Poppa has been a bit downtrodden of late, what with weeds growing like kudzu and his hens on strike.
Don’t get me wrong, they’re laying cackle berries. Poppa has oodles of cackle berries, but this year, he hasn’t a single baby chick.
“I suppose the mama hens decided against starting a family,” Poppa said early in the spring, his voice low and sad.
He has two “biddy hens” who often determine to become mothers around the same time in what I can only describe as a contest to win the affections of the rooster. This suits Poppa just fine. While a chicken can live for many years, there will come a time when they “lay out,” a term that means a hen no longer produces eggs, (I mean cackle berries). Therefore, in order to keep a steady supply of layers, one must incorporate new hens into the flock each year.
And while the Winchester family realizes several businesses sell baby chicks, we do not subscribe to the belief that store-bought chicks make good hens. Veteran farmers know that the best hens come from a mama who teaches her littles about foxes, hawks, worms and the importance of dust baths.
We’ve had several false starts. Sometimes hens linger after they lay eggs. I assume they are waiting for the rooster to arrive so they can jump from the nest and call attention to their offering. Each time I’ve found a hen on the nest, hope fills my heart that Poppa will have his little fuzzy chicks. Each time, it has been a false alarm. Until last week when Poppa had a hen who lingered a bit too long. Finally, we had approached baby-making-time.
One must separate a broody hen from the flock, in order to protect the eggs and the hen. If not, jealous biddy hens will steal eggs and even kill baby chicks.
A jealous biddy is a dangerous thing.
“I carried her to the nest box, and put some eggs under her,” Poppa explained. “But when I checked on her later, she’d already hopped off the nest.”
Typically, once a broody hen begins the process of “setting” she plants herself firmly on those eggs and nothing can move her. She literally stays on the nest for 21 days, puffing up and emitting a low, growl-like warning letting you know that you best keep away from her incubation box.
In fact, a hen who is in the motherly way will leave the nest perhaps only one or two times during the incubation period. Even then, she will only take a sip of water and a bite of food before quickly returning to the nest.
“I figured I’d check on her that night, so I carried her around, petting her and talking to her, finally setting her back on the nest,” Poppa said when I called to check on the status of the poultry. “You know I had to put her back on that nest a total of three times before she finally decided, ‘that old man must be crazy. I best set on these eggs.’”
So now, the baby watch begins. Poppa is happy. So much so that he placed 14 eggs under the hen. I am not sure who will be proudest in a few weeks, Poppa or the hen.
Renea Winchester is the author of “Farming, Friends & Fried Bologna Sandwiches.” Reach her at email@example.com.