At the end of last year, my husband and I, on a particularly overwhelming homesteading day decided that 2017 would be “the year of no new animals”. Our little farm has been growing larger and larger each year and I think we were both feeling like it might be time to slow it down a bit. Over the winter, we repeated our “2017 year of no new animals” mantra to each other quite a few times, when chick catalogs would come in the mail or pictures of cute baby animals would pop up on my Facebook feed. I could feel my resistance weakening as the spring days grew longer and both our ducks and chickens started going broody and were begging to be mommas. We had also lost one of our sweet kitties over the winter and my kids kept sending me pictures of adorable kittens looking for homes. My husband and I both knew the no new animals rule was destined to fail from the start! So here we are in the early days of July with a brand new kitten, 4 new chicks, and ducklings that are hatching as I type, but we couldn’t be happier!
My mom jokes that I am collecting animals to care for because I am sad my kids are growing up. She isn’t completely wrong, I like having something to dote on and care for. My four children are all growing up, the oldest already moved out on her own, the next about to start her senior year in high school, the next about to start her freshman year and my baby moving on to junior high in the fall. I love watching them grow and seeing the glimpses of the adults they will someday be. But as they navigate these rocky teenage years, I certainly miss the toddler years when a kiss could make any pain go away, and a hug could scare away any monsters lurking in the dark. It’s a fine line to walk, when parenting teenagers, between wanting to step in and solve all their problems, and knowing you need to step back and let them make their own path. Raising up tiny humans into full fledged adults is a long and winding road full of highs and lows – and the same goes for feathered mommas.
Trials of motherhood
So what made us break our “no new animals in 2017” rule? Aside from being a big softy that loves animals, it began with some broody birds. Annabelle is a three year old hen and had never gone broody before when this spring she gathered a clutch of eggs and was very dedicated in building up the perfect nest. We don’t have a rooster, so none of her eggs were destined to hatch. At the same time, one of our ducks, Peggy, also decided to gather a clutch, but these eggs were fertilized, so we slipped the chicken one of the fertilized duck eggs. A few weeks later, out hatched a sweet little duckling and that mother hen was so happy. She didn’t care that her baby had webbed feet and a strange looking beak. She sang to it and brought it feed and let it nestle under her wings.
Mother duck unfortunately did not have as much luck incubating her eggs and none of them hatched (also a first time mom, I think she spent too much time off the nest). We decided to return the lone duckling to her duck mother. Peggy was over the moon caring for this little one, but sadly, the baby didn’t make it through the first night. I was heart broken and both mothers were so sad; looking everywhere for their missing baby, desperately calling for it. I couldn’t leave them like this, effectively ending our no new animals rule. Over the next couple days the mother duck collected a new clutch of eggs to sit on and was aggressively defending it against anyone that came near. Mother hen also gathered a new clutch, but since those eggs were not going to hatch, we ordered 4 day old chicks and crossed our fingers she would accept them.
The day the chicks arrived, we held our breath as we stealthily sneaked the babies under the mom to be. We had nothing to worry about, Annabelle loved them all right from the start. Want to read more about raising chicks using a broody hen? Click here!
Mother Hen’s Lessons
The other day I was sitting in my yard, watching the hen Annabelle lead her four fluffy chicks into the woods. As I watched this first time mom and her quickly growing family, I thought about my own children. Hens have justly earned their reputation as excellent mothers, protective & loving. I realized there is a lot human mothers can learn from watching these famed mothers of the animal world.
Patience – raising kids and chicks requires a lot of patience. While watching the new family on day one, I saw the chicks doing all sorts of things that would have made a lesser new mom want to run for the hills. New chicks instinctively will peck at anything that moves or looks shiny. Unfortunately for the mom, that often means the chicks are pecking at her EYEBALLS. Nothing like sharp baby beaks trying to grab your eyelid or peck your eyeball. And the mother just sits there serenely letting it happen, knowing it is good bug hunting practice for her babies. One of Annabelle’s chicks was determined to capture her mother’s wattle. She kept jumping up to grab hold of it, hanging there swinging from the wattle for a few moments before she would fall. New chicks use their mom as a jungle gym; climbing all over her, sitting on her back, picking on their siblings to establish a pecking order, climbing underneath her to take a nap and basically never giving their mom a moment’s peace. But through all of this, the mom takes it all in stride. She knows the climbing is growing strong chicks, the pecking & poking is helping them learn how to forage & survive on their own. So she sacrifices her comfort (and sanity!) for the good of her chicks.
Accept help from friends – one of the things I love most about letting mother hens raising chicks vs raising them in a brooder is seeing the flock dynamics. I am always worried the other chickens will pick on the babies, but it has never been a problem. A flock of hens might have a strict pecking order, but the girls are also family. Chickens are very social and truly thrive as part of a flock. They dust bathe together, they cheer each other on and join in their egg song when a friend has laid an egg. Even when a hen is incubating a clutch, when she leaves to grab a quick bite of food and stretch her legs one of her friends will come and sit on her nest for her. Annabelle had company in the nest box while sitting on her clutch almost all the time. One of our silkies, Midnight, and sometimes even a third hen would hop in the box with her. Midnight has raised up chicks before (and often times Midnight’s “daughter” was the third hen in the box). I like to think she was passing on her sage mothering advice. Once the chicks arrived, Midnight remains a great babysitter. I would say 50% of the time, Midnight is out with the family; foraging, calling the chicks to a tasty bug, keeping the babies warm or providing protection from perceived threats. Annabelle graciously accepts the help and often looks a little overwhelmed when Midnight isn’t around!
Don’t always rush in to help – Another thing I love about letting the moms raise chicks is just watching the chicks in their natural environment. When chicks are raised by humans in a brooder, we obsess over the temperature in the box, their eating & drinking habits, when to let them outside, how much or little they are pooping, should we be holding them more? holding them less? It becomes an extension of the way many parents hover & obsess over their children, micromanaging them to the point where they are unprepared for the shock of adulthood. Mother hens are known for being overprotective, but they are also great at letting their chicks figure things out for themselves. And that education begins right from the very start. When chicks are struggling to hatch from their eggs, mother hens don’t rush in and crack the egg, they don’t help pull the shell back. They instead sit nearby quietly clucking their encouragement. At just a couple days old, when brooder chicks are sitting bored in a box under a heat lamp, mother raised chicks are out exploring their world. Bug hunting in the woods, eating grass, scratching in the dirt and dust bathing are all part of daily life. When the chicks are feeling cold, the mother trusts that they will come closer. Hens know that sometimes the only way their chick will learn & grow is by falling down and getting back up again.
Moms love their babies no matter what – When our hen Annabelle hatched out that baby duck, I wasn’t sure what she would think of it. She didn’t miss a beat and even though what hatched out of that egg was nothing like what she expected, she loved it. Then a few weeks later, when we introduced her to the four day old chicks, again she took them all in. She didn’t even hatch these ones herself and they were all different breeds, but it didn’t matter at all to her. When human moms are pregnant, they spend a lot of time day dreaming about who their baby will look like, what things she will like doing, what sports she will play, what she will grow up to be. Fighting can arise when reality doesn’t match up with those expectations. If hens don’t even expect their babies to be chickens, I think we can relax when little Johnny doesn’t want to play football like his dad.
Your babies will always need you – This is one I need to remind myself of as my teens are all starting to pull away. Our very first experience with letting a mom raise chicks was with our sweet Buff Orpington. We purchased some fertilized Lavender Orpington eggs and she hatched them out. We sold all but one of the babies. The one that we kept had a wonderfully special relationship with her mom. Usually, when the chicks get to be about 2 months old the chicks & mom are ready to part ways. The chicks start roosting with the flock and the mom stops finding food for them. This little Orpington didn’t get the message though. She would go into the nest boxes every day to snuggle up with her mom while the mom was laying her eggs – she did this until she was 5 or 6 months old and ready to lay her own eggs. Even well into adulthood, mom and baby would forage and hang out together. When the baby came down with a cold when she was two years old, the mom really dotted on her, standing over her protectively and bringing her food. The same goes for human kids – they might grow up and move on but they will always love & need you 🙂