The odds were against Uno ever coming into existence. With the cost of chicks from hatcheries getting higher, we decided to try to get one of our hens to hatch the few chicks we needed every year to replenish our little flock. But the commercial breeds of chickens we were raising have had the hatching instinct all but bred out of them. Egg factories do not want hens that quit laying every year to hatch out a clutch of eggs as nature intended hens to do. So we started experimenting with old fashioned breeds that still carry the mothering instinct. We tried Plymouth Rocks, Rhode Island Reds and finally Buff Orphingtons but not with much luck. A hen might start to set on eggs, but grow disinterested before the 21-day hatching period was up. Or if I separated a setting hen and eggs away from the other hens to keep them from bothering her, she would get antsy for company and not stay on the nest.
But this Spring, Buffy, one of our Buff Orphingtons, finally got serious about hatching some eggs. She took over one of the three nests in the coop and would not budge off the eggs in it. Other hens squeezed in beside her and laid more eggs and Buffy appropriated them too. I thought about marking the first dozen eggs and taking out the rest, but I didn’t want to bother her and since we had more eggs than we needed anyway, I just let nature take her course, hit or miss. Eventually Buffy got so cross that the other hens went to the other nests to lay their eggs. By then there were 18 eggs under Buffy, laid over a period of a week or so. Obviously, not all of them were going to hatch at the same time if they hatched at all. How would Buffy handle that?
In the prescribed time, one of the eggs hatched. I knew when I discovered Buffy down on the floor of the coop guarding that one tiny chick from the other hens. How the chick got to the floor, three feet from the nest, I don’t know. The other eggs were in various stages of development, but Buffy was totally taken up with her one chick and no longer interested in them. Out of 18 eggs, one chick. So I named it Uno. Turned out it was a she.
Uno was still in a precarious situation, what with a dozen hens not at all appreciating a cheeping baby in their midst. Uno stayed under Buffy most of the time for the first two weeks, warm, snug, and obviously happy. Often she stuck her head out Buffy’s protective feathers and occasionally, just for fun it seemed, she would dart out and streak around the coop, dodging hens and cheeping piercingly if one of them threatened to peck her. The cheep would bring Buffy to the rescue, her feathers ruffled up threateningly. Uno, back in the safe refuge under Buffy’s wings, seemed to be almost sticking her tongue out at the other hens. I decided to put Buffy and Uno with the pullets separated from the hens in the other side of the coop. The younger chickens were a little more accommodating.
And how did Uno eat and drink? She was too little to get up to the trough, so Buffy would take a beak full of feed and drop it right in front of the chick. Uno would pounce greedily on it as if she had been getting fed this way for centuries, which of course was true in a way. Sometimes, she would eat right out of Buffy’s beak. She got water that way too.
Then after watching over Uno constantly for a month, Buffy abruptly quit one day, would not go back into the coop with the chick, and went to live in the big barn by herself. But she knew what she was doing. Uno could take care of herself and did, finding worms and bugs like Buffy had taught her. At two months she was almost as big as the three- month- old pullets. I did not have to do one single thing to feed her, nor spend one single penny to keep her warm as I had to do with chicks from the factory. But it was sad that Buffy no longer seemed to care about her.
Yesterday, I saw the hens and the pullets together for the first time (raised separately, it takes them awhile to come together in one flock) grazing for worms and bugs in the woods. But Uno was missing. Hawk? Fox? Worried, I checked around the barn and then in the coop. There were Uno and Buffy together, not so much mother and child now as comrades- at- arms, I suppose. I have seen the same relationship develop with sheep. Lambs, weaned and grown to adulthood in the same flock with their mothers, stay close to Mom while grazing and sleeping even after they become Moms themselves.
Lately you may have noticed the many articles in garden and country magazines about how chickens make good pets. I can vouch for that. Sometimes they overdo the routine. We had a few hens that the grandkids made pets out of. They would join us on picnics and hop up in our laps trying to peck at whatever we were eating.
There’s a practical aspect to chickens as pets. Backyard farmers, looking for more ways to raise some of their food, often run into zoning regulations that prohibit chickens in the suburbs. Yes, you can keep a huge soup hound of a dog that barks all night, urinating or defecating on every nearby lawn (rarely on its own), or a couple of bird-killing cats, but mercy me, not chickens, even though chickens will return to their roost at night voluntarily and will find much of their food from roaming the lawn and gardens. Contrary backyard farmers, being a crafty lot like all contrary farmers, noticed that the zoning police allowed for keeping almost any smaller animal as a pet. That’s how they can enjoy their own fresh eggs even in the suburbs. The egg producers are not chickens; they are pets.
Chickens really are entertaining. Our rooster is disgustingly vain, strutting around the hens exactly like any testosterone-soaked human male around human chicks. And the hens, like women, seem to put up with him. He likes to jump up on the top board of the gate and cockledoodledoo like he’s just won an Iowa caucus. I don’t advise roosters in the suburbs, however. They crow too early in the morning.
So here’s what to do for a combination of great entertainment and fresh eggs. Keep hens of a breed likely to hatch eggs. When one of them gets broody and won’t get off the eggs she has laid, buy a dozen fertilized fresh eggs from someone in the country who keeps a rooster with the flock. Put the eggs under the setting hen at night, and she will almost always “adopt” them. In about three weeks you can watch mother hen and peepers put on a show more entertaining than almost anything on TV. And you and your family can learn how wondrous is this thing we call “animal instinct.”