Breaking brood

JoJo the Buff Orpington

It happens every spring: cherry blossom, warmer days … and JoJo going broody. She’s the only one in my flock of rescued hens that does this—and thank goodness for that, because breaking brood takes patience, three days of watchfulness, and a fearless disregard for the dreaded turkey face.

In the normal course of events, a hen will lay a clutch of eggs that have been fertilized by a rooster, and sit on them for 21 days. She’ll show some signs when this is about to happen:

  • A low, deliberate cluck. It’s different from her normal sounds. An Irish friend of ours calls a broody a “cluckin’ hen” because of this sound.
  • Crankiness like massive PMS. When another hen or when I move suddenly or do something she doesn’t like, she’ll scream. A little like the sound we make when we do something stupid like drop an unbaked pumpkin pie between the counter and the oven ::sigh:: (No, I’m not over Thanksgiving yet.)
  • The dreaded turkey face. When she feels threatened or annoyed, she’ll puff up like the aforesaid Thanksgiving turkey—or like the blowfish in Finding Nemo—and make that same scream. If you were a chicken, this would be a terrifying sight. For me, watching sweet little JoJo do it is just hysterically funny. But heaven help me if I laugh in front of her. She gets offended and will stalk off in a huff.

At the first manifestation of any of the above, I swing into action. The hospital cage where Copper sleeps so that she won’t fall out of bed gets cleaned out and put up on blocks so that cool air will circulate under it. I pull JoJo off her warm, cuddly nest because that very warmth is what’s triggering her hormones to go into brood. At night, I put her in the “cold cage” so she can’t get snuggly. During the day, I keep her away from the nest boxes.

The difficulty here is that 11 other birds have to lay, so sometimes I just take my work outside, bring JoJo outside the pen, and try not to watch her running from me to the door going, Mama, my eggs! They’re getting cold! They’ll die! She’s such a good little hen mother that watching this is difficult, but it has to be done. If I let her brood, she could starve to death waiting for unfertilized eggs to hatch, because a broody hen eats very little.

After three days, the hormones go back to whence they came, and JoJo slowly reverts to her normal self. She’ll sleep on the roost, peck and hunt in the pen with the other birds, and lead the pack over to the meadow and the neighbor’s tasty mulch pile.

I heave a sigh of relief and return the cold cage to its everyday use … and wait for August, when JoJo will go broody again.

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