Yesterday, Chirp became the first of my young hens to go broody. When I left for work, she was sitting on the nest; when I returned five hours later, she was still there. She pecked my hand sternly when I reached into the nest box to lift her out and look her over. When I set her down on the coop floor, she made a beeline back to the nest and clambered back in.
When I reached in again, she growled angrily:
Many years ago, when the first of my hens went broody, I panicked, certain she was stricken with some sinister poultry pathology. The day before, my buff Orpington had been acting as chickens will: foraging in the yard, scratching, dust-bathing. Now she was stalking about, head down and wings out, puffed up like a tick, giving forth a low, measured cluck. She began spending an inordinate amount of time on the nest, too, though she was no longer laying.
It was then I recalled what I’d read two years earlier, before my first day-old pullets arrived in a peeping cardboard box, 1,000 miles from the hatchery where they were born.
Simply put, my hen was answering the clarion call of instinct. It was spring: The light was growing longer, the days warmer and she had decided, by god, to have babies. Nothing – certainly not the fact that I didn’t have a rooster — was going to change her mind.
As it turned out, the buff was the first victim of a thwarted maternity that swept through my little flock like a virus. During the summer that followed, my other hens, otherwise sensible and industrious, each took to the nest, determined to hatch a clutch of unfertilized eggs into fuzzy little babies. It didn’t matter if I removed the eggs; still, they sat.
Broodiness is a fine trait if you want a hen to raise chicks; it means she’ll be a good mother. But it’s problematic if you’d rather have breakfast. When a hen starts setting, she re-absorbs the nascent yolks within her that would otherwise become eggs, allowing the clutch of developing chicks beneath her time to mature and hatch. That means she stops laying, and the longer she is broody, the longer it takes her to start laying again.
Now, it’s possible – though not polite — to pick at the intelligence of a fertile female committed to having babies sans sperm. But in my first buff Orpington – who sat the nest so persistently she lost weight and developed a pressure sore – I observed a lovely devotion, a single-mindedness and economy of purpose that put humans to shame. Whenever I forced her to leave the coop for sustenance and fresh air, she would sit for long minutes in a maternal stupor, stirring only to seize twigs with her beak and place them carefully around her, reconstructing a nest. Eventually, she would come to her senses for about 15 minutes – long enough to eat and drink — then sprint back to the coop and settle in.
I found this behavior so dear and comical that I described it one morning to a friend who has children and insists I will some day want them, despite my remonstrations.
“She’s almost got me wanting babies,” I said, and my friend’s face took on a preternatural glow. So enchanting was the radiance of her vindication that I hadn’t the heart to tell her my maternal longings were strictly vicarious; like my hen, I wanted chicks, not children.
In fact, I was so charmed by the second week of the buff’s confinement that I nearly completed her faux pregnancy with newly hatched chicks from the feed store. I’d read about this in the poultry books: how you let the hen set through the natural 21-day incubation period, then slip day-old babies beneath her at night, when she is physiologically primed for the hatch. If fortune is with you, no one’s the wiser. Everybody’s happy.
But I lacked room for more chickens, and the buff was getting skinny. So sanity prevailed. By day, I shut her out of the coop, willing myself to look away from her distress. At night, I caged her; otherwise, she would forsake the roost and go right back to setting.
It was this way, too, for the second hen. And the third. Eventually, each relinquished her dream of maternity with the clean pragmatism of animals.
I am beginning to think that Chirp’s broodiness, too, might be tough to break. She is my special-needs hen, by all appearances mildly retarded and yet — improbably — wildly self-confident; she appears to be at the head of the peck order. So she is hard to predict.
Last night, I went out to find her still on the nest. Her flockmates, discombobulated by her absence, had roosted in a different area of the coop.
This morning, Chirp remained on the nest while the other girls eagerly ran outside to peck and scratch in the side yard. She again chided me when I plucked her out of the box. But when I deposited her on the earth, damp from a light rain, she immediately joined the flock, exploring the new morning.
Within the hour, she was back on the nest.