One of our bantam hens has gone broody - she went missing on Easter Saturday and, after a considerable time hunting for her, Richard found her hiding inside a large grass in our dry garden. She was sitting on 10 eggs. We had suspected she had this planned because for the last two weeks our little hen had been laying her eggs somewhere else - and we couldn't find out where. The nesting box in her hen house was empty and she would disappear mysteriously for a little while each morning and then reappear as if nothing was out of the ordinary.
She is in there somewhere...........
Her behaviour is completely normal, especially at this time of year - which, I guess, is why Easter is associated with eggs and chicks. I find the process of a hen hatching a brood of chicks little short of miraculous because of the precision required by the hen (heat and humidity, for example, have to be absolutely correct throughout, the eggs have to be turned regularly and she has to understand that the eggs must be well hidden from the start. When you try to replicate the process using a specially designed incubator it is not always that easy to succeed - and a hen will sit and hatch chicks entirely instinctively, without the help of a thermometer, humidity gauge, automated egg turning mechanism or candling lamp.
Our little hen will sit for 21 days. Her body heat will keep the eggs at the right temperature throughout; she will leave the nest early in the morning, when the dew is on the ground. The water her feathers collect will provide the right level of humidity for the developing embryo chicks and she will regularly turn the eggs as she sits on them which prevents the developing chick from sticking to the inside of the shell and allows for the diffusion of gases within the egg and between the inside and the outside of the shell. As hatching day grows near she will sit tighter, increase the level of humidity and adjust her level of egg turning. The almost fully developed chicks will then start to cheep to one another from inside the shell to encourage the brood to hatch in as short a time frame as possible. She then has to judge the right time to leave the natal hide-out and take her young chicks to a place of greater safety. If she delays too long - waiting for the last egg to hatch perhaps - the cheeping, mobile chicks will be a magnet for predators and could all be lost. It is a hazardous business and failure is not unknown.
We have decided to intervene to try and help her succeed. I have ordered a chicken ark to keep her and her eggs safe during her sit - but it will not arrive for several days. Meanwhile each morning we anxiously peer into her den to make sure she is still there and has not become fox food.
When the arc arrives I will make a nest for her from straw. During the night, when she is asleep, one of us (the one who drew the short straw) will pick her up. Broody hens can be vicious and if she wakes up she could easily give her "assailant" a very sharp peck as she tries to defend her eggs. The other one will gather the eggs and rapidly take them to the new nest in the arc. The hen will be settled onto the eggs and we will retire, fingers crossed, and see whether she is still sitting next morning. I am hoping for the best as Pekin bantam hens make exceptionally good mothers. My father used to incubate pheasant eggs under a broody Pekin bantam (in a cucumber frame for her safety) and she raised chicks beautifully. When I was about 6 years old I once tried to take a newly hatched chick out of the cucumber frame and the mother hen attacked me - drawing blood.
If all goes well then the chicks will hatch on or around Saturday May 7th. Typically one of us will go to check on her and when we open the door to the arc she will be sitting tight - and looking particularly fluffy
- and suddenly one or more little heads will poke out from among her feathers to say hello. It is a long journey from here to that extraordinary sight. Our fingers are crossed that she and her chicks make it.