In all our years raising poultry, we have used the “natural” method of incubation three times. That trio of hens—Altaria the White Silkie, Cutie the Dutch Bantam and Henrietta the Royal Palm—proved to be steadfast broodies and excellent mothers. Our farm, however, specializes in custom hatches. With clients eagerly awaiting their special-order chicks, we can’t risk basing our business on broody hens. Instead, we use incubators. The end result is the same—a bunch of downy peepers—although some of the wonder is indeed displaced when using hardware instead of hens.
This summer, however, I let sentimentality rule. Henrietta’s daughter, Alex, at age 6 now a flock elder, had finally gone broody for the first time in her long life. One May morning, she was practically racing out of the coop to enjoy the spring weather. The next day, she was firmly entrenched on a nest, hissing wildly at me when I lifted the nestbox lid to collect eggs.
The Lovely Lady
My first instinct was to pick her up off of her nest and toss her into her run, my solution for any newly broody hen. Having recently lost one of our older Orpington girls, I paused. Alex had lived a good many years, laying regularly and helping her flock leader, Thomas, keep the rest of the girls in line. At 6, she might not have that many years left. Why not let her experience motherhood, especially given this was the first time she ever expressed biological interest?
Collecting the two eggs beneath her, I marked the date with a pencil, counted forward three weeks and also noted the expected hatch date. Avoiding Alex’s furious beak, I put the eggs back into her nest and hoped for the best.
What followed were three weeks of henhouse antics so exasperating that I practically pulled my hair out. Things went fine for the first eight days. I candled both eggs and development was noted in each. I breathed a sigh of relief … but it was too soon. That afternoon, my son Jaeson came in from collecting eggs with a question.
“Isn’t Alex supposed to be in the right side nestbox?”
Yes, she was. Jaeson then informed me that Alex was in the center nestbox, angrily hissing to herself. Uh oh.
I entered to the coop, lifted the lid and encountered a very agitated Alex on the middle nest, while in the right nestbox, Alex’s friend Dolly blissfully hunkered down on Alex’s eggs. Ugh! I didn’t hesitate this time. I picked Dolly up and tossed her back into the run, telling her to keep away from poor Alex’s eggs. I then slipped the eggs back under Alex and closed the lid.
The Well-Intentioned Friend
For the next three days, Alex and Dolly played musical nests as Alex would step away from her nest to take care of her needs, only to find Dolly ensconced on her next when she got back. No matter how many times I pitched Dolly off that nest, she’d creep back in and settle down. I finally gave up and decided that Dolly could have her own eggs. After all, this was the first time that Dolly had shown signs of broodiness. Dolly and Alex had grown up together and were the same age, so who knew how much longer Dolly had, too? I took two eggs from our Ameraucana coop and marked them with the setting and hatching dates, then invited Dolly to take a seat. I figured that Dolly’s blue eggs would be easy to differentiate from Alex’s brown ones, plus Dolly, being an Ameraucana herself, would do best with Ameraucana chicks. A bonus: I could finally move Dolly into the Ameraucana coop (previous attempts had failed, as she insisted on living with Alex in the Orpington coop).
Those plans went out the window as Dolly kept switching back to Alex’s nest, leaving a disgruntled Alex to sit on Dolly’s abandoned eggs. For a while, I tried swapping the eggs back to their rightful broody. In the end, I gave up. They’d both have chicks, after all. Right?
The Butt-inski Neighbor
Wrong. Hatching Day No. 1 arrived, and I made sure we left the girls alone to ensure tranquility for whichever girl ended up on the egg duet due to hatch that day. Imagine my surprise when, later that afternoon, I lifted the nestbox lid to find our Black Orpington, Fitz, on the nest, crooning to a newly hatched Lavender Orpington as if she’d brooded the egg from day one. Dolly sat on her eggs, unfazed. Alex paced furiously back and forth inside the coop, refusing to even sit in the leftside nestbox.
For the safety of Fitz and the newly arrived chick (the second egg never hatched), I moved them, nestpad and all, to one of our pole-barn brooders. There, Fitz successfully raised the little peep, named Ginger Bean (after my friend Fitz’s daughter, Ginger) until I gently merged them into the New Orpington flock. I wasn’t about to put the Orpington mother and child anywhere near Alex.
As for Dolly, her two chicks hatched approximately 10 days after Ginger Bean. Dolly and her daughters were moved to our pole-barn brooder and, when the chicks were fully feathered, the trio was successfully merged into our Ameraucana coop. Jefferson Ameraucana was quite puffed up with pride that day at getting three more girls for his group.
Alex, unfortunately, got shafted by her fellow hens. I felt bad for the poor girl, because it was she I’d planned to let brood in the first place, not Dolly and definitely not Fitz. She hadn’t lost her drive to brood, either: I discovered seven eggs beneath her. Sighing, I got out my pencil and marked them all once again, then left her with her clutch.
Nobody played musical nests with Alex this time. I think the other hens in her coop were too afraid to even approach her; they all compliantly laid their eggs in the other two nestboxes. Things finally seemed to be going well for steadfast old Alex.
The Crime Drama
Until, one by one, Alex’s eggs started to disappear. The boys and I were positively stumped. None of her flockmates went anywhere near that nest. Alex hadn’t accidentally kicked the eggs out, either. There was absolutely no way that an egg eater such as a snake or squirrel could get into the coop. Well, other than the pop door, and they wouldn’t have lasted with Thomas Orpington standing guard. Baffled, I candled the remaining three eggs, double-checked the hatch date I’d written on the shell and put them back under the broody hen. The next day, only two eggs remained—and this time, we had the culprit.
It was Alex herself. Somehow, as she shifted herself around on her nest, she had managed to crush the eggs with her body. I’m still puzzled as to why there were no signs of the first four eggs. This time, however, a half-developed chick laid squashed on the nest pad, amongst the shattered eggshell. The sight was gruesome; the smell was worse. Even more horrible was that Alex refused to let me clean up her nest. As you can imagine, the two remaining eggs never had a chance.
A few days later, Alex was out in the run, gobbling down blades of grass. I hurried out there, disposed of the entire stinking mess, put down fresh bedding and, in a moment of total insanity, put one freshly laid Ameraucana egg on top. I have no idea what drove me to do this. The poor hen had bombed at brooding so far. I guess I felt bad for her. I also don’t know why I only gave her one egg. I suppose I didn’t want to rush wasting any more eggs and losing any more chicks. As for Alex, she returned to her nest, showing no sign that her nestbox had been cleaned. She settled down on the new egg, and that was that.
This past Monday, as I was preparing to take Jaeson to school, I saw him running from the Orpington coop towards me, his hands cupped. “It’s dying!” he cried out, thrusting his hands towards me. Inside them, he held a newly hatched Ameraucana chick, still wet and straggly from the egg… and completely ice cold. I hurriedly grabbed the chick and held him beneath my chin to warm him up.
“Where’s Alex?” I asked in semi-panic, gently rubbing the little bird’s back and stomach.
My son pointed out the door. Sure enough, Alex was in her run, happily eating kitchen scraps with the other hens. Still, this baby chick wouldn’t have grown so cold in a short amount of time. Once I warmed him up, I handed him back to Jaeson. “Put him back in his nest. Alex will wonder where her baby went.”
Jaeson obliged, waiting quietly by the coop for Alex to go in. He waited, I waited, and Alex merely romped in the run with her friends. Finally I gestured to Jaeson. “Bring him back. We can’t leave him to freeze!” He started back, chick in hand, when suddenly Alex dashed back up the ramp and into the coop. “PUT HIM BACK, QUICK!” I yelled, hoping that the poor kid would avoid Alex’s very strong and possible very furious beak.
A few moments went by, with Jaeson at the nestbox, its lid open in his hand. Finally, he called back to me. “She’s just standing here, eating at the feeder. What should I do?” I replied that he should let her eat. Surely she’d return to her nest after she’d eaten her fill. More waiting. And more. Finally, I couldn’t handle it any more. “Bring the baby back in,” I called out to Jaeson. He returned, the once-again chilled chick in his hand.
The Soap Opera
The two of us took turns warming the poor baby up, while I thought about our options. My top choice was to bring him to Fitz. That scalawag of a hen was once again in the pole-barn brooder, this time with seven baby chicks, all hers this time. She’d abandoned little Ginger Bean after a week and we’d given her up for dead when my husband, Jae, found her hidden under the rhubarb, a huge clutch beneath her. Once the baby Ameraucana was thoroughly warm, we brought him over to Fitz, hoping that she would adopt him into her brood, even though they were perhaps a week older.
Nothing doing. Not only did Fitz not accept the baby, she shrieked loudly and drew her chicks into a far corner, well away from it. On to Plan B: we got out one of our individual brooding tubs, filled it with fresh shavings and placed a baby-chick waterer and feeder inside. While I held the peeper, Jaeson went out and got one of our two eternally broody Silkie hens, Natalya. We hoped that, seeing and hearing the newly hatched baby, she’d happily set with him and be a Mama Hen. Unfortunately, Natalya was only interested in the food and water. She pooped on the fresh shavings and stepped on the poor baby. Annoyed, Jaeson grabbed her and scolded her all the way back to the Silkie tractor. He returned with Natalya’s sister, Valerya, but she had the same amount of interest in the chick as her sibling. Back she went.
The Happy Ending?
In the end, we went back to our roots. We dug out what I long ago nicknamed the “chicken gallows,” a wooden contraption built by Jae that supports a hanging heat lamp. Once the interior of the brooding tub was at 95 degrees F, we put the little chick in. Did it go to sleep, exhausted by its travails? Nope. It peeped continually until we put in a plush Easter bunny in for company. The chick finally curled up between the bunny’s legs and went to sleep.
The finally tally? Dolly Ameraucana, a successful mom with two lovely daughters, all living happily in the Ameraucana coop. Fitz Orpington, a scamp of a mom who swooped one Orpington baby, promptly abandoned the poor juvenile and is now raising seven more in our brooder. Alex Royal Palm, a terrible mother who seems to have gotten over her biological clock ticking quite rapidly. My office? Home to a singleton chick whose incessant peeping is causing it to become the most spoiled, toted-around and cuddled chick in existence. And me? I’m sticking with incubators for now on.