Brooding over what it means to be a chicken
Photo by Laura Field
A certain type of hen is about as useful for egg laying as a porcupine is for cuddling. This hen will monopolize a single nesting box for months at a time and lay next to nothing for eggs. If you happen to be another hen who wants to lay an egg in that box, too bad, you’re out of luck because this primadonna chicken doesn’t give a damn about your feelings or your problems. The only thing she cares about is doing whatever it takes to hatch the few eggs underneath her, no matter how long she has to sit. I’m talking, of course, about The Broody Hen.
Each spring I find about one broody girl in the flock. The morning that my sweet-tempered Diane glared at me from inside her nest, fierceness dancing in her orange eyes, I knew she was the one. She might as well have drawn a line in the sand and said, “Cross it. Make my day.” But whether I crossed it or not, her situation was hopeless. Even if Diane did harbor eggs underneath, no rooster lived on the premises to have fertilized them. So instead, Diane became my personal experiment.
The very next day I brought home a fertilized duck egg from another farm and slipped it underneath her. There was no reason a chicken couldn’t make a fine duck mom, right? Over the next few weeks, I checked on the egg regularly, sneaking it out from under her feathers and putting it to my ear. Finally, one day, it peeped! But the story takes a turn for the worse.
Shortly before the baby was due to hatch, I found the egg by itself, cold to the touch, and Diane sitting in the wrong nesting box. She must have hopped down from her nest to eat and returned to the wrong box! Had she left the egg uncovered all night long? A baby chick certainly couldn’t survive the cold for that period of time.
I pressed my ear to the egg. No peeping. My heart felt heavy. Still, I placed the egg back under Diane. The next morning, she was gone from the nesting areas. Instead, I came upon her outside in the grass, away from the others. A fuzzy little duck squirmed out from underneath her, attentive and perky as can be. How was that possible? No baby chick could have survived that night without the mother’s heat. Then it occurred to me: Ducklings tolerate the cold far better than chicks because they are equipped for acclimating to different water temperatures. If Diane had done the same things with her own eggs, the chicks would have surely died. In the end, Diane proved to be a wonderful mother. She showed the duckling all the ways that chickens scratch for food and peck at the dirt. In return, the duckling scared its mother half to death by going for swims in the water dish. The experiment was definitely a success.
Today, we humans have bred out most of this brooding instinct in chickens because it lowers their rate of egg production, but at one time this instinct was key to their survival. More and more breeds today have no idea how to hatch and raise their own young; in addition, many are denied their instincts to forage. Chickens beaks are removed, their living quarters downsized, and what are we then left with? An egg machine rather than a bird.
Must we redefine what it means to be a chicken? Years ago, chickens were true breeding varieties like Diane, known today as heritage breeds. These birds were jacks of all trades: They brooded, laid, were used for meat and propagated young that would do the same. Today, we use hatcheries that sell hybrids that frequently don’t reproduce naturally and gain weight so quickly their hearts fail before maturity. Perhaps we must reverse to go forward. I say embrace chickens’ natural instincts in ways that can benefit both humans and birds! Diane’s broody nature made her the perfect incubator replacement for hatching out any bird I wanted.
Let our chickens be chickens and, in this case, let our ducks be chickens too!
Happy chickening, everybody!
Laura Field is a writer who grew up on a small farm in Cheshire, Massachusetts. She works at Hancock Shaker Village, where she is a farm educator, animal handler and oxen trainer. Over the years, her comical encounters with the farm critters in her life have led to a growing fascination with the animals (especially the chickens) and she someday hopes to open her own educational farm.