Dorothy was our first layer last year, surprising us with an egg in the goat shed at about six months. The other chickens began to lay over the following weeks and every tiny first egg was a joy to behold.
One our Cuckoo Marans from this year’s flock laid her first egg yesterday. At four months! I found it sitting in the grass when I went to open the coop this morning. There are four Cuckoo Marans and I’m ashamed to say that they’re so similar looking we’re calling them “The Marys”. I’m hoping that their adult comb shape will lend itself to unique identification.
Derek researched chickens and their egg colours so we would have variety and Cuckoo Marans lay these gorgeous chocolate brown eggs. It will be interesting to see if it’s an early misfire or if she’ll continue to lay.
Farming, if you can call what we do here on our humble two acres “farming,” is a constant process of learning. And learning is just fucking up with note-taking.
Today we fucked up.
(I’m just going to warn you now, this is not a story with a happy ending, and there’s a sad photo below.)
If you followed the story of Cordelia’s Brood, you know that our Speckled Sussex hen, Cordy, went broody. To bring her out of it, we got her four adorable Sussex chicks, which she adopted quickly.
It’s been three weeks. The chicks were getting their wings and Cordelia was losing her mind. We’d locked them up together in the henhouse – not a bad situation by any means, complete with food, water, pine chips, and plenty of room to move around – but Cordy was used to the great outdoors, and she wanted out.
So last week we started kicking all the other chickens out of the coop (the coop is approximately 7×20 feet and entirely fenced in), closing the outer doors, and letting Cordelia and her chicks have the run of the place for a few hours each day. When we opened the henhouse door and they all came waddling down the ramp, we called it “the parade” and it always made us beam with joy.
Today we decided to leave the outer doors open and let Cordy and her chicks interact with the rest of the flock to see how it would go. We’d been worried about this, but it went great! Most of the hens had no interest in the chicks. So when Cordy led them out of the coop and into the fenced pen, we decided to let her do it.
Abby, the dominant Rhode Island Red, immediately came over to give the chicks a peck, but Cordy swept in and chased her off. We were so proud. We felt confident letting everyone mingle for a while.
I had to spend some time in the house and Heather had an errand to run, so we left them unattended for an hour or so. It was a beautiful day and everyone was getting along just fine. It seemed okay.
We’d been so concerned about the rest of the flock, we forgot about all the other dangers.
When I came back to the pen an hour later, the chicks were gone.
You never really notice how many piles of feathers there are around the coop until you’re looking for a missing chicken. I spent a long time looking over every inch of the fenced-in pen. All the chickens were there, but the chicks had vanished.
Then I noticed Pippi and Jax chasing something around behind the shop, outside the pen. It never occurred to me that the chicks could get out of the pen, but of course they could. They’re tiny.
I ran out of the pen at the dogs, screaming like a madman. Pippi is a good dog. She could tell something was very wrong. She immediately ran back to the house. Jax is not a good dog. He had one of the chicks in his mouth.
I got her away from him. She was still alive, but just barely. I held her in one hand and grabbed Jax with the other, dragging him into the house and locking him inside with the other dogs.
I took the poor chick back to the coop. She couldn’t stand. She wouldn’t drink water. I just sat there with her. She died in my hands a few minutes later.
(I warned you. Sorry.)
By this time Heather had gotten home and we set out looking for the three remaining chicks. I had very low expectations.
But Heather is a miracle worker when it comes to animals. She started gently cooing to the tall grass near where the first chick was found, when suddenly, miraculously, she heard tiny cheeps.
Two of Cordy’s chicks darted out of the grass. Some desperate chasing ensued, but we scooped them up and reunited them with Cordelia in the henhouse.
We searched for hours, but the fourth chick was never found. Now, as I type this, it’s dark outside, and if she’s not dead already, she soon will be.
Farming requires nurturance, which is just about the softest thing there is. But to do it, and to keep doing it, also requires a hardness. There’s always death on the farm – sometimes on purpose, sometimes mysteriously, and sometimes because you just fucked up.
And holding that poor dying bird in my hand today made me wonder if I have the hardness this takes.
I’m so sorry, little chicks. We fucked up.
Cordelia was among the first chickens we got last year. She’s a Speckled Sussex, a heritage breed from England that was once threatened but is now in recovery. They’re “dual-purpose” birds, which means they’re bred for eggs and meat, so she’s one of our bigger birds. She grew into a beautiful, sweet hen.
And then she got broody.
When I was first researching chickens, there was a lot of talk about broodiness. It’s when a switch flips in the hen’s tiny brain and she thinks she’s sitting on fertile eggs that are about to hatch. She goes from a happy chicken laying every day, to a grumpy girl guarding her babies. Broodiness is bad in an egg-laying flock, not only because it stops egg production, but because the brooding urge takes over. Hens can forget to eat and drink. The rest of the flock may pick on her. If the broodiness lasts too long, she can die.
I worried that one of our hens would go broody and I wouldn’t notice. I shouldn’t have. There’s no mistaking a broody hen. For the last two months, every time I checked the boxes, there was Cordelia. The moment she saw me, she’d puff up to be turkey-sized and make a sound like a Velociraptor on a motorcycle doing doughnuts. If your hen ever goes broody, trust me, you’ll know.
Farm communities are full of folklore about how to break a brood. (Grandma Powazek would have called it bubbe meise.) Take away the eggs. Kick them out of the box. Give them a cold water bath. Put ice cubes under them. Cage them separately. We didn’t try them all, but the ones we did try only seemed to make Cordy more grumpy. At some point, it felt like we were just torturing her. So we decided to try something else: give her what she wanted.
We purchased four Speckled Sussex chicks from Burns Feed. We got them as soon as they came in, so they were about a day old. I read that, when introducing chicks to a broody hen, it helps if they’re the same breed and as young as possible. I don’t know if it’s true, since I only have our experience to go on, but I figured why not start there. Some of those bubbes know their shit.
First we did it the wrong way. Excited to get started, we just plopped the chicks in the nesting box with Cordelia. She did not react well. She puffed up and started making an even worse sound. Now the motorcycling Velociraptor was also the lead singer of a death metal band. She started to aggressively peck the chicks, so we took them out and put them in the chick brooder in the garage.
Then we did it the right way. We took some of the nesting box material (hay and wood shavings) out from under Cordy, and put a couple eggs back under her. Then, in the garage brooder, we put the chicks under a heat lamp, on top of the nesting material. The idea here is for the chicks to smell like Cordy when we bring them back.
Then we waited for night. Chickens are drowsy at night, so Cordelia was less likely to freak out when we put the brought the chicks back. I even got a red light to work by (since I’ve read that chickens don’t see red light).
While Cordelia was asleep, I gently lifted her up, took away the eggs, and placed the four sleeping chicks under her. She didn’t react. I also put a feeder full of chick feed and a waterer in the henhouse and closed the henhouse door so the other chickens wouldn’t interrupt.
As anyone who’s raised chicks knows, heat is the critical thing in the beginning. Chicks need to stay at about 95º F for the first week. But they’ll instinctively move toward a heat source, which, in this case, was Cordelia. So long as she accepted this, they’d be okay.
The idea is, the broody chicken wakes up and thinks, “Hey! They hatched!” And that switch in her brain flips from brooding to mothering. We just had to wait and see.
The next morning, the chicks were all still alive. Some had wandered away from Cordy, but it was a warm day (and even warmer in the henhouse) so that was okay. We just kept visiting them and putting the chicks back under her. Cordy still puffed up when she saw us, but the Velociraptor was merely idling.
That night, we put the chicks back under her one more time, and went to bed.
By the next day, we found the chicks and Cordelia all huddled together. The Velociraptor was gone. In its place, a momma hen, showing her chicks around the henhouse. Directing them to the feeder. Lifting herself up and scooting the chicks under her on her own. One big happy family.
If all goes well, we’ll be able to let them all out of the henhouse in a few weeks and watch as Cordelia shows her babies the world. It’s strange to call something that happens in nature every day a miracle, but it sure feels like one.
Hopefully, in a couple months, we’ll have four happy Sussex pullets we didn’t have to brood ourselves, and one less broody hen.
Mazel tov, Cordelia.
Back when I was gardening in San Francisco, I learned the only way to grow strawberries that I actually got to eat was to plant them in a hanging basket by the house. The squirrels were brave, but generally still too timid to come right to the house and try to get into a hanging basket.
So I did the same at our new place here in Oregon. And I found out a couple weeks ago that a bird had the same idea. Because as I was watering the strawberries, I discovered a tiny nest.
The eggs were tiny, dime-sized. The mother bird flew away before I could photograph her, but from the look of her and her eggs, I identified her as a House Finch. She’d made a nest from straw and goat hair, collected from our farm.
A few days later, I found one of the eggs pushed out of the nest. When I attempted to move it back in, I noticed it was cracked. Nature is beautiful, but cruel. I took it out of the planter and disposed of it.
A few days later, the three remaining eggs had all hatched.
As I stood over the nest gawking, the momma bird sat in the Witchhazel tree behind me, squawking angrily.
The chicks were impossibly tiny, eyes closed, mouths open.
I checked on them every day to make sure there were still three, doing okay. They grew like weeds.
Soon they had wings.
And open eyes.
And then they were gone. I’d come out to check on them and they took one look at me and flew away.
The whole process only took about two weeks. So short from my vantage, but an eternity for them and their mom, I’m sure.
Thanks for choosing the Milk Barn Farm strawberry planter for your home, house finches. Same time next year?
One Less Lawn
Last week I rented a small tractor with a 4-foot-wide tiller and tilled this 5,000 square foot area to prep it for vegetable planting next month. Now I really want a tractor.