Letter from Birdland: A plan is hatched - and so are some eggs
In Birdland, we've had a stretch of deliciously cool weather. I keep looking at the calendar to remember it's July.
Did I tell you about the eggs I snuck under one of the hens? Several went broody back in June, and I finally let one set a nest of six. I had put a private nesting box with a lid in the old grain wagon next to the pond. Hens like to be sneaky about their eggs, and if I provide some good hiding places, then they are less likely to make a nest in the tall grass or the little spinney of trees, or the junk in the barn or someplace else I would never find until the eggs are long dried out.
One by one, the hens discovered this secret box, and I would find a variety of eggs every day, the tan of the Buff Orpingtons, the darker tan of the Rhode Island Reds, the blue/green of the Auracanas.
I left a couple of golf balls in the nest so the hens wouldn't realize I'd been skimming their eggs. I would usually have to reach under an indignant hen for the eggs. Finally, I decided to go ahead and let somebody hatch some chicks.
I chose all blue eggs but one. I can't help it. The blue eggs still delight me, and although any hatchlings would be mixie chicks (our one-eyed rooster is, himself, a mix), I wanted to increase the chances of more blue egg layers.
I marked six eggs with X's on one side and O's on the other. I left them in the box and took away the golf balls. Before long, a Buff Orp settled herself on the eggs. For the next few days, a flurry of squabbles erupted. You should have heard the curse-words rising from old grain wagon. Things I can't print here. Feathers would fly, and I can't be certain that the same Buff Orp that started the set was the one who finally remained.
For the first week, I would lift the hen each day to find extra eggs. These I took out, leaving only the ones I marked. After a while, everything settled down. A setting hen enters a zone. She goes into a hypnotic state. She is relaxed (unless someone comes to disturb her nest) and barely moves. She might get up for just a moment to sip some water or eat some food, but mostly she just sits. Very zen.
I have an incubator, but I like to incubate eggs under the most natural incubator of all. A hen is incubator and brooder all at once. She will make sure the eggs and then the hatchlings are at the perfect temperature. She will show them, once they dry off and can walk, with her gentle clucking and pointing with her beak, where to find the food and the water. She will make herself big and scary and pointy if any threat comes near. The chicks can run under her protective wings when they get chilled or scared.
She can even tell when an embryo dies in the shell. One morning, my hen had rolled an egg out of the nest. I put it back, but she kept rolling it out. I took the hint and took it away and cracked it open. It had stopped developing early on. Now she had five eggs in her nest.
Since the hen was keeping track of everything for me, I didn't bother to mark the calendar and only had a very general idea that I set out those eggs in early June. That's why I couldn't help myself. I had to keep lifting that hen to see if anything was going on, even though she let me know she didn't want to be bothered. Such screeching!
One day, I thought I saw a tiny peck in one of the eggs. That evening, I lifted her again and there was an eggshell and a wet squirming little thing. The next morning, five little chicks and one egg. Wait! I had set only six, and the hen had rejected the nonviable one. A chicken can't count, but I'm pretty sure that unless two of those babies came out of one egg, someone had snuck in to lay an extra egg. I examined it, and sure enough, no X, no O. Now I had a dilemma.
The hen was waiting for the last egg to hatch. If she waited another week, the already hatched chicks would die, waiting in her nice warm feathers, trusting in her care. I knew the extra egg had to be at least 10 days behind the rest, so I took it away from her. Even then, she waited, and I finally had to take her nest away to get her to snap out of it.
But eventually she did, with her gentle clucking, show the baby chicks how to eat and drink.
Wait in beauty; hatch peace; blessed be.
Mary Lucille Hays lives in Birdland near White Heath. She is interested in all the cycles of life in the world and in her own backyard. You can see photos and read more at http://www.letterfrombirdland.blogspot.com. Mary can be reached at letterfrombirdlandgmail.com.