Thursday, August 5, 2010

I posted a few weeks (months? my, time doth fly) ago about how one of our hens had gone broody, meaning she wanted to hatch some eggs. She hogged the egg box (the others could squeeze in and lay, but would have preferred their own space) and she stopped laying altogether. This meant a 33% reduction in our daily egg offering. Most hens don't just snap out of it, you either have to "break" them (which doesn't always work) by doing crazy things like setting them on ice cubes, or give them eggs to hatch. Since we don't have a cockerel, I had to find some fertile eggs. A lovely new friend of mine on a local backyard poultry meet-up group offered me six eggs, and when we got back from family vacation we slipped them under Sylvie just to see what would happen. I had no expectations. My primary goal was to gently break Sylvie of her obsession. Secondarily I would have liked to add another hen to our flock. My friend agreed to take back any males that might hatch and any extra females since we really only have room for a maximum of five hens.

Well. Five of the six eggs were broken and eaten by our chickens within a few weeks. I became vigilant then about fluffing the hay in the egg box, as our diligent "mama" was so good about digging a little egg hole right down to the wood of the box. I suspect this caused most of the breaks. I carefully checked on our one little egg, which slowly got rather worn looking compared to the fresh ones the other two were still laying. Then on day 20 (chicken eggs take 21 days to hatch), I held the egg up to my ear and heard a peep from inside! Oh, so exciting!

The next day my daughter and I checked on the egg and its adoptive mama several times over the course of four or five hours. I'm sure we were a total nuisance. First there was one little hole pecked (called pipping) and then a crack all the way around (zipping). Then we could see the orangey brown feathers, all wet and sleek still, peaking through a wide crack, but the baby wasn't yet free. Next time we checked, I found a smashed shell and no baby. We found it then on the other side of mama, still drying out, so sleepy from its hard work.

I checked on it several times, making sure it wasn't pushed out of the box again, as it once was. I wasn't sure what to do - move it? Leave it be? I read not to worry, mama will protect it from the other hens.

Sadly, this was not true. The next morning when mama took a break, another hen came in to lay an egg and pecked the baby to death. We buried it in the garden and my daughter named it Menda. She is very nonchalant about death, which I think is a good thing. When the existentialism of death hits when she's older, I hope the matter-of-factness of her experiences as a young child will help her through it.

I felt disappointed, but also glad to see the whole experiment through. Now I know that if we go this route again, we need to keep the hay fluffed. We need to be prepared to move mom and babies into a safe place on hatching day. At this point I don't have that safe place - in spring or fall the garage might work, but not in the heat of summer or the chill of winter.

And Sylvie? I'm not totally sure because she still sits in the box and ruffles her neck feathers every once in a while, but it seems she has snapped out of it. I'm glad for her sake, because broody hens eat very little and she's looking rather worn. She's been out and about, eating and being a normal chicken. She doesn't seem to be grieving the chick. So though I wish our chick had lived, I feel my primary goals were met and I know better what to do next time. I also have a hunch the little guy was in fact a guy, so we would have had to part ways at some point anyway. I hope for his sake he's happy nourishing the honeysuckle in the garden. He sure was cute.

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