Motherhood is Madness



My son just read William Golding's Lord of the Flies and found its bleak view of humanity very disturbing.

I tried to suggest two things: that Golding's experiences in the British Navy during World War II probably influenced this outlook.

And two, if the only thing that keeps us from behaving like animals is the constraints of civilization…well, animals can be very noble and self-sacrificing, especially in service of their genes.

Witness the hen in the photo above.  Notice the pale comb and beady eye of the fanatic.

For the last six weeks, she sits day and night on her nest, refusing to eat or drink, straining desperately to hatch out her eggs…even though those eggs are not fertile, since we don't have a rooster. 

Every day, I move her up and off and collect the eggs, but she's right back in her spot a minute later.  Broody hens don't lay, so she steals the other two hens' eggs to carry on this fantasy of impending motherhood. 

Obviously, sitting in perpetuity on eggs that will never hatch is not good for her health.  But she is so devoted to them!

Of course, I'm not surprised to learn that mothers of all kinds are devoted.  Given what unbelievable pains human babies are, the fact that the species even survived before there were courts of law and jogging strollers is a sign of our innate goodness. 

In hens, this fixation on motherhood seems to be a cycle dependent on a warm bottom–the kind you'd get, too, if you sat on a clutch of eggs for weeks on end.  So cool air is one of the recommended treatments.  I make sure to kick my hen out of the coop into the air every day.  I've even tried dipping her rear end in a bucket of cold water, which is also recommended as a last resort.  That not only made me feel stupid, it failed.

My country neighbor Rick has fertile eggs, and I thought about letting her hatch out two or three.  I could use a few more hens to fill the larder, since this one is too obsessed to lay!  The problem is, my family and I take a bunch of short trips in summer, and I don't want unsupervised chicks to be subject to the savagery of the pecking order that Amy Stewart experienced.  Wait, am I back at Lord of the Flies despite myself?

Rick and I have a plan.  He has a Buff Orpington rooster.  My hens are Buff Orpingtons, too, a lovely, even-tempered breed, the perfect city chicken.  In late August, we are going to arrange an orgy in his chicken tractor.  Then we'll let all three hens hatch out chicks simultaneously in September, after the vacationing is over.  And presumably, they'll be too busy with their own offspring to harass anybody else's.

Rick assures me that chicks are easy if their mothers are right there taking care of them.  The mothers keep them warm, make sure they don't get into trouble, and generally behave in that noble, self-sacrificing way that mothers are famous for.


  1. Chicks ARE 1000 times easier if mom does the work. We separate our moms from the flock and let them do their brooding and rearing thing…this requires me to give them my garage and park my car outside, which is no hardship…and all that is required of me is food and water. The moms have free run over the side yard whilst everyone else is locked in their pen. The chicks soon become teenagers and the moms become disinterested in their welfare, so it’s back to the pen for the moms and into the chicken tractor for the teenagers as they’ll mostly become freezer fare.

    There are a few squabbles between the moms. And nobody wants to mother another’s chicks. But it’s by no means bloody.

    At the end of it all, I hose out my garage and park my car in it again, and anticipate free chicken dinners this fall. It’s MUCH more easy than lights and changing bedding and all that. I just have to deal with the crow of a rooster 18/7.

  2. Can you do artificial insemination for chickens? Then you wouldn’t have to have a crowing rooster 18/7 or bring in a rooster for a hen orgy. They do it for horses, cows and fish, and I am sure other critters, why not chickens? Not that I am volunteering.

  3. We have a hen that went broody this spring and, like you, wouldn’t let up even when moved from her nest box regularly (for several weeks). We have no need (space, desire, etc.) for chicks, and didn’t know how long she’d last in her broody mode. What we eventually did was to place her in a wire-bottomed pen (a rabbit cage, actually) for a few days with plenty of food, water, and treats. She was not happy to be confined in that way (we weren’t thrilled about it either…), but without the ability to nest, and the wire bottom keeping her bottom cool, she’s back to “normal,” in general circulation and doing great. That might be something to try if it’s causing a problem for you this summer.

  4. Those Buffs are difficult to dissuade. We’re on our 4th clutch this summer courtesy of 2 Orpingtons. They are devoted, unfortunately our mixed age groupings ( older lone chick, hen, fresh hatches) seemed to result in a couple premature deaths of new peeps. SO heartrending after all the patient waiting. Just a few healthy peeps hopping around with their golden mother hen makes it all worthwhile. I love watching them!

  5. Take note that LotF is about males; BOYS specifically. I’m sure it’d be a different situation if females were involved.

  6. (LOL @ the suggestion of hen artificial insemination and dipping hen’s bottoms in buckets of water — **great** images!)

    When we first got our hens, I read that you should put plastic Easter eggs in the laying boxes to encourage the hens to lay there. That worked.

    But our pretty and dumb hen took to the plastic eggs the next year and got broody on them. The other 2 hens would stand over her and squawk for her to “lay or get off the box” — to no avail.

    The only thing that worked was to lock her in the outside part of the coop for a night, where she couldn’t get to the laying boxes for a full day and night.

    Silly hens — they’re so entertaining!

  7. I have four pullets. The top of the pecking order is a Buff Orpington, but she is a benign ruler. She hardly pecks anyone except Carmen who is in the number two spot. She is very tolerant of Ginger, who is the youngest and smallest.

  8. A friend of mine has this solution when a hen gets broody: she brings in a couple of young chicks and slips them under the hen at night, at the same time removing the eggs she’s been trying to hatch. The hen is totally into being a mother by daybreak and protects her adopted babies from the other pecky hens.

  9. Could you procure a couple fertile eggs, or some chicks, and slip ’em under her?

    Buffs are truly single-minded. I have had to learn to give my two a wide berth and redirect rather than dissuade, otherwise I have a battle of the wills on my hands.

    Edwina’s at the very bottom of the pecking order and has become very defensive about it. She poofs herself up like a turkey and does this sumo wrestler stomping and defensive clucking when she’s pissed at the rest of the biddies. She lays daily. I think because it provides her a break from the others.

    And then Josefina (aka, Godzilla) is at the very top. Nary a feather missing. Huge. I think I get an egg a month from her. Did I mention how huge she is?

    Both of my australorps act like roosters and mate with Edwina and one of the rhode island reds. Norma holds her tail feathers up as tall as she possibly can, and has a taller comb and longer wattle than the rest, yet she’s missing more feathers than Mildred the other ‘lorp. So I don’t even try to figure out the pecking order at this point, I just observe it.

  10. And here we are with a huge clutch of wooden eggs in the nest box TRYING to get one of our birds to be broody. Our Buff isn’t even interested, nor is our Barred Rock who played mother for our first batch of chicks. I guess we’ll just have to be patient.


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