01 March 2009


My husband Dave and I tend chickens—a small barnyard flock, but enough hens that we have eggs coming out our ears at the peak of the spring laying season. When production drops in the heat of summer we enjoy something other than egg white omelets for supper.

Every so often during the warmer months one or another of our hens goes broody. She gets a glint in her eye appropriate to a religious acetic about to don a camel’s hair shirt and retreat to the dessert. Approached by rooster, hen or human, she fluffs up to twice her normal size and utters a cry of righteous reproach that one soiled with the affairs of the world should intrude upon the presence of the holy. She clucks aloud as if already addressing a nest of newly hatched chicks. The wise intruder trammels no further motherhood’s sacred domain.

A broody hen sets 21 days upon a clutch of eggs. She’ll use her own eggs if she has been able to sneak away and fill a hidden nest. If home is a hen house with shared nest boxes, she uses a collection of her neighbors’ eggs. We have a separate pen for setting hens so they will be undisturbed. The hen keeps the eggs warm for three weeks, turns them every few hours, gets off the nest only for her daily constitutional. Motherhood is no small commitment. 

And so an egg—common, ordinary part of my daily repast—becomes the stuff of miracles. I’ve seen the insides of an egg. It’s all goop and goo. No feathers in there, no chicken feet, no little life form peeping with its own temperament. But keep an egg warm enough, long enough and at 18 or 19 days out it starts talking to you. I’ve heard it. Its mother hears, too, and she answers back, bonds with her baby before its hatched. Love knows no walls. At last a hole appears in the egg. The chick uses its egg tooth, a sharp temporary nail at the tip of its beak, to poke through, then scribe a rough line round the middle of the egg before finally breaking the shell apart. This process can take up to 14 hours. A wet bedraggled ragamuffin emerges, unassuming conqueror who has dared split the world open at its seams and step into a vast beyond imagining. When privileged to witness this process, I feel compelled almost to take off my shoes. The place I stand is holy ground.

Gathered under mom’s soft wings, the chick dries to a fluffy fuzzball of downy feathers—cute and adorable. Precocious, too, soon scurrying about, pecking, peeping, keeping close by mom’s protection, answering her summons, seeking her comforting bosom. 

But no matter the joy I take in watching newborn chicks, we need no more additions to our barnyard. We have too many chickens already. Dave and I talked it over this spring. He noted it’s easy enough to control population growth—don’t let any broody hens set this summer. We could try my grandmother’s remedy, I offered, put a broody hen under a bushel basket for a few days to disabuse her of the notion of motherhood. Were we agreed? I let him think so. But a few weeks later Blackie went broody, reminded me how much I enjoy seeing baby chickens. Sorely tempted to let her keep a few eggs, I put off putting her under a basket. I removed the eggs from under her each day, figured one of us would lose our resolve. She gave up first. I was relieved.

Then Thruff and Flighty went to setting at the same time. Golden brown Thruff hatched out a brood of chicks last year; I know her to be a good mother. Black and bronze Flighty is a first-timer. I was amazed she stayed on the nest, let me get within five feet of her. She was serious about this motherhood thing. Surely such commitment demanded I make allowances. Besides, when I consulted our hatchery catalog to see what they charged for fertile eggs one could put under a setting hen, I had dropped my jaw to learn we could order 10 eggs for a little over $40, or take advantage of their special deal—three common white eggs for $30, shipped post-paid, overnight express. Those are $20 omelets we eat each night. Greed tipped the balance. I moved both hens into a small pen with only five brown eggs between them. They could probably handle a dozen apiece. Such restraint on my part made it easier for me to tell Dave what I’d done. This news was better received when I stated aloud my intention to cull our flock, dispatch at least five aged hens to keep our population constant. Two days later I slipped a sixth dark brown egg under Flighty, hoped for the best. So much for restraint.

Come hatch day, four chicks appeared—one black, one dark brown, one buff with feathered feet, one yellow with brown speckles atop the head. The chicks had gathered at the front of the pen near Thruff; Flighty had pushed her way up there, too, asserting her claim to joint-motherhood. Flighty’s nest was now empty save for a dark brown peeping egg. Left cold and unattended, it would die. That would be my fault. This was probably the Johnny come lately egg I’d put to setting two days late. Thruff had one unhatched egg, as well; hers sloshed when I shook it. Apparently, it had not been fertile. I put mothers and babies in the coop, slipped the peeping egg under steely-eyed Fegan who had gone broody a few days earlier. She had been given six eggs. (Dave received a promise of more culling.) Fegan would keep this egg warm, no problem, I knew. Problem was, if it hatched out, I doubted she would tend it. She would keep her focus on the still-to-be-hatched majority. I would check in the morning. If if had hatched, I’d move it in with the other babies. 

The next evening the egg was peeping louder than ever, now had a small hole in it. Fegan was characteristically silent. (Her nickname is “Sphinx.” ) Did the little peeper need a mother’s coaxing to hatch? Should I put in under Thruff or Flighty for the night, hope it hatched by morning when the mothers would leave the nest with their brood? Should I leave it under Fegan? She’d stay put all night, in the morning, too. I opted for this latter course of action, went on to bed, would check at daybreak. Before midnight I got up, trekked out to the coop, moved the egg under Thruff. Coming-out efforts might better succeed with a caring, comforting, clucking response. When I checked in the next morning there was a dun-colored fluff ball in the coop and a smile on my face.

This essay is unpublished