Surprises

As much as you try to plan what happens with the garden or livestock, farm life is full of surprises. Our laying hens are completely free range, and we keep a few roosters in with them. The roosters are around as much for entertainment as anything else, and in their spare time they keep busy making sure the hens stay fertile.

After a rooster mates with a hen, all the eggs she lays for some period of time are fertile. Of course, because we gather them every day, those fertilized eggs don’t develop. It takes several days of near-constant warmth, from a hen or artificial source, for enough development to take place to even be visible when the egg is cracked open.

Then, sometimes, a hen gets a mind of her own about those eggs. She begins laying them in an obscure, out-of-the-way place that we humans never check. After accumulating several eggs, she goes broody and sits on that nest. She emerges from time to time, just long enough to get something to eat and drink, and then she’s back on those eggs. With enough other hens in the flock still running around in a big crowd, the farmer will never even miss her. She might even be joined on the nest by another broody hen. Nobody misses her, either.

And then, one morning, the two of them emerge with the results of their broodiness.

One of the Yeoman Farm Children discovered the new arrivals in the upstairs portion of our barn, where we keep the hay (and were animals seldom go, but which the birds can get into if they really try). The hens had picked such a good spot for their nest, wedged between the hay bales and a barn wall, they’d gone completely undetected. They were clearly very good mothers; any time a person or barn cat came close, they’d fly into a tizzy, puff their feathers, and make all kinds of loud noises. We left them alone, and after a few days of exploring the barn they took their tiny brood outside. Again, any time one of us came close, they raised loud objections. Watching the four birds roam the property around the barn and behind my office was more entertaining than anything on television. Especially fun is the way the hens will cluck and point something out (like a bug or piece of grain) to a chick, who then scrambles over and pecks it up.

I snapped the photograph above on June 25th, when the chicks were about a week old. Shortly thereafter, something happened to the black chick. It could’ve wandered into the high grass, or fallen victim to any number of other perils; we don’t know, because we simply never saw it again.

The yellow chick, on the other hand, is still going strong. He/she is beginning to feather out, and is keeping up with the two hens as they forage all over the place. Note how alert both of them become, as soon as a human comes near:

They continue to retreat to their nest behind the hay bales each night, and are scratching through fallen hay scraps early each morning by the time I come out to the barn. I’ve begun putting a small amount of chicken feed in a bowl for them. As soon as they see it coming, their clucks change to an excited rapid-tempo.

It’s also interesting the way the two of them have both remained so dedicated to the chick. There doesn’t seem to be a rivalry; it’s a cooperative venture. In the past, when multiple hens have hatched broods around the same time, we’ve seen an alpha hen take command of all the chicks — and then the other hen(s) have lost interest and gone back to the general laying population.

Who knows what surprises might emerge on the farm next week. In the meantime, we’ll continue enjoying this one!

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