A few weeks ago (July 8, to be exact), I noticed some eggs tucked under the feed bins in the barn.
But as I reached down to pick them up, I noticed something funny about the bucket lying next to them. See the feathers?
My first thought was, "Uh-oh, a dead chicken." But when I put my hand in the bucket, I got soundly pecked.
Make that a setting chicken. She was tucked away fairly securely, so we left her in the barn (as opposed to buttoning her up in the chicken coop every night) to see what we should see.
Setting hens leave their nests at least once a day to eat and drink, and they have a distinctive clucking noise they make while doing so. A week later when I heard those particular clucks and saw the ruffled hen gobbling some food, I took advantage of her absence to count the eggs: 16.
Yesterday was something of a rough day -- very hot, with three young cows that persisted in pushing in/over/under/around a particular fence to lunch on the neighbor's lawn. I was slathering myself in sunscreen preparatory to heading out in the hot sun to work on the fence line (again!) when I heard -- peeps.
You guessed it, the hen had hatched out a baker's dozen (13) chicks, and looked just as pleased as a hen can look.
She had no problem hiding all her babies under feathers, despite the heat.
We always keep chick starter on hand, so I filled a chick feeder and got them some water, and mama settled right in teaching her babies all about consumables.
Whenever another chicken (or rooster, in this case) got curious and came too close, the mama would poof herself up in the fashion of a strutting tom turkey: "Stay away from my babies!"
Here she ruffles up against Smoky, who raised her own clutch four years ago (see the story of Smoky and her Bandits here, here, and here). Smoky is now quite the senior dowager hen, sweet and friendly and still my favorite.
One little chick seemed weaker than the others. At first I thought it was because he was the last one hatched, but it soon became apparent he simply wasn't as strong.
Mama hen spent the day getting used to her brood. She shows every sign of being an excellent and attentive mother.
Incidentally, these are all Jersey Giants, and I have never, and I mean never, seen a breed so inclined toward broodiness. I had hens going broody all winter and all spring, and I always tucked wooden eggs underneath them because I didn't want chicks born in cold weather. As for this batch, the mother hen couldn't have timed it better weather-wise.
A neighbor came over, and when we showed him the chicks he was delighted. "Aha!" he exclaimed. "Sustainability!" Broodiness has been bred out of so many chicken breeds that finding a hen who will hatch her own eggs is increasingly rare.
I love how the babies tuck themselves into the mother's feathers.
The rest of the flock was curious about the newcomers, but no one dared mess with the protective mama.
The babies got the hang of drinking right away.
Evening came with some dramatic clouds.
Not wanting to risk the hen and chicks staying in the barn overnight, I put hardware cloth in all the chinks and openings around Polly's pen to keep the babies in (and predators out). Toward dusk, I asked Don to help me gather the chicks and hen and put them in the pen. However the hen had re-tucked herself back in the bucket for the night, so it was a simple matter to carefully lift the bucket, with the hen and all the chicks, and transport it into the pen.
The following morning, when mama and the babies were out of the bucket, I cleaned it out. Besides eggshells, there was the remains of one chick who had started to hatch but didn't make it.
I cleaned the bucket and put fresh hay inside.
Also, I examined the little weak chick. Not only was it weaker, but it had an internal organ outside its body. It was hopeless for the poor little thing, so I removed it from the rest of the chicks and tucked it under a box in the shade, where it could expire quietly. Mercifully it didn't take long to die.
But the other 12 chicks are healthy and hearty. During the day, I put this firescreen around the door to the pen -- not because the other chickens would bother the chicks, but because they would greedily gobble up their food. At night I remove the screen and close the door.
So there you have it: a dozen more birds for our flock.
Statistically half of these will be roosters, which will allow us the chance to butcher them. We embarked on this Jersey Giant experiment to see how they would behave as a combination egg and meat bird. So far I'm impressed: they're excellent layers, cold-hardy, extraordinarily prone to going broody, and good mothers. The final remaining test is to see how big they dress out after butchering.