I had an emotionally fraught time yesterday, and today was about the same.
Yesterday, I put the new month-old chick named Gaahl in a pen with my most agreeable hen, Big Red, and hoped for the best. He tried to treat her like a mom but she wasn’t interested, and they spent most of the day just standing several inches apart.
Come nightfall, I went to lock them up in their makeshift coop. I had used a small crate for this because I wanted them to be forced to really bunk together and bond a bit, and my idea had worked well — Big Red was in there, all puffed out, and Gaahl was out of sight, somewhere underneath her, purring and tittering away happily. Finally, one month into his life, he had some quality time with a parent figure. I thought that even if he just gets this at night, it will still be better than the heat lamp he’s had for a parent so far.
I hadn’t expected things to change much from yesterday but after their cozy night together, something must have clicked for Big Red, because today she was doing all the classic mother hen stuff: squatting down and puffing herself out for Gaahl to nestle under her, making excited sounds when she found food she wanted him to eat and then breaking that food into small pieces for him, getting her hackles up when anything alarmed her. It was incredible. I honestly didn’t believe it at first and thought each thing was just a coincidence but nope. She happily mothered him all day long, and he could no longer care less about me — just like it should be. Here they are. It’s a shitty flip phone pic but you can see him peaking out from the safety of her feathers. Yes, Big Red looks quite stern here but it’s just the angle. She’s actually supremely easygoing.
I spent a lot of today just watching Big Red and Gaahl interact, marveling at how life works sometimes. For those that don’t know chickens, it’s important to realize that most chickens put in a pen with a baby that is not their own will attack it and possibly kill it. This happened to poor Gaahl when I tested out just putting him in with the flock straight away. So for Big Red to be so chill about being put in jail with this annoying, needy baby who appeared out of nowhere is pretty remarkable to begin with — for her to adopt him and essentially become broody (that’s a chicken term for “I’m in the mood to have babies now,” and many chickens go their whole lives without ever becoming broody) is something I’ve never even heard of, or imagined would actually happen. It is surreal and heartwarming.
Cue the near-cry. That’s four in two days now.
I really have to hand it to Big Red. We’ve had her since she was just three months old herself, and she’s basically a chicken grandma now at five years old. She’s always been a pleasant and friendly bird. She still lays eggs (many hens stop laying by age two or three). She’s been mauled by dogs twice. Both times, her back was torn half off — imagine when a person gets scalped. That was what happened to her back. Now imagine if your back got scalped, twice, and you miraculously healed up with nothing but polysporin and several days of rest, and then you went back to laying eggs. It’s incredible.
And now, she has happily adopted the needy baby I foisted upon her.
Big Red, you’re a hell of a bird. You have my love, gratitude, and respect. Do chickens read blogs?
*Following day additional note – Big Red spent this morning in her crate and so when she came out of it, I checked and she had laid an egg. So she is both raising a baby and still laying — yet another thing I’ve never heard of. Normally, hens stop laying, sit on fertilized eggs for three weeks, raise the chicks for 2-4 months, and then finally forget about their kids and go back to laying. Big Red continues to amaze me.*