Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Mother Hens Just Are

We've been treated to some wonderfully warm weather for the last few days, and besides giving me spring fever, it gives me the chance to watch my flock. Instead of hurrying from house to coop in single digit temps, I can slow down and soak in the peacefulness that comes with just watching hens scratch for bugs or grains, dust themselves, or spread their wings in the sun.

The three chicks and two moms add an extra measure of pleasure. When we had a bathtub full of chicks we used to call it "Chick TV." They are entertaining little fluff balls. Now that we have the mother-hen dynamic at work, it's like watching the sequel to the series. Where we just saw one side of the biology of chicks, now we see the most amazing, whole picture with the interaction between hens, chicks and flock.

Sunday I took a bowl out that had leftover corn in it. Usually, it's every hen for herself. They belly up to the bowl, run over each other if need be, and eat that corn as fast as they can. When I put the bowl down this time though, it was different. The non-mom hens were there gobbling it up, but I was amazed to see what Thelma was doing.

She would daintily take a piece of corn out of the bowl and carefully, with precision, drop it in front of one chick, then another, and then the third chick. They would pick the treat up, carry it away and eat their prize before going back to mom and repeating the process. Not once did I see Thelma eat any of the corn herself.

As she ranged around the yard, she'd find something, then cluck in a way that said, "Eat this, it's good, and good for you," and the chicks would run to see what she'd found. They'd eat, she'd move on, scratch a spot, and call them again. Cotton, mom-hen-number two, was right there with them. Thelma seems to be the top-hen, a little stricter and a little more instructive. Cotton, on the other hand, seems to be there to keep the chicks out of trouble, provide a warm wing when needed, or run interference if another hen is getting too close.

The other hens don't interfere with the small family, and for the most part, tend to ignore the chicks all together. If a hen gets too close, she is informed in no uncertain terms that she better give the babies a little space.

The chicks are busy, preening, scratching the ground, running to catch up or--if one of their moms settles down for a moment--taking the opportunity to peck inquiringly at an eye or a feather or a toenail. The moms both have great patience, vigilance and calm, and watching them is relaxing. It's a great illustration of where the phrase "mother hen" comes from.  Because mother hens... really are.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Two Broody Moms, Three Chicks

A bird in the hand...M holds the first hatchling.
It started with Cotton sitting on a clutch of six eggs. When my sister-in-law gave us the eggs from her flock (because she has a rooster and we don’t) we weren’t sure if they were fertile, but decided we’d give them to our little Bantam cochin, Cotton. Then Thelma began to assist with hatch duty.

The way our nesting boxes are set up, there are two regular-sized boxes on each end, and one larger one in the middle. I had just about given up on any chicks hatching, thinking maybe the eggs had gotten cold or just weren’t fertile. After work one evening I opened the nesting boxes from the back to see if there were some fresh eggs. I’d been leaving the marked hatching eggs and gathering the rest.

Thelma was in the box where we’d put the fertile eggs. I reached under her, lifting her and moving her, but didn’t see new eggs. She pecked me hard, unlike her but forgivable considering her important task. I moved to the other side, opened the door and found Cotton on some newly laid eggs, retrieved them and closed the small door. 

Then I walked around to the front of the coop and stepped in to check on feeders and water. As I left, I thought I heard a peeping sound. At first I thought maybe I’d heard wrong, or that it was a mouse or a sound from outside, but I listened closer and was sure it was a chick.

I kneeled down and watched Thelma and the box where we’d placed the eggs.  I still heard peeping, but couldn’t be sure where it was coming from. Beneath Thelma, I thought. And then, suddenly, out of the corner of my eye, hurrying from Cotton’s box, I saw a small fluffy dark colored… chick. It was heading toward Thelma, like a child who had hopped out of a warm tub and was hurrying toward a dry towel.

Somehow it seemed like magic to suddenly see a little creature where one hadn't been. It was so small, with a yellow spot on top of her head, and more yellow in front. I scooped her up and looked at her. She was bright eyed and healthy. Chicks are very difficult to sex, and I sure don’t have the expertise, so we don’t know yet whether it’s a pullet or a cockerel. I popped her back into the nesting box and she wiggled her way beneath Thelma’s fluffed up black feathers. Thelma eyed me a bit smugly. How could I have doubted?

Over the next couple of days, I watched and wondered if there were more. I’d see the small black peep running around, and both Cotton and Thelma seemed to be caring for it. But Saturday morning, K and I went out to the coop to see how the little trio was doing. K opened the door and laughed. I looked in. Thelma was standing up, her hidden family revealed. Three chicks. All peeping loudly, indignant about the cold rush of air.

Cotton and Thelma are sitting together on the nest, co-raising the babies. I watch as the small fluffy chicks hop onto Cotton’s back, a good vantage point for pecking her comb. Or her eye. Or the black hen’s feathers. They wiggle beneath the curtain of feathers when they get cold, pop back out when they are too warm. It’s amazing how Thelma—who was raised in a brooder and never knew a mother—knows exactly how to care for her little ones. Cotton seems perfectly comfortable in the motherly role as well.

It is so much easier to raise chicks when you have broody hens, and I am amazed at the instinctive care they take. It is a lesson in the built-in knowledge nature provides, and makes me realize humans are a distant second when it comes to raising chicks. I close the coop door and leave them, confident that they will be just fine.