Just when I think I have them figured out, chickens keep amazing me.

When we decided to graduate our Rooster (Reggie) to the cooking pot, I mentioned that I was hoping that the last batch of eggs from his breeding would be fruitful.  To that end I placed a dozen eggs in the incubator and hoped for the best.  I also had left a couple of dozen eggs outside in nests, where chickens were attempting to hatch them.  While Reggie was gone, I started out feeling very confident that there would be some future generations.

Of course, things didn’t go the way I had expected.  The eggs which I had left in two different nests mysteriously vanished one afternoon… it turned out Orlaith and Errol (my two naughty dogs) decided they wanted raw omelette for lunch.  One of the chickens took this in her stride and despite losing all her eggs, she kept trying to lay more for hatching.  The other chicken didn’t take it very well.  She is an older chicken and she went totally broody…. Sitting in an empty nest for weeks, barely eating, getting aggressive when someone came near her.  It was very sad to see her act this way when there were no eggs under her.  She was doing her best, yet nothing would come of her actions.

To be honest, I was not very optimistic… three of the eggs I placed in the incubator turned out to be pretty old (one of them exploded in the incubator while I was attempting to candle the egg), so those three had to be thrown away.  The others were partly covered in off egg and still had a couple of weeks to go till hatching.

Then, on Saturday morning I heard the familiar “cheep” of chicks from the incubator.  When I checked, there were two chicks who had hatched overnight, with two more attempting to break from their shells.  A few hours later, all four were free, with the last five not hatching (I kept them in for two extra days, yet they didn’t try to break out).  I kept them in over Saturday night, yet on Sunday I was met with a problem… I didn’t have a working Brooder light.  These lights are expensive ($18 per bulb) and don’t last more than a few days.  My last one blew as I was setting up the light system, so I had nowhere to keep them warm during the cold nights.  I considered driving to the city to purchase a replacement bulb, then a figurative lightbulb illuminated above my head.

I had a chicken who wanted chicks, and chicks without a mother.  I had heard of people placing partially hatched, or eggs about to hatch, under a broody chicken.  She would have them hatch and believe they were her eggs.  I haven’t heard of people placing live chicks under a broody hen and having them survive, yet my options were pretty narrow.  I placed the four chicks in a basket and brought them to the broody hen.  She was very angry at my proximity, making her displeasure known via loud calls.  I grabbed the first chick and placed it next to her.  She looked at it, yet didn’t make any move at it.  I took this as a positive sign, as she hadn’t attacked it, unlike my hand which she pecked as it came into range.  I then grabbed another chick and slid this one under her feathers to place it near her legs.  The hen was angry again, yet didn’t hurt the chick next to her… infact the chick walked over and climbed under her feathers to join the one I just placed.  I quickly popped the last two under her and then sat back.  The hen calmed down and, while still looking a little fluffed up, was pretty quiet.  I took this as a good sign and walked away to let them get acquainted.

A few hours later I came back.  I had noticed the hen still sitting in her nest and I was starting to get worried about the chicks.  They needed to eat and drink, and if she sat there all day they may not have the energy required to survive if she didn’t do something.  I decided that whilst she appeared happy to sit on the chicks, I didn’t think she would mother them (which was what they required).  I made a decision to take the chicks back off her and to place them in a rabbit hutch, which I could try to warm with hot water bottles.  I also took the hen from her nest and blocked it so she couldn’t get back in (this is something I have read you should do to broody hens when you don’t want them to be broody).  After giving the chicks some food and water I went on my way.

When I came out to feed the animals in the early evening I noticed something unusual.  The chicks were crowded on one side of the hutch, and other outside (right next to the chicks) was the previously broody hen.  She was sitting there, watching the chicks!  It seems that she and the chicks had bonded over the course of a few hours, and now they viewed each other as family.  She wanted to be with them, so much so that she sat there with them when she couldn’t reach them.  I don’t know if I am explaining how touching this scene was… she was alone and without chicks, yet now she had these little ones.  I immediately removed them from the hutch, where they ran over and hid under her feathers.  When I fed them, she made the familiar noises a mother hen makes when the babies need to eat, which drew them from her feathers to have their meal.

After this, I noticed another interesting chicken behaviour.  One of my previous batches of chicks… one which was raised by a hen after they hatched (the one where I accidently killed one when moving their hutch) were being aggressive to the mother hen.  When I fed them, some of the young chicks would peck her head feathers, and appeared to be very cruel to the mother hen.  I decided to remove her from the hutch for her own protection.  Despite being moved from the hutch, the mother hen spends hours of each day watching the grown chicks… she sits next to their hutch and watches them, where the other chickens don’t even bother to look at them.  It appears that she is still showing some motherly behaviour towards the chicks, despite many people’s belief that chickens are stupid.  I know I am anthropomorphising, yet it is hard to see such behaviour and not notice how similar they are to people.

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