Today the weather was sunny and warm, I watched with amusement some of the hens taking a dust bath in the sunshine, the empty veg beds and patch of bare earth near the fence the preferred places.
Rolling and raking the soil towards their bodies the hens soon take on a bedraggled appearance, completely unaware of anything going on around them as purring noises of sheer happiness fill the air.
As soil showers them, occasionally hitting their eyes, I can’t help but wonder what goes on in their minds during a dust bath. They truly seem at peace with the world.
Chickens are handy soil sieves, the earth where they bathe raked to a fine tilth after a dust bath. After a good shake they soon fluff up again and look great, then go about their business happy as ever.
One of our ex battery hens went broody about a month or so ago. Since then most of my time has been spent looking after a very moody hen, trying to ‘break’ her broodiness by removing her nesting material and locking her out of the coop to stop her from sitting (I failed, she sat in the dust bath trug instead, or, the floor would do), eventually searching for hatching eggs and then frantically driving a long distance to a friend for two-day old chicks.
At first, I didn’t think she’d actually bother to sit for long due to being selectively bred to never feel the urge to raise a brood. It was a surprise she’d gone broody in the first place and I didn’t think she’d see it through. But I was very wrong. She sat dedicated on an empty nest, turning invisible eggs and clucking. Seeing her like this I decided to allow her the right to raise chicks herself, I guess I’m a bit of a soft touch with this hen. I refused to carry out some of the usual tricks to break a broody hen, such as dunking her in cold water or putting her into a cage (the very thing that traumatised her), so I got her some eggs to hatch instead. Don’t get me wrong this was not an easy decision to make, hatching boys doesn’t sit comfortably with me. I’d never cull a chick for being male so I had to think very carefully about what I was going to do if she hatched cockerels. As cute as chicks are, hatching is not something I’ve yearned to do as a chicken keeper.
I found a great home for 2 cockerels and I was prepared to keep one if it came to it. The lady who I bought the eggs from offered to take any remaining boys if my hen hatched all males, with the absolute promise she wouldn’t cull. I had all bases covered and my conscience felt better, so I went ahead and placed the eggs under her, marking 21 days on a calendar. ‘Pumpkin’ is the type of broody that will not leave the nest herself, she wouldn’t defecate regularly or eat, drink or dust bathe. She’d just sit there in a trance, dreaming of becoming a mother. This left me with the job of looking after her health, hygiene and well-being closely, each morning I’d lift her off her nest (much to her disgust) and wait for her to poop, then I would hand feed her until she refused my tasty offerings. She wouldn’t drink either, so I fed her halved grapes and over ripe strawberries to prevent her from becoming dehydrated. I placed a little bowl of food and grapes right by her nest, sometimes she’d eat a little more and sometimes she wouldn’t, eyeing it suspiciously before pushing it away from her precious nest.
A week into sitting she accidentally broke an egg, I cleared everything away for her and she continued to be a dedicated mum-to-be. Day 20 came and 2 eggs started to hatch, sadly both chicks didn’t make it, the hatching process went wrong and they died while still partially inside their shell. I guess Pumpkin didn’t move at all as the chicks struggled to free themselves, she sat very tightly. It was sad, what should have been a happy and exciting moment quickly turned to disaster. Pumpkin continued to sit but the 2 remaining eggs didn’t pip ( I tried to candle them but failed miserably, I guess I worried too much each time I removed an egg and my hands would shake so much each time Pumpkin screeched at me I was worried sick I’d drop them). I could smell sulphur (rotten egg) and the other egg just didn’t hatch at all. This left me with a huge problem, Pumpkin had been broody for over a month now and she was losing so much weight and condition, she wanted to be a mum, she’d seen this process through and was still sitting, waiting. I couldn’t possibly allow her to sit for a further 21 days on a new batch of eggs, I worried I’d end up with a dead hen and to be honest I was completely put off. There was only one thing to do, I’d have to get her some chicks to adopt.
I found out I could get some sex-link chicks from a friend who occasionally takes surplus chicks from a hatchery, these chicks were destined to end up in the very place their potential mother had been. I drove the long distance to collect these unwanted children for Pumpkin, and listened to the advice given very carefully. When I got home I made sure the chicks had food and water and a good rest under a heat lamp. I waited till it was very dark outside and took the babies to Pumpkin’s nest. I put the babies under her, removing the remaining eggs underneath as I did. No torch, no speaking, just a quick switch over and then walk away. This filled me with absolute dread, it was quite possibly one of the scariest things I’ve ever done. If it went well it would solve a whole heap of problems, not just breaking my hen of her broodiness that would eventually make her very weak, but she could have company at last. Pumpkin is a traumatised hen from her time in the battery cages, described as one of the worst cases the rescue had ever seen. She screamed like a child for over a month, afraid of everything. Eventually she turned this fear into aggression and I’ve had a hell of a time trying to integrate her with other hens. She just wouldn’t accept any of them and was extremely aggressive to the point of being quite dangerous. The broodiness being an added problem to deal with.
I didn’t sleep much the night I put chicks under Pumpkin, I went out to her nest as soon as it as light enough to see. As I lifted the lid of her coop my heart was hammering, because of her temperament and unpredictability I was terrified I’d find dead or injured chicks. I was greeted by the sight and sounds of Pumpkin happily clucking, with four little heads poking through her feathers. What a huge relief! I spoke softly to her, telling her what a clever girl she was, as far as she was concerned she’d hatched those babies and they were hers. I placed some food and a drinker inside the coop, locked it back up and left them to bond further. I went back to bed for a couple of hours, I was exhausted!
The chicks will be 2 weeks old this week, they’ve grown so much and Pumpkin is a brilliant mum. She adopted the chicks without any problems, and she’s calmer than ever. I’m hoping she’ll want to continue to live with her daughters once they’ve grown, they have plenty of space but I guess it’s just a waiting game to see how this works out.