Unlike the reds, it’s easy to tell the three white hens apart. Of the two leghorns, one has a broken head comb that flops up and down when she walks, ergo, her name “Floppy.” Bantam Babe is clearly unique with her green legs and bald head; and the other leghorn has no hind feathers. We haven’t named her, yet. One of the kids suggested we call her “Buttless” but I encouraged them to come up with something better than that.
Five days ago, while giving ‘the girls’ their morning snack—a tropical medley of guava, coconut shavings and banana—I noticed Floppy was missing. Usually, she’s third in the rush to eat, behind Big Red and Bantam Babe. I looked through the coop windows and did not see her. Was she kidnapped, did she run away from home, or was she dead? If so, where? Did the hawk finally make a move?
Muhammad went out to look for her.
A few mornings earlier, he found Floppy in the yard, her bottom half buried in the ground, underneath one of the bushes. She, apparently, was unable to get back over the fence before sundown, dug some kind of shelter before falling into the aforementioned chicken zombie-esqe sleep where she was. That was the first place he looked, and then around the rest of the yard. She wasn’t there.
He finally found her in the coop, squeezed into the upper corner nest, hiding in the shadows where I could not see her from the coop window. He said she must be sick; that she’s been acting strange like that for a few days; not wanting to leave the coop, not eating; putting up a fuss when he makes her leave the nest in order to get the eggs.
Unless Ms. Floppy is depressed or cold (the weather is getting chillier), she’s more than likely gone broody, or ‘clucky’ as they call it in Britain. In other words, her maternal instinct has kicked in. She wants a chick of her own. It doesn’t matter that there is no rooster, she has decided her eggs are her babies and she only has to wait for them to hatch. Thinking back on the few times I collected the eggs, it was Floppy who would run inside the coop and watch me, looking very concerned, occasionally squawking protest as I gathered them up.
We have three options: 1. Borrow a rooster. 2. Place fertilized eggs in the nest.
3. Break her mood.
Number 1, we decided, is not an option at this time. The rooster will probably impregnate all the hens, and will most definitely upset the neighborhood’s early morning peace.
Number 2 is a possibility. Another Muslim family who also raises eggs has a rooster. They mark some eggs with an X, leave them to hatch, if they hatch, and use the others before there is a chance of an embryo developing. The problem is that it’s not an exact science. It’s impossible to tell which eggs are actually fertilized. Which hens has the rooster mated with? Does each mating guarantee a fertilized egg? What is the cycle of fertilization, ie. when is he with which she????
Assuming we get fertilized eggs and Floppy realizes they’re hers to hatch, what will keep those chicks safe? I’ve read a few accounts of hens channeling their ancestral raptor memory and fighting tooth and nail with predators to protect their babies, but is it fair to pitch her against the hawks that still check out ‘hen central,’ or the feral cats who have become adept at catching small birds and also have full liberty to the yard and coop? No.
That leaves the last option, the break.
According to The Poultry Site.com breaking a brood mood can take a week or more.
<< Fence off a small area with some wire and put a dog kennel or something in there for her to sleep in to keep her out of the elements at night time .. but it has to be so she can't get out ..but not separated from the other birds... so wire top and sides... she is to say in this confined area for 7 to 10 days. You will need to tie down the feed and water dishes... to something as she will tip them over. She is to have NO nest or nesting material in this area. She IS to have a roosting area to take her up off the ground .. and she must still be able to walk around .. but not too far, give her a couple of feet square. She will scream. She will sulk. She will stop eating. She will walk up and down all day long. You must keep her in this area for 7 days... Make sure she has fresh food and water at all times. On the seventh day let her out .. If she goes straight back into the coop and gets into a nest... go in after her.. don't leave her in that nest for one second.. very important... pick her up and put her back into the confined area for another 4 days.. Then let her out again... making sure she doesn't go back into the coop and into the nest box. If you feel sorry for her and let her out too early she will take weeks to stop being clucky. If you let her out and she goes back to the nest and you don't go and pick her up straight away, you will have wasted the the first 7 days of isolation... even one hour will put her back to being clucky again.>>
Sounds work intensive and a bit cruel.
The site also makes it clear that no matter what you do, hatch or break, the chicken must get out everyday to eat, drink and exercise. Muhammad has, at least, gotten Floppy outside each evening in order to get the eggs. She’s afraid of him. Once he yells and pushes her off the nest, she runs outside; and then back inside once he’s left the yard. We’re not sure if she eats and drinks during that time.
I’ve made it a point to throw a handful of food in her nest each morning. I remind her she needs to get over it as those eggs will not hatch and she’s just making herself sick. She brustles, and hisses at me, angry and unfazed. (Here I must make a confession: I have yet to pet or pick these creatures up. I fear their beaks and talons. I haven’t perfected the alpha-human demeanor to bluff them into submission, thus I can only attempt to persuade them with kind or harsh words, and as needed, a water hose.)
Often a broody hen will end up being harassed by the others because she is not producing. On the other hand, a broody hen can also remind the other hens of their feminine nature, spreading the broodiness to the entire clutch.
This morning, instead of gathering at the window during fajr, they remained inside the coop, screeching and clucking madly. Maybe Floppy had gotten on their nerves and they were telling her about herself. Or maybe, Floppy had died and they were mourning her passing.
After I drew the others away with their morning snack, I found Floppy alive, but looking even more haggard. Ants crawled on her feathers. Her comb, now a mauve-like pink, hung over her face like a fat bang. And, good grief, next to her were two other hens; one sharing the same box and the other in the upper tier. Have they gone broody too? Or, are they sitting in solidarity with their determined sister in their own version of the Occupy Movement: Occupy the Hen House?
That evening, in a possibly related incident, Big Red and two other belligerents ran after Muhammad. He had just gathered only 6 eggs (down from 13-17). They literally ran in front of and tripped him. Muhammad dropped 4 eggs; they broke. The hens rushed to eat their contents.
I called Uncle Kelly.
My 91-year old Uncle Kelly and Uncle Bert (deceased) ran an egg business in the 1940’s. They had 1000 chickens and no roosters. I figured some of them must have gone broody.
He confirmed that many did.
“So, Uncle Kelley, what did you do about it?”
He explained, “They’re not completely stupid. Sooner or later they’ll figure it out and get back to laying eggs, rooting, eating and doing what layers do. And the other hens will stop acting onery when she does.”
Sounds like a fourth option, and one worth a try.
It takes about 3 weeks for an egg to hatch. I’m hoping Floppy’s instincts are in tune. It’s been nearly a week since she began to brood.
In the meantime, and just in case: we’re figuring out a way to gather the materials to set up a solitary cage if we decide to break her or others. And depending on how Floppy looks, after a few days we’ll make it a point to get her out and make sure she’s fed and watered.
Insha’Allah, Floppy will snap out of it soon.
Four days later: Muhammad has seen Floppy outside a few times! He’s not sure if she’s eating. I also found that I should NOT put food in her nest as it will only make her want to stay there. Muhammad must take her over to the food and water once a day.
Asiila Imani is a doula/midwife middle aged mama of two mainly homeschooled boys. She is also my auntie:-)