Sunday, March 1, 2009


One of the girls is brooding.

She sat on a couple of golf balls in one of the metal nest boxes for three days, never leaving the box, and growling softly when I checked under her for eggs. This is chicken language for "I want to be a Mommy now."

She also has a rather intent and driven expression, to the extent that one can appear intent and driven about sitting around for several weeks.

So last week, after I dispatched the three supernumary cock guineas to new quarters in the humming white coop in the kitchen, I fixed up the wire rabbit cage in which they'd been staged for the previous day, and moved the wannabe Mommy into a "broody box." She has food and water near at hand, a nest box made out of an old milk crate, soft home-grown hay, and thirteen eggs to try to nurture into peeps. She's a big fluffy buff Orpington, so a baker's dozen fits easily under her. If she proves capable at this job, I'll give her twenty next time.

Since I wasn't expecting anyone to go broody so early in the year, I haven't been trying to keep track of who lays what eggs -- I just picked a mix of good-looking eggs from the last couple days' production. The chicks will all be mutts; my rooster, Henery Hawk, is a silver-spangled Hamburg, and my pullets are of five other breeds. All are good egg layers, and the Hamburgs are known as good egg layers, so I predict a clutch of future ... good egg layers.

I'm not planning to try to win ribbons at a chicken show, and I haven't started any conservation breeding of poultry yet, so this is more than satisfactory to me. I imagine they will be attractive birds. Most of the mutt chickens I've seen are quite beautiful. Practically no domestic chicken is as gorgeous as a wild jungle fowl, but mongrels tend to eventually revert to type, as is true of so many domesticated creatures.

I do love the green and blue eggs from my four hatchery Americaunas (aka "Easter Eggers"), who are, according to the fancy poultry people, already mutts themselves. So I stacked the broody nest with more of the colored eggs than brown ones. My understanding of eggshell genetics leads me to believe that at least half of the pullets from the colored eggs will also lay colored eggs -- possibly all of them.

Excess cockerels will join the guineas. I've got quiet shoes and I'm willing to do it.

This is all, of course, literally counting my chickens before they are hatched. I think I heard once that this is unsound financial planning.

Unscientific survey conducted in a pretentious Pittsburgh bar on Friday. Five out of five graduates of a Certain Midwestern University Afflicted With Ivy Inferiority Complex expressed sincere astonishment at the breaking news that the word "brood" has something to do with avian reproductive behavior.

At least four of these individuals have acquired or are acquiring doctoral degrees in a biological science or the trade-school equivalent.

One of them asked for an explanation about the role of the rooster in egg and chick production. Is this the fruit of abstinence-only "sex education?"

I was afraid to ask them what they knew about words such as "ruminate," "reap," and "draught." This is how far we have come from the roots of our language in a daily life shared with familiar -- and indispensible -- animals and plants. The abstracted metaphor has entirely replaced the concrete description as the "meaning" of such a venerable word.

Venerable indeed. My OED traces brood to Old English, Old High German, and Dutch roots having to do with heat and warmth. The oldest written English noun form (referring to the offspring, those that are brooded) dates back over a thousand years. The verb form, over 500.

But "To meditate (esp. in a moody or morbid way)" -- a mere chick, a just-hatched peep -- a metaphor deployed by Benjamin Disraeli in 1826.

Not that my broody doesn't seem to be meditative and serious, compared to her otherwise cheerful and unselfconscious mien. Whether she's anticipating caring for chicks, or just wholly committed to the project of incubating the eggs, I can't see any tinge of "morbid" sticking. What could be less morbid?

It's not just animal-estranged degreed young urbanites for whom a broody hen is an alien mystery. A commercial egg farmer who maintains hundreds of thousands of hens has never seen one either.

Most modern commercial and purebred poultry have had the broodiness bred right out of them.

It's convenient for commerce to incubate hatching eggs artificially; the "brooder" is the warm enclosure where the chicks are raised, sans maternal guidance, until they feather out and become slightly less suicidal in their habits. Our own flock came from a large commercial hatchery, and arrived by US mail in a little cardboard box when they were less than 72 hours old.

But broodiness didn't just atrophy with disuse. Such basic instincts don't go out without a fight. The tendency to brood has been ruthlessly culled out of industrial and utility stocks, for the simple reason that a broody hen stops laying eggs, whether or not the flock owner wants her to raise a clutch.

The industrial leghorn that most likely laid your breakfast is scores of generations removed from any ancestor that fluffed her feathers over a nest and pecked the hand that came to gather eggs. Since she also lives in a wire-bottomed cage from which every egg simply rolls away instantly, she has no opportunity to go broody, even if she was so inclined.

When a small flock-keeper has no eggs to hatch or chicks to raise and needs to "break up a broody," she will put the hen in a small wire-bottomed cage with no nesting material at all. This is generally considered a distasteful, harsh, short-term necessity, undertaken as much for the welfare of the bird as for the flock-keeper's interests. It is similar to, if less crowded than, the confinement endured by an industrial egg-layer for her entire productive life.

Sort of the difference between crate-training a puppy for housebreaking and protective custody -- or crate rest for an injured dog -- and keeping a puppy-mill production unit caged like this for her entire life.

Ironically, natural mothering instinct has been retained most in some "fancy" breeds that are commonly kept for neither eggs nor meat, such as these. And it is also strong in these guys; some poultry-keepers believe that aggression in male birds is genetically related to good mothering in the hens.

One of the reasons I included the buff Orpingtons in last year's chick order was the rumor that this breed was more likely to go broody, while remaining solid egg producers and agreeable flock members under the kind of casual husbandry I planned. I have no inclination to coddle the weather-susceptible, predator-magnet silkies or manage the snark of game hens.

Most of my adult life has been spent figuring out how to exploit animals' inborn abilities to do jobs extremely well, instead of putting in a lot of effort to do the same job poorly myself. That's been the same whether it's Pip using the $60,000 nose to outperform scores of human searchers, Moe running off varmints in the night, or Rosie putting the petulant chickens to bed. About half of that figuring out has been devoted to choosing an animal whose genetics are intact, whose desire to do a job is inherent and maybe unstoppable.

If my Orp pullet proves to be good at her job, outperforming an electric incubator and a brooder with a heat lamp, plus untold hours of clumsy human "mothering," she has a sinecure here.


  1. Well crap. Why couldn't the lovely Ms. Buffy wait until May to go broody? Mutt layers would fit in just peachy here -- but crippled and coopless is no way to start a flock.

  2. Can't wait to see the results of her efforts. I also had the "how does a rooster work" conversation with several college-educated people at a dinner party once. Despite my best efforts to explain the process of fertilization (not too different than our own!) they were still completely in the dark by the end of the conversation. Mind you, any peasant in a third world country gets it. Makes you wonder about the future of this nation.

  3. Please let me know how you like the taste of the guineas and how you cook them. I have an excess of them and need to do some thinning.

  4. Last week I met the first fully-employed rat terrier I'd seen in years. Lovely little dog, balanced and steady. A committed, efficient and proven rodent killer whose years of physical labor are taking a toll on her body, and her veterinarian is concerned about that. Owners are too.

    Sparrow is a lucky dog, to the extent that her owners totally GOT the conversation I brokered about meaningful work and quality of life. Squirrels, beware.

    Meanwhile, go Buffy!

  5. Heather Heather Heather Heather Heather.

    Pip's $60,000 nose is most likely worth between 1.8 (least favorable matchup: average winter day/subject wearing high visibility colors, comparison of dog/handler team vs. a single human searcher) and 7.7 (most favorable: summer/low-vis colors) human searchers, at least for daylight searching. Which, in the math of SAR planning, is more than good enough.

    I seem to recall you mentioning I should pull a book off your shelves more often -- maybe you should try staying awake during one of your husband's talks occasionally!

  6. Love the humming white coop in the kitchen!

    Your buff looks a good deal like my New Hampshires, a lovely older breed that had a pivotal roll in my pick of a certain UC for college at an early age. Long story, but I have a dozen of 'em in my barn yard (in addition to several other breeds), and they are a favorite. Copper in color, not nearly as aggressive towards other chickens as Rhode Island Reds, and a nice all-purpose breed. One of the hens actually intimidates the Border Collie more than our goats do, but they are not too people aggressive. Speckled Sussex are also a gorgeous breed, the hens are bold and great at free ranging. One of the hens goes next door to free range, but always comes home to lay her eggs. Good girl!

    I also have several red junglefowl- ameraucana crosses, which for the most part look like large red junglefowl with beards. They are quite pretty and the three roosters are all so laid back that I feel obligated to let them live in hopes that someone else will want to add them to their breeding program.

    I recall being in the grocery store one day with a friend who urged me to buy the "white shelled eggs because the brown eggs were the ones that had gone bad".

    Try talking about dairy animals and drinking milk from your own farm to see just how far people are removed from the food supply. I have to try to not look horrified when a woman with children will ask me how to get a doe to produce milk. You would think once they'd had children, they would realize how the whole coming-into-milk thing works, but really not so much.

  7. Hi Sarah --

    I also have three New Hamps, and I like them very much. They are very nebby, and two of them are lap chickens. The orps are bigger and considerably fluffier, which helps them cover more eggs/chicks when brooding. I think the New Hamps are brighter.

    Maybe I ought to look into one of your junglefowl roos -- if Henery doesn't straighten up his act, he'll be joining the guineas. I think it's an adolescent phase.

    The lactation confusion is not helped by the new practice of keeping cows in production with hormone injections.

  8. Some years back when we first had chickens & one became broody, we also decided to put a clutch of eggs under her. We brought her food & water several times a day since she would not leave the nest. About 10 days or so into the process my partner came up with the idea of candling the eggs so we could remove any that weren't developing. The plan was that I would pick up the hen & hold her while the eggs were quickly checked by shining a flashlight through each one. I held the hen in both hands in front of my chest with her head facing away from me. It had not occurred to me that in keeping to the nest she had also refrained from defecating for 10+ days. This brings me to my reason for writing, which is to offer this advice: If you decide for any reason to pick up a broody hen, point her rear-end away from yourself.
    My website on dog ligament injury:

  9. Try the difference between flock and herd; grove and orchard; ram, wether, and ewe; heifer, cow, calf, steer, bull, and on and on. My SAT in 1978: flock is to bird as covey is to _________. Probably unfair to city kids who are not widely read, although I learned covey from a book and real life. The analogies section has since been dropped. With my interest in words and their derivations, I should have been a philologist, but that Nietzschean option was not offered at a certain college afflicted with a superiority complex:

    Please don't trash all my fellow trade-school graduates! Certain medical schools feature rural medicine programs. I can vouch for this one, at least in the late 1990s:

    As a former city girl with an interest in cultural anthropology, I was prepared to try to understand the rural culture I found in Vermont (during residency). Of course, the program didn't help, except to explain what 'Jeesum Crow' meant. Other residents, most without rural experience, looked down on farmers, volunteer fire departments, and the ilk. Farmers were stupid, uneducated, a throwback. I found this attitude not only in American city people, but particularly in foreign residents. A computer scientist friend told me that her coworkers tagged her as stupid when she let slip that she raised chickens. My hay man has a Master's Degree in forestry (and works 3 jobs). My sheep mentor is a retired Episcopal Priest who attended Divinity School at Princeton.

    Not to say your generalization doesn't hold up. However, I'm trying to get a little girl who lives in drug-ridden public housing interested in 4H. She loves my sheep and watched lambs being born. She learned to walk slowly and move quietly. Unfortunately, she has decided she wants to be Britney Spears. I assured her that she could be both a singer and a veterinarian. And I don't let her use the term baby sheep. It's ram lambs and ewe lambs around here.

    I appreciate your blog!


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