Life, Death, Hatching


Splash and Sparky: love at first sight.


I’d like to share a story with you that took place a few months ago.  It tells an interesting tale of chicken mothering behavior — a story of three mamas, two chicks, life, and death.

One of my Splash Orpington hens — a big gorgeous gal, silvery white and flecked with different shades of grey — decided to go broody.  (“Going broody” is when a chicken, who usually just lays an egg and forgets about it, is suddenly overtaken by maternal instinct.  When she’s broody, her only desire is  to sit on the eggs and hatch them — not pass the egg and go on with her day.)  

Unfortunately, Splash was a teenage mom — she’d barely started laying eggs herself — and a very confused one at that.  

Specifically, she couldn’t decide which nest was the proper one to sit on.  In the morning, she’d be sitting on one nest, fiercely defending it from any birds or humans who dared venture near.  By the evening, she would have forgotten all about her original choice and switched to whatever nest had the most eggs in it.  Talk about a fair-weather mom.

Since I’m a sucker for letting chickens behave naturally (and also a sucker for cute baby critters), I decided to place an “X” on a few eggs and let her try to hatch them.  I mostly placed guinea eggs under her, but also a few chicken eggs.  Of course, since I frequently found the eggs cold and abandoned and Splash sitting on another nest entirely, I didn’t think the odds of the eggs actually hatching were very good.  (Whenever I found her on the wrong nest, I put her back on the proper eggs, trying to teach her how to be a better mom.)  

At some point during the incubation period — which is typically 21 days long from initial heat to hatch day — Joy Luck, my Light Brahma, decided to go broody as well.  Let me tell you, Orpingtons are big birds, but Brahmas are bigger.

Giant Joy — if she were human, she’d be a jolly overweight lady wearing curlers and fuzzy slippers with a propensity for watching soap operas — quickly out-mama’d Splash.  She decided that the “X”-marked eggs were hers, and hers alone.  Since she’s bigger, she used her size to her advantage.  Basically, Joy would sit on top of Splash until Splash was tired of suffocating and moved on to another nest.  

So soon Joy took over incubation duty, although Splash kept trying, and moved onto the nest whenever Joy got up to eat or poop.

Okay, are you still with me?  One nest, two mother hens.  It’s about to get even more complicated.

I have a White Leghorn named Mama.  Three days before the eggs were about to hatch, Mama went broody on the nest under the porch.  Mama had been broody before and she was an absolutely top-notch mother.  For her last clutch, I’d put her in a plastic crate in the garage; she didn’t need much space since after all she was sitting on her nest all day and all night.  Once a day I’d go visit her, bring her fresh food and water (which she hardly touched), and open the door.  She’d hop out, run outside, deposit the nastiest smelliest largest chicken poop you’ve ever seen in your life, and race back to her nest.  She sat on her nest stalwartly and when her baby chicks hatched, she took wonderful care of them.  She showed them how to eat and drink, defended them fiercely against all invaders, and always used the “outside toilet” so she wouldn’t soil their surroundings.  

Meanwhile, Splash pooped on her eggs.  She abandoned them when another nest looked better.  She did not seem to have the makings of a good first-time mom.  

Then, just over three weeks into this broody insanity, I checked on the nest at nighttime and one of the chicks inside one of the eggs had miraculously tapped out a tiny hole in the shell.  I was thrilled — a pip!  Now, what to do?  Should I leave undeserving Joy on the nest?  Put Splash on it?  Or place the eggs under a known veteran mother?

I decided to put Mama on the nest, since she knew what to do.

The next morning, I tip-toed down to the basement and peered in the nest, ready to see a cute little chick fluffed out under Mama’s white feathers.  Instead, I found a dead chick tossed in the corner of the nestbox.  It had a bloody wound on its head.  Mama, instead of taking care of the chick, had killed it.  I felt terrible — this tiny little thing should have been enveloped by soft down feathers and gentle cooing noises.  Instead it had been stabbed to death.

To make matters worse, another shell had pipped:  another baby was trying to make its way out into the cruel world.  I had to act, and act quickly.  Realizing my mistake — chickens must have their own internal clocks and Mama had realized that this chick was hatching out too early and wasn’t “hers” — I decided to take a gamble.  Joy hadn’t been sitting on the nest for three weeks either; she could kill the next baby just as easily as Mama had.

So I ran out to the coop and grabbed the ineffective teenage mom, Splash.  I brought her down to the basement and as quick as I could I snatched Mama off the nest and stuffed Splash into it.  

Then I crossed my fingers, and waited.

Judging by the picture above, you know the end of the story.  An itsy-bitsy teeny-weeny guinea keet popped out of that egg, much to the surprise of both Splash and me.  And that’s just the beginning of the many adventures of Splash and Sparky (as the guinea keet came to be called, for reasons I’ll explain later.)  

For now, let me just say that there is nothing more beautiful than the love of two creatures who don’t speak the same language.  And that’s really a roundabout way of saying there’s nothing more beautiful than love.  After all, no one — mother/newborn baby, husband/wife, brother/sister — really speaks the same language as anyone else.  

But a baby guinea and a confused teenage chicken?  Now there’s a pair whose languages aren’t even close.  (But somehow, they managed to translate just fine.)

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