In all the months we had a rooster here at the farm dutifully making his rounds among the hens, none of our hens showed any interest in sitting on eggs. Since we thought it would be both fun and educational to watch the laying-hatching-mothering-growing cycle, we did our best to encourage them to "go broody." We'd place several eggs together in one nesting box and leave them there for a couple of days. When that didn't work, we'd start a new clutch in another box. When that went nowhere, we'd do the same thing in the barn--setting clutches of eggs in corners and on haystacks. We also tried feeding, watering, and petting the hens while they were laying. We got no response at all, except an occasional "oh-you-silly-humans-always-trying-to-control-things" look. We continued this little charade off and on for weeks, right up until the day Captain Haddock left this world behind (see the 3/26/12 post to read about that harrowing drama). There was no point in continuing on after that, of course, since the eggs would no longer be fertilized. (Did you know that chickens lay eggs even without a rooster around? A lot of folks don't. For more interesting--and sometimes surprising--facts about chickens and their eggs, check out this page at BackyardChickens.com.)
Now, less than a month after Captain's departure, one of our hens has decided to go broody! Crystal, the Splash Jersey Giant belonging to my younger daughter, Simi, is determined to sit on eggs. At first we thought she was just "playing house," but as 2 days turned into 3 and then 4, and she was still sitting there, we realized she was serious. The girls tried convincing her to get out of the nesting box, explaining in the gentlest and most sensitive of terms that she'd get no chicks out of those eggs. She was unimpressed with this argument. So my husband, G-P, decided to take them all away--snatching them out from under her one evening when he came home from work (he still has the peck marks to show for it). I was sure that once she realized she wasn't sitting on anything but straw, she would lose interest. But no. She was bound and determined to stay right there. It started to get sad. Seriously, it was breaking my heart seeing her sit there hour after hour, day after day, going without food and drink, patiently waiting for her non-existent little ones to develop.
I know I really shouldn't anthropomorphize. And I know that if we'd tried a bit harder, we could have "broken" her of the broodiness, and she'd probably have quickly forgotten about the whole ordeal. (If you ever find yourself in a similar situation and need information on how to do this humanely and effectively, consult this forum, again at BackyardChickens.com). But we just couldn't bear to do that. So one evening, we called our good friend and organic supply store owner T. McLeod, and he offered to bring a dozen fertilized eggs to his store the next morning. G-P ran out to pick them up and put 8 of them in Crystal's box. He said it was amazing to watch her "take them in," gently pushing each one underneath herself to just the right spot.
And she's been sitting there quietly ever since, the epitome of the long-suffering, selfless mother. Although the girls offer her handfuls of scratch and sips of water every morning and evening, she eats and drinks very little. Neither does she seem to sleep very much. Every time I've been to the coop since she started brooding, she has been completely alert. In fact, she has taken to possessively guarding her nest, "growling" (as the girls describe it) at anyone tempted to get too close and pecking those who do. She has also started plucking feathers from her breast with her beak to insulate and soften up her nest for her babies. She will continue all this for 21 days--the typical incubation time for chicks.* Then she will have another overwhelming job ahead of her: feeding, grooming, safeguarding and educating 8 little ones!
More than likely, she won't complain a single time. She won't play the martyr. She won't dramatize the depravations. She'll simply give her best shot at doing what needs to be done to take care of her offspring. I plan to spend part of Mother's Day this year out in the coop with Crystal. I have a feeling there are some things I can learn from her.
(accessed at orbadvisor.livejournal.com)
I am having one of those days
where I want to take you under my wings
and nestle you against my bosom,
keeping you warm against the winter air
and safe from the salivating wolves that surround us
I may freeze from the cold--
they may have to pry your peeping bodies
from beneath my ice-covered wings--
or I may be eaten by society's wolves--
they may have to search through my entrails
to discover the still-living chicks--
but I want to keep you safe. I will keep you safe.
Come to me, my children. There, there.
* All of Crystal's behaviors are typical of brooding chickens. For a detailed description of the behavior of broody hens, click here.