Good old-fashioned breeding, good brooders

A Chicken’s Intuition

by Kate Tvelia Athearn

A Chicken’s Intuition

Elizabeth Cecil

A Bantum mutt chick, named Abigail, hatches out of her shell at Lindsey and Josh Scott's, Pasture Hill Farm in Chilmark.  

Morning sun spills over the newly budded trees into Katherine Long’s West Tisbury chicken yard, illuminating the brown-turning-green grass in a golden glow. Katherine leads me between the intricately patterned Silver Grey Dorkings, poofy-headed, black-faced Silkies, and a curly-feathered Frizzle, who looks like she stuck her beak in an electrical socket. She greets the birds by name, and Vesuvius, Flip, Beauty and Lingo, Apricot and Lavender, Kirk and Scottie, cluck their hellos back, cocking their heads to eye me suspiciously. We make our way into a cozy coop, where a handful of newly hatched chicks snuggle with their mama hens.

Over her years of chicken keeping, Katherine has tried all methods of raising chicks, from brooding mail-order day-olds under heat lamps, to hatching fertile eggs in an incubator. But she has found the most satisfaction in allowing her sweet natured and maternal Silkie hens to do the job themselves.

Like most animals, chickens have their babies in the spring, when the days start to get longer and warmer. Certain hens have a tendency to “go broody” this time of year, meaning they decide they’d like to hatch their eggs rather than donate them to the breakfast table. They fluff up their feathers and stand their ground, refusing to get up off of their nest, and may even peck at an unsuspecting farmhand, come to collect eggs. Since chickens don’t attend hatching classes, or read books about “What to Expect When You’re Brooding,” Katherine relies on their natural instincts to kick in and guide them through their reproductive journey. She makes sure they have a safe and comfortable space, and then, she says, “I cross my fingers.”

A hen with a strong broody instinct sits on her eggs for three weeks, getting up only to eat and visit the little hen’s room once or twice a day. She knows when to turn her eggs and how often to rotate their positions, ensuring they are all kept at the right temperature and humidity required for the development of each chick. She doesn’t mind sitting on eggs that are not her own, even ones that are much bigger than hers (little Silkies are often used to hatch out giant peacock eggs). When Katherine notices a broody hen, she sneaks a few eggs from other non-broody hens under the ones who are sitting, so she can hatch a variety of chicks under just one or two hens.

Once the chicks hatch, they stay inside for a few weeks if food is available (Katherine feeds her family coops inside to help them out during this vulnerable stage of development), and then venture out for lessons in scratching for bugs, dust bathing, and other important chicken skills. The brooding coop has its own outside run, because broody hens tend to get harassed by other chickens, and chicks need to be kept separate from other adult chickens until they are fully fledged out, meaning feathers have grown in to replace their baby fuzz.

A hen without a strong broody instinct will forget about her eggs and sit on the wrong nest, abandon, or in rare cases, even attack chicks. Katherine finds new homes for bad mothers, either on a different farm, or in her other, non-brooding, coop. Katherine’s love affair with poultry began on her family’s ranch in Texas. When she was growing up, she says, “chicks just happened” on the farm. Of course, even fertilized eggs won’t begin to develop if they are collected every day, but sometimes free-range chickens find a nice hiding spot to lay their eggs. Or a hen goes broody in the coop, and the egg collector lets her sit. Even no nonsense, practical farmers tend to get a little soft in the springtime. It’s a time of rebirth after all, a time for seeds to germinate and critters to reproduce.

Despite the current resurgence in chicken keeping, it’s much less likely that chicks will “happen” in the average backyard flock. Commercial hatcheries have all but bred the broody instinct out of popular laying varieties, as it stops eggs production for a few months each spring, and reduced egg production is generally frowned upon in egg-farming circles. Heritage and ornamental breeds like Silkies, Brahmas, and Dorkings, are more likely to have their natural instincts intact, which is part of the reason Katherine chooses to keep them.

Katherine admits she isn’t going for “show chickens,” and she makes her breeding choices based on temperament and maternal instinct, and maybe sometimes pretty egg color. Her birds are companions, really, who happen to provide enough eggs for her affinity for baking, and maybe a few customers.

Standing on the fresh shavings in the brooding coop, under the soft orange glow of the heat lamp, it seems these birds are living the quintessential chicken life. Katherine anticipates and provides for their every need: healthy grain and fresh veggie scraps to eat, dust to bathe in, safety from predators. Allowing chickens to reproduce naturally certainly requires a bit more time and knowledge than buying already hatched chicks. But it’s reassuring to see these creatures—that for centuries have been bred, over bred, and inbred to meet the needs of people—be allowed to live in a way that so perfectly suits their own.