I’ve had hens for 5 or 6 years now, and don’t plan on ever living without them again. They’re fluffy and pretty. Their scratch-and-peck is mesmerizing and tranquilizing. Their eggs are so delicious that I can no longer eat ordinary skunky-smelling eggs in ordinary diners. Of all the denizens of my household, they are the least diva-esque, demanding amazingly little care in exchange for the food and lovely compost they produce.
As individuals, they are not high-maintenance. But as a flock, they require some management, and if you mess up, there will be blood. If you mix the wrong breeds, as I did when I started off, you may find some hens making sushi of others.
You also can’t just casually introduce chicks or pullets to an existing flock. The establishment will attack. On the other hand, you do need to bring in the ingenues every other year or so, since hens age out of their prime laying time quickly. And then, if you have only limited space, what do you do with the menopausal ones?
Two years ago, when one of my hens got broody, I got some fertile eggs from my friend Rick, who has 80 acres and a big ramshakle flock that includes a rooster or two, and put them underneath her. Broody hens are amazing–pregnancy as madness. Their body temperature rises. They rarely leave the nest to eat and drink. They make strange cooing sounds. Their eyes are like pinwheels. They are the suicide bombers of domestic animals. Nothing matters but the Cause.
As a technique of flock expansion, hatching out eggs worked beautifully! Even the non-broody hens helped to mother the chicks, spreading their bodies over them to keep them warm. And the chicks that eventually turned out to be roosters, Rick graciously accepted for coq au vin. A shame really, considering how beautiful they were, with spectacular shiny colorful long tail feathers. Alas, my city allows hens but not roosters.
Now, it’s time for another hatch. My two oldest hens aren’t laying like they used to and are preparing for a country retirement at Rick’s. And my outdoor chicken yard more than doubled in size this year after my neighbor moved a fence and I lost a parking space. So instead of having 5 hens, I could easily manage 12.
But some years, nothing goes right. Two of my hens went broody, and I asked Rick to save me fertile eggs on a day that I was in his neighborhood. He forgot and refrigerated everything. I ordered fertile eggs from McMurray’s Hatchery. In the meanwhile, my two broody hens got upset about being confined indoors during the fence rebuilding–and weren’t broody when the eggs arrived. I bought an incubator, which my 14 year-old daughter took charge of. She was away for a weekend, and I noticed the temperature was a little low, so I turned it up. By the time we checked it again, it had risen too high. Still we perservered, turning the eggs dutifully and waiting the required 21 days for chicken gestation–and then some. Nothing hatched.
My two broody hens recommenced their broodiness. Then a third hen joined them. I ordered two dozen more fertile eggs from My Pet Chicken. My Pet Chicken ignored my instructions and mailed them while I was on vacation. It took two weeks to get another batch. My hens have now sat on those eggs for four full weeks. Nothing hatched. Some problem with the post office? Who knows. There is no guarantee on fertile eggs, so I suspect this kind of thing happens a lot.
My poor hens are looking peaked from sitting and sitting and sitting with no reward. But from experience, I can tell you that it’s not easy to break a chicken of broodiness. And the techniques suggested–which include dipping a panicked hen’s inflamed butt into ice water to break the physiological cycle–while they make me laugh in theory, are miserable in practice.
So I’m making a last stand. I just ordered 25 live chicks from McMurray’s. When they arrive, I’ll try to sneak them under the broody hens’ behinds in such a way that they will think their eggs have hatched.
So far, 2012 has been a comedy of errors. Let’s see if I can redeem it with some slight of hand.