Each year our yard fills with robins, and each year, so far, at least one couple has chosen to nest on or beside our home. One year there was a robin — at least we think it was one robin — who made no fewer than 6 nests in different locations around our house and yard. There is a name for this phenomenon, though it escapes me at the moment. Essentially it’s a word for when a bird is spoiled for choice — when there are so many good spots to build that their instincts kick into overdrive and they just build and build and build. “This is a good spot! Oh no wait over here! Oh I didn’t know there was an option!” We’re in a log house, with overhangs and nooks and “branching” spots galore. Nest-building paradise.
This year, happily, is no different, with spring accompanied by a flurry of nest building. Yesterday I found this spring’s active nest — tucked up under the roof in the little lean-to space behind the house. Three beautiful eggs and watchful parents. Dad around and chirping every evening, both birds beautifully dedicated to the task at hand. Birds are marvelous parents. They share the load in many ways I didn’t understand — with many dad birds in many species taking turns sitting on the nest. In robins, the mum does the incubating, but dad is responsible for much of the baby-rearing once they’ve left the nest (“fledged”). He gets to work teaching the young ones how to robin, while mum gets started on the second set.
I’m not counting them before they hatch… let’s just call it “a few”.
There are more eggs nestled warmly under another mum here right now. We’ve been seeing how feasible it is to embrace “broodiness” as part of our chicken keeping here. To “go broody” is when a hen wants to incubate eggs — that is, sit on them until they hatch. In chicken-keeping, it’s generally seen as a nuisance. She wants to be a mum, you want her to keep laying eggs. Broody hens will stop laying for the duration of their broodiness, and most keepers prefer to buy in pre-sexed chicks (to ensure they’re all hens) or use an electric incubator to hatch eggs. There are many reasons for this way of doing things, and I see the value in some, though not all, of them. The bigger conversations around chicken breeds, what is sustainable, and what happens to the roosters, is a chat for another time.
Each year at least one of our hens has gone broody. And broodiness is notoriously “contagious”’; one year we had 3 of our hens go broody at once. Not a lot of omelettes that spring. That was before we were ready to try letting broodiness play out, so it wasn’t until last year (our 3rd spring) that we were ready to try hatching some babies.
Our beautiful mutt hen Margie, who passed away in February, was our springtime mum, hatching out 3 babies last year. Two roosters and a hen: Pip, Squeak, and Beak. Margie was a fabulous mum. She did all the right things and it was gorgeous to watch her at work. Letting your broody hen raise the babies has many benefits and one is that you don’t actually have to do much. So long as you are keeping all your chickens sheltered and fed, the mum chicken will look after the little chicks herself — keeping them warm and fed and teaching them How-to-Chicken.
It seems Margie taught them well, because this year, totally surprising both Neil and I, little Beaky is the one to go broody! We’d been keeping an eye on SooZee, our silkie, who goes broody every year, and Haggis, our red sex-link, who’s been showing signs. But by late April, there was no denying that Beak was raring to go. We had put practice eggs (plastic easter eggs) in a nest box, to see if any of the chickens would sit on them. We’re looking to “staff up” our flock, so we were happy to encourage broodiness. Beak’s been on the plastic eggs consistently for nearly a week, with all the accompanying squawking at us when we disturbed her, so it was time to swap in the real deal.
Last night we tucked four eggs under Beak that we had set aside for hatching. All were laid within the past week, and kept carefully stored, so that we could put them under Beak all at once and they’d hatch on the same day. As we waited for confirmed broodiness, we’ve been cycling out the older eggs we’d set aside — they’re only viable stored for up to a week — and much to my delight, this timing means that we were able to pop a SooZee egg under her! If it hatches, it will be a silkie-easter egger cross. Chicken eggs are 21 days to hatch, so we’ve marked our calendars. Life is full of twists, turns, cul-de-sacs, and hard realities, and who knows if these eggs will come to hatch, and if they do, whether the chicks will be healthy and/or be able to join our flock. But there is always space for joy, all swirled in with the realities of life. So in you go little beauties — hope to meet you some day!