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Hen Husbandry

Birth, death, surrogacy and mayhem in the coop

By Ari Le Vaux

Two of our hens recently got broody. While the other two kept up their standard schedules of scratching around, chasing bugs and rolling in the dust, Black 'n' Blue, a sweet little bantam, and Annabelle, a tough orange buff Orpington, stopped laying eggs and glued themselves to their nesting box. Once in a while Baldy or Chicken Hawk came in to lay an egg, forfeiting their creation to the broody girls, who used their beaks and claws to roll the new egg onto their pile. They shared this pile, sitting side by side, sometimes with their wings wrapped around each other. They wouldn't leave the nest to eat or drink, so I put food and water dishes next to the nesting box.

With no cock in the flock to fertilize the eggs, they weren't going to hatch. So despite the broody girls' protests, I collected the eggs as usual. Annabelle, who's normally skittish, grew ballsy in her broodishness, and not only sat her ground but pecked at my hand and clucked bloody murder as I took her eggs. I left them a golf ball, which they willingly incubated.

Our neighbor, Dick, who has a cock in his flock, took care of our hens for a few days while we went camping. "You got some broody hens," he said when we returned. "Want some fertile eggs for them to sit on?"

A few days later, Dick brought over 18 eggs. It seemed like too many, but he said some wouldn't hatch, some would die trying, some would die young and some would be roosters—and all roosters, except perhaps one, are destined for the pot.

"The eggs will hatch exactly three weeks after you put them out," he said. "If you put them out in the morning, they'll hatch in the morning."

We decided on a morning hatching. Since baby chicks are sensitive to cold, hatching around 10am would give them a whole day to warm up. I marked the fertilized eggs with a Sharpie so I could distinguish them from the unfertilized eggs Chicken Hawk and Baldy would lay, which I would continue to collect.

Eighteen eggs made quite a pile, even for these dedicated hens. For three weeks they sat with gritty determination, diligently rotating their charges. One egg broke after two weeks. There was a baby chick inside.

Baldy, who wasn't broody, began spending more time in the coop in solidarity. That left Chicken Hawk to pass her days outside, in solitude.

On the morning of the appointed day, I went to the coop and, sure enough, heard a chorus of little peeps. Annabelle and Black 'n' Blue were making clucking sounds, which Dick says give encouragement to hatching chicks. The new moms looked bewildered, constantly standing up to check on the remaining eggs, poking around with their beaks to keep track of the darting peepers, who at times were under them, at times walked on top of them and sometimes hid in the coop's hard-to-reach nooks and crannies.

Three chicks hatched successfully. Three died while hatching, perhaps stepped on by the confused hens. The rest never hatched, and when I broke them open the next day there was nothing inside but normal egg, quite stinky. Dick, apparently, has a lazy cock.

Tragedy struck later on hatching day. I found one of the peepers floating in the water dish I'd put in the coop. Cursing my idiocy, I examined the chick. It was the bright yellow one, the same color as Annabelle. It was limp, soggy and motionless. Since there was no trace of rigor mortis, I figured it hadn't been dead long, and commenced CPR.

This being my first attempt at chicken CPR, I was kind of winging it. Sometimes my compressions forced air through the chick's vocal chords, causing it to peep, which got my hopes up, but the chick stayed dead.

Then there were two—one for each broody hen. Contrary to what I'd heard might happen, neither got jealous. As long as each one had a peep under her belly, both hens seemed content.

I kept the coop closed so the peepers would stay inside. Chicken Hawk and Baldy were doting aunts, sitting on the ground just outside the coop walls. At night, all six birds—four hens and two chicks—piled into one nesting box.

The co-parenting seems to be working. Annabelle is a bit spastic, sometimes stepping on the peepers, and she can be aggressive in defending the chicks. Black 'n' Blue is as peaceful and sweet as ever, but a little spacey.

Per Dick's advice, I've been feeding them ground oats, and I made a trip to the feed store to buy a chick-safe water dispenser. At the store, there was a single chick for sale in a bin that in the early summer was full of them. The chick was yellow-orange, Annabelle's color, like the one that died. I made the impulse purchase for $2.

At home, I removed the two recent hatchlings. My plan was to get the mamas in a panic over their missing chicks, and then return the two chicks plus the new one, in the hope that they wouldn't notice. They noticed.

Black 'n' Blue was cool with the new chick, but Annabelle went after the intruder. The new chick was terrified of Annabelle, rightly so, and wouldn't have lasted long, so I kicked Annabelle out of the coop.

Then the coop became peaceful, with the three chicks snuggling under Black 'n' Blue, who puffed and preened her feathers and clucked with contentment. Annabelle stalked the coop's perimeter, clucking angrily. A few hours later, I attempted a trial reintroduction. As Annabelle entered the coop, the new girl burrowed deep under Black 'n' Blue's belly. The other chicks remained unconcerned. Annabelle settled down in the nesting box. There was uneasy peace in the coop, but the new chick stayed hidden.

An hour later, I saw the new chick poking her face out from under Annabelle, their feathers matching perfectly. The new chick on the block was in.

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