Mother’s Day can be a minefield for those of us who have tried, in vain, to have kids. But as I get older my understanding of motherhood expands. I feel especially blessed this season to be surrounded by my step and adopted family and to watch one of my non-traditional “kids” become a foster mother herself. She is gorgeous, funny and smart, and I’m nominating her for mother of the year. She is a Wyandotte chicken, and we’ve renamed her “Mother.”
Most chickens have had all the mothering bred out of them. I, personally, have a diverse band of fowl from all flocks of life. This year, spring on the farm delivered a special challenge and surprise. Our pretty young Wyandotte decided (against all odds) that she was to be a mom. She stockpiled eggs and puffed up like a turkey and grumpily scolded us when we came to collect. This was all in vain because none of our eggs are fertilized (we don’t have a rooster). After we collected the day’s eggs, she even sat on an empty nest, not eating or drinking, while she waited for her imaginary brood to hatch. Her behavior was strange and crabby and chickens like conformity. She became isolated from the group and got more and more odd.
For a month I tried gently to break her of her broody habits, but a broody hen can be one tough cookie. Three times a day I would trudge down to the hen house and, fielding her angry pecks and name
calling, I would dislodge her from the nesting box and carry her
football-style to the far side of the farm where her adopted sisters
were happily scratching. I’d put her down in front of some delectable
shelled sunflower seeds. She would voraciously peck at a few and then,
called by something no one else could hear, she’d race off for her nest
in a clucking panic. Her hopes and dreams were calling. She started to
resemble Kate Moss in her waif years. She even plucked all the feathers
off her belly so she was buck-naked down below to keep her eggs steamy
and warm. A little aside: carrying an angry chicken who is wearing no
pants around the farm, her hot, steamy, naked belly resting on your
forearm, is a tactile experience that even I found a little creepy.
Maybe because I’m a vegetarian. I don’t know. Anyway…
I was getting really worried about her starving or dehydrating,
so I went to the “experts.” I Googled “how to cure a broody hen.” The
experts replied, “Dunk your broody hen in a bucket of cold water. Three
times should be enough.” What!? No! Or, others suggested, “Place your
broody hen in a wire basket and suspend her in the coop. After a few
weeks she’ll be back to normal.” I checked my search. Did I accidentally
type, “how to cure a witch”? Well, I wasn’t going to water board my pet
chicken, regardless of what the Internet experts said!
So in desperation, I decided to let motherhood prevail and give her a
chance to fulfill her destiny.
We have Guinea fowl around our farm,
and they are notoriously bad mothers. We find abandoned clutches of eggs
along the fence-row, in the horse stall and under the rose bushes (maybe that is why we don’t have a Guinea over-population issues in shelters). So back
to Google to learn that there have, indeed, been cases of broody hens
raising Guinea keets. We collected 18 small teardrop-shaped eggs and
gave them to her. It was love at first sit! We set up a deluxe
maternity ward — a Rubbermaid doghouse — inside an outdoor enclosure safe
Motherhood became her, and she clucked after her
tiny eggs protectively, rolled them around under her steamy naked tummy,
and had to be forced off her nest to eat and drink a little each day
(while I guarded her eggs).
I had no idea if our Guinea eggs were fertilized. I thought there was a pretty good chance that
this would be a 28-day exercise in futility, after which I’d have a very
unsatisfied hen. So many questions. What if they hatch? What will happen when they grow up. Will
they hang with our chickens or will she move to the Guinea flock? They
all sleep in the same protected hen house but during the day they have
very different routines around the farm. Will she get broody next year?
Certainly our farm could support a large flock of tick and crabgrass
eating Guineas, but we’re not eager to relive the excitement of a broody
hen — we worry too much about her.
On day twenty-seven, I reported for my
daily egg-sitting duties, and when I lifted her up, tiny peeping
puff-balls started dropping out from all her warm nooks and crannies.
She was furious with me and called me the worst chicken names in the
book. She was serious and I backed off.
It has been four weeks
now, and I’ve seen things I never thought I’d witness from a chicken.
I’ve marveled as I have watched her leave the juiciest worms to her
Guinea babies, chop her oats into tiny bits that fit in their beaks, and
teach her babies to speak “chicken” in just one day. She even has a
special slow, low-stepping gait to ensure she doesn’t step on them.
Several times a day we go out and spend an hour with her (and her brood)
loose in the backyard, helping to ward off curious, hungry crows, and I
admit, I’ve gotten a little choked up on occasion.
To ladies like Mother and me, motherhood may be broadly defined,
but it fulfills something deeply entrenched in our character, and
against all odds, we are ultimately slaves to it. Watching her, I’ve
learned a little about myself. Motherhood is an intense need to be a
protector and nurturer and whether or not we know the ones we need to
protect yet is somewhat irrelevant.
I have come to see that the
emotional minefield that I navigate on Mother’s Day is less about what I
missed out on (having a baby) and more about the discomfort I feel in
my inability to protect the innocence of those that I’ve come to love as
my own. Whether it is my adopted human daughter who didn’t have
consistent motherly support when she was young (if only I could have
been there!) or my step-kids, whose natural mom passed away, my cat
Charlie, whose mother didn’t see to his early medical care, or my poor, rescued de-beaked chickens, who were discarded like old trash in the county park when they stopped
laying, I long to right the wrongs of neglect in their pasts.
But that is probably part of the balance in life. Several bad
Guinea hen mothers are balanced on the farm by a tenacious broody hen.
And, I think this is why I’m still so awed and humbled by Petfinder and
all of our 13,000+ shelter and rescue groups. The spirit of motherhood
guides the very mission of the animal welfare groups we represent. In
our rescue efforts, we are all mothers in the broadest sense — the broody