead of a few hens to annoy me as I collect eggs, the whole lot mobs me as soon as I open the coop door.  With necks outstretched and beady eyes glittering with greed, they hold me at beak point.  I throw the scraps over their heads and pandemonium erupts.  The cackling mass lunges for the food and the air in the coop goes murky as dust and feathers fly.  My basket clutched close to my chest, I slip through the melee and make a break for the nests.  My fingers tremble as I make haste, trying not to crack the eggs.

I peek around the nests to scope out my retreat.  I jump back to avoid a hen sprinting past with a beak full of stale bread.  Two locals are hot on her talons but she fakes a left and eludes them.  I dash to the door, slam it behind me and lean back, gasping and relieved.  I’ve forayed into the battle zone, seized the plunder and emerged victorious.  Mission accomplished.

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