Heartbreak

We lost our mother hen today. From the start, she demonstrated an independent streak. Shortly after we’d decided to let our chickens roam free during the daytime, she stayed out all night. We assumed she’d been grabbed by some predator, but to our great relief, when we woke up the next morning she was under the birdfeeder, getting a jump on her day. She stayed out another night, months later—where we don’t know, although she kept choosing nesting spots in rock walls (or rock piles) to lay her eggs.

Seventeen days ago our wandering Dominique stayed out on her latest nest, and we felt something had changed—she seemed ready to hatch her eggs. Since only one or two of her own were in the nest, we slipped in a few others and left her, surrounded by rocks and covered with a latticework of branches.

The chickens are vulnerable all day when they roam about. Hawks are the biggest worry, but the rooster is huge and protective, the dogs are frequently out and on patrol, as are we. More importantly, the chickens belong on the loose—seeing them day after day we feel sure that the risk is worth it. And each day at dusk the chickens make their way into their house. We lock them up to safeguard them against the numerous night predators: foxes, raccoons, and fisher cats. Our deer fence provides only minimal protection because the rabbits chew so many holes in it. We’ve secured much of it with two-foot high metal fencing that’s attached to the bottom, but there are still large stretches yet to be reinforced. One rather large hole by the fruit trees is a frequent escape hatch for Oliver, when he smells something enticing across the road. It was near this opening that the dogs found a pile of speckled black and white feathers this morning, alerting Cherisse to the sad event of the night.

Once we knew our hen’s brooding instincts had taken over, we debated about moving her and her nest. We came up with no good solution though. “Our” half of the chicken coop wouldn’t give her the privacy she sought—and would hinder us when we brought fresh water and food, and collected eggs. Our garden shed could have worked, but the eaves are open and so Cherisse would have had to block them off. We also weren’t sure if the hen would let us move her, and so in the end we took the easy route and left her.

We worried about heavy rains, but throughout she remained serene. After seventeen days watching her sit on her nest—getting up just once a day for food and water and spending the rest of the time in a trance-like state—we had grown complacent. “Broodiness” is one of the traits bred out of most chickens, in the advent of factory farms where eggs are incubated in machines. We enjoyed seeing her follow her natural instincts. And so we failed to protect her from the rest of nature.

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