I had so many requests for my infamous “chicken essay”, that I’m reposting it here. Though spring is long-gone, the fallout continues in the form of babies who have reached the ugly teenage phase, hens who turned out to be roosters, and definitely-not-pregnant hamsters who gave birth 3 days later. Here’s an excerpt to how it all began 5 months ago…
God may have told Man to cleave to one wife, but the animal world did not get the memo. Much of the world may practice monogamy, but in my chicken yard it’s a different story. The lord and master of the flock is never short of admiring ladies-in-waiting.
Silkies are petite, with downy feathers forming a crown on their heads, full bloomers around their thighs, and decorative accents on their blue-skinned feet. From behind, they resemble fat women of yesteryear…a white-skirted girth supported on ridiculously tiny ankles. Silkies croon incessantly, are eager brooders, and are hands-down the sweethearts of the yard.
Gimpy is by far the tiniest of my hens, with blue-black feathers and a lame leg from jumping off too great a height as a chick. A white silkie is her constant companion, with a bizarre habit of wobbling her head from side to side as she walks, which my kids claim make her look like a bobble-head toy. And then there’s Sweetie – always following me around the yard, hopeful of a pat and a treat.
This spring was the first opportunity for my girls to sit on their own clutch of eggs. Like so many first-time parents in nature, they just knew what to do. Gimpy claimed a corner of the henhouse with three marvelously tiny eggs, and my husband (who is decidedly not made of firm farmer material) said, “Oh, let her try to hatch them.”
The hopeful mother sat and sat, and we did not intrude on her maternal exercise. It wasn’t until nearly a week had gone by that we all began to notice a serious decline in egg production of the entire flock, yet only one hen was sitting on eggs. Curious, I inspected the nest boxes for signs of a predator or tragic accident. Coming to the end of the nesting boxes, Gimpy gazed placidly in my direction. Creamy glimpses of shell peeked beneath her plumage – rather a lot for such a small chicken, I thought. I lifted her a few inches from her nest. Twenty-three eggs met my sight. Big ones, small ones, brown ones, white ones, all massed into a pile that her tiny body could not possibly cover.
With two small children as my constant spectators, I couldn’t throw any of the eggs away. We must not teach a lesson that life is to be tossed out like trash. And yet, there was no way to tell which of the original three eggs were hers. I silently cursed my husband for his soft-hearted surrender. Our coop, already at full capacity, could not accommodate any more chickens – let alone twenty-three.
I observed Gimpy one day as she stepped down from her throne of eggs and stepped along the nesting boxes, peering into each one. She curved her beak around a freshly-laid egg and rolled it against her neck, scooping it from the straw and rolling it tediously down the lane of nesting boxes. My darling little chicken was a kleptomaniac. She had stolen outright all those other eggs and added them to her own stash. Still, how was she to incubate them without assistance?
We contemplated a heat lamp, but surely that would make the hen herself overheat. A heating pad beneath the nest – too dangerous. And here is the moment where I began to see the advantages of polygamy. Trotting up the henhouse ramp, Bobble-Head sauntered over to her friend and serenely sat down beside her. Together, they settled their two small selves and waited together, the ebony down blending with the ivory, a couple of surrogate mothers who cared not for parental rights.
Twenty-one days passed and three new baby chicks hatched. Granted, only one appeared to be a rightful descendant of the eager mother, but she didn’t seem to notice. The distressing thing was that with the three successful hatchlings, Gimpy felt her job was complete. She abandoned the nest full of un-hatched eggs. She simply got up, coaxed her trio of children to the other end of the henhouse, and set up camp there. And Bobble-Head followed her. Surely it did not take two hens to raise three chicks. I picked up the white faker, and placed her back on the nest. She determinedly headed back to her friend. We placed wire between the nest and the new chicks, placing Bobble-Head on the nest side. She paced along the barrier like a prisoner, frantic to get back to her Insta-Gro family.
Despair gripped me, until Sweetie stepped in. She surveyed the situation and promptly sat down on the eggs, settling in to her role as if she had come home to find dinner already made and all she had to do was sit down and eat it. Sweetie’s adopted eggs began to hatch, two a day, until she had nine lovely babies – none of which resembled her in the slightest. We praised her parenting instincts, applauded her generous nature, and felt our hopes plummet once again as she too, abandoned the nest. She relocated her brood to another area of the henhouse, and I stared into the quickly cooling nest of nine, deserted for the second time. It was clear that there was no one else to finish hatching these eggs. No one but myself.
I took those eggs. I placed them lovingly on a bed of pine shavings. I arranged a heat lamp to warm them. I added a water dish to produce humidity. I took their temperature every hour, and turned them routinely. I cursed my husband for starting this whole chicken-nesting mess. And I hatched three of them.
It took three hens and a human to birth seventeen chicks. As penance for his weakness, I made my husband build a mobile pen for the chicks, until they were old enough to be added to the general population. I keep threatening to thin the flock, but no one is really fooled. Little Red, Mohawk, and Molly are already making their mark. And you know what they say … once you start naming things, they’re yours forever. We can always put an addition onto the chicken coop, but I swear, next year nobody is going to be allowed to hatch any eggs – including me.
The full audio version of Sister Wives is available as a podcast on my website, and on iTunes. You can listen for free!