Animals are simultaneously more wild than I, seemingly helpless, and tug at my heart like a lost kitten, an injured dog, or even a sad elephant. Now, a broody hen joins them.
Our Australorp, Helen, went broody on us, and even though I’d been collecting the eggs promptly, something in her little bird brain was telling her to hatch some eggs and be a mommy. What’s too bad (and so sad) is the hen doesn’t know she needs a rooster, or that a rooster even exists, I suppose.
For a long five weeks, Helen dutifully manned her post, never moving from the nesting box even when another hen was ready to lay. They’d share the box, and as soon as a new egg would drop, Helen used her beak to roll the newest egg under her hot bod to brood. Once a day, I’d force Helen to leave, begging her to take care of herself, and so–likely not by my urging–she’d run straight to the new raised bed for a dust bath. What surprised me was how the other chickens treated her for leaving the coop.
Mabel, a Red Star and head of the flock, would immediately peck Helen’s neck the moment I pulled her out of the nesting box. Perhaps the other girls expected Helen to hatch those eggs, too, in an apparent “How DARE you let those eggs cool?”
Nature is so cruel.
I began to worry when I noticed Helen getting thin, and when I reached my hand under her body to take the eggs before kicking her out I discovered she was missing feathers over a large portion of her underbelly. I wasn’t sure what to do, because the neck pecking by Mabel was the only bullying I had seen. Perhaps it was happening in the coop at night. Or maybe Helen did it to herself, to keep the eggs warmer right next to her skin. I don’t know, and my sources of information don’t mention anything like the latter.
Broodiness in a hen is a difficult thing to watch, much like watching my own small child suffer with illness, or maybe more accurately, a woman in labor; there’s nothing to do but wait it out.
Thankfully, once the broody hen has hit rock bottom, the phase is nearly over and she’ll rejoin the flock on a new rung of the pecking order–not necessarily up or down, but more like sideways. My girls all hatched the same day, but thanks to her broody behavior and absolute dedication to all the flock’s eggs, Helen is my flock’s first adult. She may not have become a mother, but she’s a “woman” all the same.
Contact the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit her website.
Photo: Rachel Hurd Anger