A Barren Year

More successful in 2010

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.


  1. Refrigerated fertilized eggs are still viable for up to 2 weeks after laying. A couple years ago we picked up a dozen beautiful blue eggs($7) at the farmers market knowing the hens were kept with roosters. We tucked six of them under a broody hen and much to our surprise she hatched all six. They are a motley crew of easter eggers that lay some gorgeous eggs. We tried again this year, but much to our horror the partially incubated eggs mixed with the eggs we eat. You can imagine the rest. Bummer.

    • Good to know, Andrew. So next time, I don’t need to ride home from Rick’s with the eggs bundled up in some way.

      I also love my Easter Egger mutt chicken. Perfect city chicken: docile, small, but a great layer.

  2. I miss having a city flock. We raised chickens years ago, but when our children got into their teens, they (understandably) lost interest. Now I’m scheming to start a honeybee colony in the spring. Best of luck on your instant-poultry-family experiment Michele!

  3. Well, I’m encouraged by hearing about your past experience of hatching fertile eggs under a broody hen. My year-old Dominique hen, Maisie, has gone broody twice this summer. The first time I managed to break the broodiness but she went back into it a month later and I just gave up the attempt. A chicken mentor said it was ok to just let her alone, the other girls would ignore her and she would snap out of it eventually when the weather cooled and she started her molt. 6 weeks later I am ready to tear my hair out or strangle her, except the poor wee thing is so pathetic. You are right about the glazed over, spinning eyes. Aiiieeee. I am back to considering getting fertile eggs from a farmer friend, but am concerned about having all those babies at this time of year, going into winter. And having to deal with mini-roosters on my own. When I have gotten rooster chicks before, our local feed store has taken them back (to give away — no questions asked), but if I hatch my own I will have to resort to craigslist. While I continue to dither, I am semi-praying for frost, except for the fact that it will spell the end of my huge tomato crop, which I will then have to harvest en masse, ripe, ripening and green. Oh chickens!

  4. Broodiness is an amazing state. I have never had my chickens go broody and I was really jealous when a neighbor said one of her hens disappeared, but then returned leading a parade of 15 chicks! The amazing thing about hens and broodiness is that the broodiness thermoneter that starts chick development doesn’t click on till the hen has decided she has enough eggs. Very mysterious. I’ve never tried incubating eggs either. Murray McMurray and I are devoted friends.

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