When Maternal Instincts Kick In

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Photo by Carol Ann Sayle


I never thought my most favorite hen, Tootie J. Tootums possessed any maternal instincts. Probably bred out of her. Same for her twin, Hoppy J. Tootums. They are "Black Sex Link" hens, but as I consider the situation, it should be noted that both the Tootums sisters are more than slightly "allergic" to the romantic intentions of Rusty Roo, the Rooster. They are not desirous of a "link up." They've never "gone broody." No chicks were ever wanted. Until now.

One evening, after a tiring day in the field, I rested on the post oak bench in front of the Hen House to watch a little "chicken TV" and witnessed the first revelation of nascent "mothering." Hoppy J. Tootums gave up her long-time sleeping spot on the ground in the corner of the Hen House--a spot as close as she could get to the perches on high, which she, with only one usable leg, is not strong enough to access--to a few of the adolescent hens who also preferred her corner to the perches. Furthermore, they tried to soak into her feathered sides for the night. She pecked them lightly, sending them a foot away from her. Then to quiet their sad peeping, the typically always silent hen murmured something sweet and calming; instantly the chicks settled down, cozy with each other, but near her. She continued the lullabies and then, like any mother would do, she let her tunes trail off softly, as the chicks fell into slumber. Three feet above them, the other 75 chicks cocked their fuzzy ears to the lullaby until they too dozed.

The four hens have different personalities, with good points and drawbacks. None has ever had chicks.

The chicks came as two-day-old orphans from the hatchery. As they graduated from a large cage to the now duplexed hen house, I recruited four hens from the matrons' side of the house to be their "guiding lights," if not their moms. The four hens have different personalities, with good points and drawbacks. None has ever had chicks.

Seven-year-old Hoppy J.Tootums hops, on one leg, with her useless right leg extending out horizontally. No walking with that arrangement. But, her bum leg is useful for stability and balance, as it is rather buoyant, almost like an oar flailing the air instead of water.

Her talkative sister, Tootie J. Tootums, is out everyday, works in the field with me, and gets special treats on the back porch. She enjoys the job. But this somewhat alarming "incarceration" with 80 chicks--who quickly took over the sleeping arrangements, and who make a peeping racket every night as they jostle for position on the perches--has taken her from amazement at the predicament to an interesting change of heart.

I offered Tootie a kale leaf, as we stood outside the Hen House. The chicks rushed the fence watching us and the leaf longingly. Tootie pecked a piece of leaf and let it fall to the soil. She uttered the little "click click" sound that a mother hen uses to offer her chicks food she's found. The next day, Tootie was finding food in the Hen House as well, the chicks crowding around her. Later, in the afternoon sun, she permitted a couple of them to relax by her side, touching her, for comfort. Now, she hardly wants to leave the Hen House, preferring to be with her new babes, whom she never pecks.

Hoppy pecks them occasionally, but most of the discipline is left to the third nursery aide, Onesy. The one with one eye. You'd think, with her affliction, she'd be more tolerant of the babes, but no, after the skunk attack, she was long on the bottom rung of the pecking order, and this is her revenge, if you will. The pecks she administers, are important; they instruct the chicks in the ways of chicken society, and prepare them for certain realities: Expect trouble ahead. Get out of the matronly power-holders' way. Stay away from Rusty Roo. Useful information for anyone of course.

The fourth nursery aide is the Starlet, who still suffers post-traumatic-stress-syndrome, following a "Taliban-ish" attack courtesy of Rusty Roo the Rooster, who detests her non-maternal, career girl behavior (she was once in a movie and climbed a tree to get outside the Hen House every day). She now serves as the nervous, even nutty old aunt to the chicks, and I've not figured out what her message is. Perhaps they should just be kind to her. And get out of her way.

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Carol Ann Sayle is co-founder and co-owner of Boggy Creek Farm, a five-acre urban, organic farm in Austin, Texas.

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