Chicken moms are devoted to duty from day one. So when two of my youngest hens went broody within a day of each other, coveting the eggs the rest of the flock had laid as well as their own, I trotted up to my neighbors’ to snag their day’s take. They, after all, have a rooster.
Yes, my broodies were peckish (you might say) when I slid my hand beneath them, lifting their wings and even their toes to tug out their infertile eggs and slip in my neighbors’. But an egg’s an egg. They were maybe ten seconds settling back in.
The past two years I’d kept moms and chicks apart from the main flock, housing them in a rabbit hunch mere feet away from the main coop with just a temporary fence between. But each time when I integrated the flocks, the hens with the deepest connection to the pecking order—both the alpha hen and the previous year’s most bullied chick—put way more energy into beating up on the newbies at the feeder than I care to see.
Problem was, keeping my broodies in the main coop didn’t quite work. During her first days on a clutch, a broody hen barely eats, barely drinks. At last, however, hunger and thirst overpower the compelling need to brood those eggs. Meanwhile, a nest chockfull of eggs is prime real estate for any hen. I fed my broodies at the back edge of their nest boxes but had no way of providing water right at the nest. When they hopped off to slake their thirst—well, an older dom would move in and refuse to make way.
One day I came home to find the entire set of nest boxes moved perilously close to the ramp leading down from the coop’s floor. Clearly an epic kerfluffle had happened not long before. An older hen had possession of one 9×13-inch nest box. My two broodies were crammed into the other. And as good care as a momma takes from day one, when they’re competing for prime real estate they’re oblivious to the toll their spurs take on delicate shells; likewise oblivious was the usurping older hen in the other box. Once I got them sorted out—the older hen pushed off the nest, the broodies back in business—four chicks just days away from pipping had died.
So that night I moved the moms into two hastily prepared crates in the rabbit hutch. (Some things are best done under cover of darkness.) Dark as it was, still—the each mom tried to roll the most eggs into her domain, and in mere minutes I saw which of these relatively low-ranked hens was top dog in their little twosome. When I checked a half-hour later, both moms had set up shop within and just outside one of the crates, and the four eggs that remained in the other were left unattended in the chill night air.
How many chicks pipped—and how did they fare? Did accord or catastrophe ensue? Can momma hens coparent a clutch of babes without killing a one—or does one, defeated, join the rest of the flock in the main coop? And … how do the other hens react when two-day-old baby chicks venture into their home turf?