We've had a second baby boom of sorts here at the farm lately. It's the time of year where we're happy to let the birds sit on eggs and hatch out their own broods. By this time of year, the incubator is silent, unless I'm hatching out a few quail or peafowl. We collect the turkey eggs all spring & early summer for two reasons- #1 if you take the eggs, the hens will lay more and #2 not all hens will sit the full 28 days necessary to hatch out the chicks (21 days for chickens, but the same two rules apply).
It's actually pretty unusual to have birds that hatch their own young. Mothering instinct has been bred out of virtually all livestock breeds these days. While it sounds unbelievable that animals don't know how to raise their own young, it's true, because the demands of modern agriculture often are at odds with nature's instinct. A broody hen will peck at you and draw blood to defend her clutch if she's ready to hatch a brood. This is a royal pain if you're a farmer making a living selling eggs. Likewise, if you're selling milk, you'll be taking the calf away from mama and bottle feeding it while milking the cow and selling the milk. You don't want the cow lowering her head and charging you to keep you away from her calf. It's much easier if she doesn't mind that it is gone. Both situations actively encourage breeding that protective mothering instinct out of the animals.
Fortunately, because heritage breeds of livestock have been largely left alone by modern agriculture, they retain that instinct. When my mom came to visit, she came in from the backyard and told me she'd found our “secret chicken”. It was one of our Golden Phoenix hens, tucked away in a patch of iris leaves, sitting on her nest. We've had these hens hatch chicks before, so we let her go to see what would happen. Last week, the chicks did hatch. Turns out she was sitting on a full dozen eggs, and of those, she successfully hatched out 11 chicks! That would be a great hatch rate even in the digitally controlled incubator. Of course, that is only the first half of the mothering equation. Next, mama bird has to protect her little chicken nuggets from cats and other hungry critters, show them how to forage, and protect them from the elements. If mama chicken still had 8 right now, I'd say it was a huge success. But, incredibly, she still has ALL 11, well over a week later! The chicks are hardier than the ones we have in the brooder pen, too...we've seen them soaking wet after a thunderstorm, which could be fatal, but they run around like nothing's wrong, with no heat lamp to huddle under. Chicks in the brooder are kept warm and given unlimited fresh food & water, but these little buggers out there are hardier, smarter, and I even think they grow more quickly. What a difference a parent makes!
It's magic to watch the hen at work, too. She makes sure to go slowly enough that the kids can keep up, and clucks softly to let them know where she is at all times. She'll fluff up her body and extend her wings just enough that the chicks can hide from the weather under her. It's simply amazing to watch 11 tiny birds disappear like that...mama doesn't seem big enough to protect them all, but she does somehow. And she is fierce about protecting her young. As the bringer of food, she doesn't mind me so much, but she keeps a watchful eye on everything else. Yesterday, I was doing chores, and the cows came out of the barn to see if they could get some delicious chicken food. Mama hen and her brood were in the same part of the barnyard. One of the yearling cows, Ling Ling, must have walked through the area where the chicks were, because the next thing I saw was mama hen attacking the cow much like a rooster would do. In this chicken vs. cow fight, there was a crystal-clear winner. Ling Ling ran for the barn while the hen stood her ground and collected her young. I laughed pretty hard!
But our Phoenix isn't the only one with a brood these days. Dan had found a Bourbon Red turkey hen had made a nest behind the shop amongst the machinery. I went to look for her after putting the horses in the barn Monday morning, but found only a few feathers and broken shells. I looked for the hen, but she was no where to be found. But as I was doing evening chores, I saw a lone turkey in that general area, near the creek. The grass is kind of high along the bank, but as I watched, I counted four little poults, foraging for bugs with mom. We're hoping she has as much maternal instinct as the Phoenix hen!
Our Golden Phoenix hen, with 2-day-old chicks.