"If you're going through hell, keep going." ~ Winston Churchill
I woke up one day recently to discover that one of my hens was not herself.
She had changed from a contented, clucking, yard-scratching, brown-egg laying, curious -- did I mention friendly? -- chicken to a feathers-standing-on-end, not wanting to leave her nest, enormous, growling, unfriendly-type of hen. Experienced chicken farmers recognize this condition immediately. I had to Google it.
Twas the call of motherhood.
My normally sweet hen was overcome with hormones telling her that our hot, late August weather was perfect for nothing other than hatching chicks. And she was hell bent on her task.
We, her people, had to make a decision. With no roosters around, simply gathering her eggs beneath her would prove fruitless -- and draw out her condition endlessly. We could 1) break her of her broodiness (separating her from the flock, putting her in a not-cozy crate until her hormonal shower subsided), 2) obtain some fertile eggs and place them beneath her and hold our breath for 3 weeks, or 3) sneak some day-old chicks beneath her in the night and hope she bonds with them, and they bond with her -- thus moving her on from broody to Mother Hen.
We opted for Number 3. Beneath our sleepy, so-black-she's-green Australorp one night we tucked a fuzzy toe-headed Buff Orpington and a rusty, fluffy Rhode Island Red, both one day old. And then we went to bed, not knowing if the morning would dawn on living or dead chicks.
In my own way, I can relate the crazy-making hormonal cocktail that flips the switch from not necessarily wanting babies, to suddenly wanting them like no body's business. In my twenties I wasn't sure if children were in my future. I was ambivalent. Then, in a switch that seemed as though it occurred over night, I yearned for babies with all of my being. I recall a father walking down the sidewalk with a little one on his shoulders -- and it was all I could do not to cry at the simple beauty of this iconic display of fathering.
Mother Nature had shown me who was boss.
And from that day forward nothing was quite right until I had my own babe in my nest.
The morning after we tucked the chicks under our hen, Poppy, we woke to tiny peeping sounds coming faintly through the walls of the chicken coop. "They are still alive!" we said to each other with awe. It had worked: Poppy had adopted them!
I wish I could say it was all roses from there on out, but alas this mothering thing is a road rot with potholes and mystery.
That first day, Poppy seemed a bit confused about what to do with the chicks. At one point she left the nest in such a frenzied quest for water that one chick toppled out the backdoor of the coop and another ended up on the ground out the front door. There was the day when another hen seemed intent on attacking one of the chicks and a loud raucous of squawks and stampede emminated from the coop, sending me flying out the backdoor to break it up and enforce my place at the top of the pecking order.
And then there came the morning when the Rhode Island Red babe was found dead in the corner of the run. A beautiful rust and cream colored ball of feathers, her eyes closed, her yellow legs outstretched.
I let the other hens in my small flock out of the chicken yard and looked in on Poppy. She was hunkered down in a corner of the coop, her surviving chick huddled beneath her out of sight. What horror had transpired in the pre-dawn hours I'll never know.
My heart ached at this cruel turn. I broke the news to my own child and held her while she sobbed. Later, my heart broke again as I watched Poppy searching for the missing chick.
But while one chick had died, there was still another to care for. There was no time for Poppy to morn. And so she got on with the business of teaching her young to scratch and preen, and stay warm and out of harm's way. Joe and Nia buried little Gloria, and life -- cruel, beautiful, uncompromising life -- continued its forward march for Poppy and Ivy.