The amazing story of two 40-something women on the path to matrimonial bliss

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Sunday, April 28, 2013

Like an Old Mother Hen

Hilda, our Buff Oprington hen, determined to at least sit on some eggs--which just 
happen to be plastic Easter eggs at this point.
 Our Hilda is not old, of course, it's been just over a year since we brought her home as a tiny yellow fluff ball.  And she's not a mother  yet.  I'm thinking the phrase "like an old mother hen" may best apply to Teri and me at this point as we tend, fuss and cluck over our living charges. We take the responsibility pretty seriously, I suppose, and find we have to remind ourselves that we can't exactly control nature...neither do we always understand it!

Our attempted solution at a temporary coop in which Hilda can explore potential motherhood.
Most of what we've read in the urban and chicken farming books focuses on how to "disrupt" the urges of a broody hen--a hen who wants to sit on a clutch of eggs.  After all, the assumption is that most folks are just in it for the eggs and a setting hen is not a laying hen.  Our neighbors are forever asking us "how many eggs?" we are getting by the day, as if that is the only reason for having the flock.  They never ask us how much fertilizer they make, or how many slugs or snails they have eaten, or how quickly they clean up the sloppy fruit that falls from our fruit trees?!

Well, as Hilda started getting her broody hen on, we did more research.  Among those who suggest letting hens follow their instincts, there were those who advocate removing her from the flock altogether and putting her in someplace dark and quiet; those who were all about just letting the hen set where she settled in the midst of the chicken coop; and myriad other suggestions.  I realize now, typical for Teri and me, we went with a little bit of a few suggestions and let common sense--and Hilda--be our guide.  We adjusted it to fit our scene.

We started by letting Hilda stay in the nest box she'd chosen in the regular coop.  After all, we didn't know if she was serious or not. Seems some hens will be inclined to get broody, but they'll lose interest in a few days or be somewhat haphazard about it.  We figured, we'd give her a couple days to see how determined she was.  After setting overnight one night, she did come off the nest late the next morning and wander around the yard, take a dust bath, and puff and cluck at all the other chickens.  We thought that might be it.  But by midday, she was back on the nest.  There were some snarky tussles with the other hens who wanted to get into their favorite nest box to lay, and we started thinking that maybe if she was determined to do this thing, it could end up like a middle school rest room up in there and we might need to make some adjustments.

Some folks suggested putting fake eggs under a hen for a few days to see if she's serious, and then swapping them out for fertilized eggs--of course, this applies to hens who aren't already setting on an accumulated clutch.  This seemed to make a bit of sense and match our timing too.  Since it would take a few days for us to acquire the fertilized eggs, we decided to give her four fake eggs--a combination of plastic Easter eggs and one of the clay 'Inspiration Eggs" we used to teach the hens where to lay in the first place.  We tucked those up under her in the first nest box so she could get used to having four eggs under her, since we'd decided we were only going to get four for her to set (despite the fact that big 'ole Buff Orpingtons could comfortably set 12-18 eggs--what in the world would we do with that many chicks?!)  We figured with four eggs, there was a good chance that at least half could be roosters we'd need to re-home, and if we had to incorporate 2 new chicks into our flock, we could.  Besides, they might not all be viable eggs anyway. We're working on a small scale here!

At this point, we still weren't convinced we would have to move Hilda out of the nest box.  We hoped things would settle down and the other hens would just go about laying their daily eggs in the other nest box.  On about day three, we realized that was probably not going to happen.  Hilda trilled and screeched whenever any of the other gals came near, and the other galls squawked and clucked and tried to bully her off the nest.  It was time to come up with a new plan.

As Teri said, "We just don't know if we're doing the right thing!" and she's right. There are so many suggestions, dogmatic declarations by experienced chicken folk, and livestock rules that apply more to big operations than to evolving little backyard flocks. We remembered our neighbors had offered us use of their chicken tractor and thought this might work decently to make a protected, but adjacent space for Hilda.  We decided we did not want to separate her from the flock because we didn't want her to lose connection or have to reintegrate. She's already slipped to the bottom of the pecking order with the big gals.  We thought if we could keep her close, they'd all still hear, smell and see each other and, if chicks hatch, they wouldn't be foreigners either. 

We moved in the tractor, which is completely open on one end and placed it right up against our coop.  We had to add some boards and screening, as well as a tarp to make it somewhat weather proof, before constructing a comfortable, if a bit makeshift new nesting area for Hilda.  We put it closer to the ground so that, if she does hatch chicks, they won't tumble out of a high nest, but still up enough so she could feel safe and secure.  She can see in the coop and outside and all the other chickens can still see her too. She's got her own food and water and room to stretch her legs and poop without fear that someone will mess with her nest.

We still didn't know what would happen when we moved her in there.  She could decide it didn't suit her needs and fuss to get out, or we imagine at any point, she could change her mind about wanting to set on eggs at all.  She didn't.  She had a good meal and drank some water and then settled right back onto the new nest.  Her determination, at this point, is pretty amazing.  I think she looks stoic and Zen; Teri thinks she looks sad and isolated (I imagine we are both bringing some of our own mythology about motherhood to this.) Regardless, she quietly spent the night in her new digs and was sitting all plump and purposeful when I went out to tend the critters in the morning.

We still don't know what will happen.  The eggs should arrive in a couple days and, if she's still determined to set, we'll begin what could be a three-week wait and watch to a possible hatching.  Stay tuned...

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