I knew nothing about the subject of a broody hen adopting chicks. Until last night that is.
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I was up early. Which is very uncommon lately.
Recently, sleep alludes me until the wee hours of the day, then, once I can crash from exhaustion, I tend to sleep a few long, deep hours, with farm chores delayed. I’ll spare you the whys, maybe that’s for another post one day when the pain isn’t so raw and confusing.
But this morning, as my husband’s truck turned toward work, rumbling down the curved drive, off of our rural New England farm, I was ambling down the slope to the back side of the barn, with a plate of stale crackers and ham scraps in hand.
Why we prefer hen-raised chicks to incubated ones.
Last night we decided to add a few incubated chicks to Eagle’s clutch. (With her beautiful white head, our broody hen was fittingly named “Eagle.”) She was proving to be a wonderful momma, and we’ve learned over the past two summers that we greatly prefer momma-raised chicks to ones that mature under the warm but uneducating light of the brooder. So after dark last night we took a few tiny chirping bundles down to the cage where Eagle’s nest is tucked away safely in a dog’s cage, in our hay overhang. (We lock her up there every evening to keep her and her chicks safe from predators until the babies are big enough to traverse the tall ramp that leads into the coop.)
Eagle has been a momma to only one sweet chick (whom I’ve dubbed “April”) since a disaster struck a few weeks ago. That disaster will also be a subject for another day.
Then this week, chicks hatched in our incubator. So I started wondering if Eagle would like being a momma to more. Would she like keeping more babes safe and warm under her feathers? Would she like training more babes how to be wise with predators and crafty with food collection? Or would she see the new ones as a threat to her precious little April who has been the sole source of her adoration for almost a dozen days?
So I reached out to my readers, on my fb page, to get a consensus of others who have tried such a thing. Because my readers are amazing, I had answers within minutes and knew I wanted to give it a cautious try. (You really are amazing–thank you all!)
Night is the best time to introduce new ones to a broody hen adopting chicks. She’ll most likely, if she’s a good broody hen, shuttle them right under her feathered belly. Or reject them immediately, in which case you can stand by ready to rescue them if needed.
We were on a mission.
So there we were, my comrades in wings and I, with flashlights and chirping chicks in hand, traipsing down to the back of the barn under cover of night, to rehome a few babes under Eagle’s care. We wore work gloves, because we knew Eagle might not take kindly to foster children and we might have to rescue them from her tenacious bites.
We knew our mission might fail.
At first, the babies had no idea what to do, out in the cold dark night, out from under the protected heat of the brooder. They stood unsure by the open door, shaking. (I should say, not atypical for New England, it was a cold May night outside our farmhouse, with a toasty fire going inside our farmhouse.) I immediately hesitated, wondering if the night temps might dip too cold for them to survive outside. But I decided to watch and wait.
Eagle was torn. She went toward them, then returned to sitting in the corner, over April, when April started to come out from her warm, safe bed under momma’s feathers. Eagle softly purred at the two new recruits. (It really did sound like a purr. Broody hens make unusual sounds as specific signals to their chicks; this one was a new one to me.) They just stood and shook.
The daughter who was still wearing gloves, the daughter who is the most take-charge homesteader, scooped up those babes and determinedly pushed them under Eagle. Content to be safe and warm, in comforting ways they had never known before, they stayed. All night.
When I awoke, they were in the forefront of my mind.
This morning brought new fears.
Armed with meat scraps and mushy crackers, I wasn’t sure what I would find this morning. Feeling it was possible Eagle would have rejected them, irritated at their squirminess. Or she would let them be in danger at their own devices, tired of their possible roaming that would jeopardize her first love, April, leaving her cold and exposed, if Eagle pursued wayward ones.
But instead, as I pulled the heavy, roughly hewn door open on its loud track, I was greeted with a happy chirping momma telling her three little ones that breakfast was here and guiding them off of their nest of hay.
Then this morning brought joy.
I almost cried at the beautiful sweetness, watching Eagle patiently, instructionally feed her newly adopted babes before eating any breakfast herself. I breathed a deep sigh of contentment as I watched Eagle quickly reprimand April when she meekly pecked at her foster brother over a scrap of ham fat.
When Eagle realized the two youngest proteges needed warmth, I couldn’t believe what she did. First, she led them up into the protection of the hay. Then she quickly ran and grabbed a piece of meat to lure April into the hay as well. She sat on the other two while April contentedly pecked away at the ham under her momma’s watchful sight. Once April had her fill, she hopped up on Eagle’s back, and, with the foster chicks under her wings and April on her shoulders, the momma hen was a beautiful sight for my tired eyes.
This morning brought a beautiful allegory to our farm.
There is a newly formed family unit in our barnyard today, and with it, God brought me peace, comfort, and assurance of His sovereignty and love.
Yet, as crazy as it may sound (well, to someone who isn’t a crazy chicken lady), this wasn’t the first time God brought me comfort through a hen. You see Eagle was one of two chicks who survived another devastation one year ago this month. In fact, if you glance back at that post from last summer, you’ll see sweet, pre-momma, pullet Eagle.
In fact, really, take a second to glance at that post. You’ll also see adorable, down-covered, baby Eagle peeking out from her own momma’s wings. She learned her mothering skills from her own wonderful momma. Eagle was one of only a few chicks raised by our farm’s first broody hen, Missy. Eagle survived and prospered, and now she is training new recruits for this sometimes hard life.
God impresses on my heart every time I witness the sweet chicks crawling in and out from under the hen’s wings that He has me under His care and protection.
No, it doesn’t always feel like it. Sometimes I feel I’ve been abandoned in the cold, dark night.
No, it doesn’t often look like it, by the world’s standards. The brooding light looked much better to the chicks than an unfamiliar, cold, plastic cage. Until they understood there was a momma there, ready to enfold them.
No, it doesn’t mean that life isn’t unbearably hard. Sleep sometimes alludes us, and days are sometimes overflowing with grief that seeps into every crevice until there’s no room for laughter.
All the “no”s don’t make sense to me.
But His promises are true.
But I know that I know that I know that He loves me and is caring for me, and my own brood, even in those deep, ugly moments when I see nothing that I would call evidence of His love.
But when I really allow myself to admit it… when I allow myself to think way outside of this minute of heartache… or this day of pain… or even my number of years that God has allotted for me on this earth (Psalm 90:10)… I know I can honestly say what has the earth that I desire besides Him? (Psalm 73:25)
And I can follow His lead. Blindly. With assurance. Even in the cold. And in the dark.
I have been welcomed into His family as a foster child, yet an heir. I was adopted as an incubated, clueless chick who causes Him anguish, yet I am His own, who can claim her place of honor under His wing. Sometimes that’s all I have to cling to, but even then, that is enough.
So I don’t have solutions to grief. I have no power to take away a child’s physical pain. I can’t rid today of hardship or tears. But God has given me a beautiful reminder as I traverse the fields and complete hard work that indeed I am under His wing.
I knew nothing about the subject of a broody hen adopting chicks. Until today. Until I needed to know.
Our days may come to seventy years,
or eighty, if our strength endures;
yet the best of them are but trouble and sorrow,
for they quickly pass, and we fly away…
Teach us to number our days,
that we may gain a heart of wisdom. Psalm 90:10-12
…how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings… Luke 13:34
Meet Eagle, and hear the story of how we almost lost this sweet momma–>
And see Eagle with her growing chicks (and a boisterous bathing duck, none-the-less) in a video here, in this post.
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