You have been dozing off for just a few minutes, at
least you think so, with your head resting on Thorin’s shoulder, when the door
of your cell opens and two guards enter. One of them places on the floor two steaming
bowls while the other drops two blankets on Thorin’s lap. The Dwarf King growls
in response and puts the blankets aside, not deigning to look at the Elves; he has been sitting silently on the
floor, with his back against the wall and you sleeping at his side for what
seems hours. To be real, you don’t know how much time has really passed since
you and Thorin have been thrown in that cell.
I think I am hallucinating, because I certainly have seen your colleague-brother this day and his was, how to say it, brooding. Like hen with eggs, I mean. Can I have some check-up just in case it is not that funny dust side effects?
I’ll say, visions of my brother brooding is not uncommon on a normal day. We’ve all seen holos of him on the throne, Emperoring.
But if you were exposed for a long time to sand, then I’ll have you prescribed some ophtalmic drops for your eyesight to clear out.
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.