Our elderly hens will soon shuffle off this mortal coil. Time to get some chicks, we decided. For five summers, our hens have gone broody. Weeks of sitting on eggs that will never hatch, and nothing can dislodge them. It would be nice for them after such diligence to have chicks. Thus began 2017’s Major Project.
We find a loaner Phoenix rooster. Randy, as I thought of him, came with a hen. Their guys said, if he was Randy, the hen should be Madeleine. The names of their aunt and uncle. They warn that Randy could be nasty and doubted that good intentions and treats would change that.
Our hens love Randy! They hate Madeleine. Randy seems nice. He picks food from my hand. He’s so magnificent we rename him: George Clooney.
He struts and preens. We admire. He attacks. Feathers fluffed out, head down in shoulders like a wrestler, flying straight at my legs – his legs and spurs in front. “Get away from me you asshole!” I scream as I kick out at him. And so that becomes that name that sticks.
You don’t know if or when he will attack. Sometimes I go out suited up for combat and he is fine. Other times, he eats the treats you throw to him and then comes at you like a feathered spurred dervish. You are the source of food and he doesn’t care.
He does his job though. All the hens hatch out chicks. Now the fun time, with fluffy babies tumbling around together. Nope! Every mother hates the other mothers and their chicks.
We expected problems with Madeleine so had sequestered her. She and our hens had never sorted out the pecking order before everyone went broody. But our girls? Together their whole lives? Happy little band of sisters? They turn on each other, ready to fight to the death.
Hens behind the wire
Endless construction to make separate spaces for each family unit. An annex built on their enclosed run, further subdivided with large cages. Cardboard attached to the cage sides so the hens can’t even see each other. If they do, they fight.
One hen doesn’t like even her own chicks. After seeing her peck them really hard, we kick her out of the nursery. She doesn’t care, and another hen adopts her babies. That gives rooster some company. He’d been wondering where the girls had gone!
As the chicks grow, they need more space and want to go outside. All the chicks get along with each other. But the mother hens attack each other and the other chicks. So their enclosed yard is subdivided with chicken wire to keep them separated.
They settle into their separate spaces. Five rooster and seven hen chicks, four moms. But how are we going to bring the flock together without bloodshed? Cautious integration attempts fail. Madeleine’s comb is so badly bloodied by a hen that, skittish as she is, she allows us to bring her into the house to patch her up.
Chicks on their own
Then, one by one, the mothers decide their babies are big enough to leave them. They fly over the fence and join the rooster. At first the chicks squawk and scream for mom, so she goes back to them or we return her. Eventually the babies let her go without protest. At bedtime, they go to their usual spot and cuddle up together without making a fuss. And mom goes to the adult quarters.
Only one hen remains with her four daughters, who are as big as she is. Helicopter Mom, we call her. She now bosses all the chicks around.
The young roosters are magnificent. Every one a George Clooney. Their father is looking more backyard rooster than show bird. But grooming his feathers requires getting hold of him. Ain’t gonna happen!
Future chicks from these hens ain’t gonna happen either. I’ve had hens, roosters and chicks before. Never has it been like this. Hens hatched their chicks, side by side, and shared mothering duties. Some hens even shared a clutch of eggs. They were poster hens for “takes a village…”. So how did we end up with this murderous circus?
One day, at my wits’ end, I go to J & P Feeds for advice. Nothing I say surprises the woman at the store. Then I say “I used to have bantams…” She laughs, “Oh, bantams! That’s different. They love everybody. ‘Babies? Bring them on, I’ll look after all of them.’ That’s bantams!” So that’s the answer. If you want non-stressful chick rearing, keep bantams.
Mr. A and Madeleine have now left us, as have the eldest rooster chicks. Just the youngest rooster and hens – young and old – now. They’ve formed a new family grouping.
Young rooster crows, an off-key cracked song. You don’t need to wear heavy jeans and high boots around him. Still, I kind of miss his dad.