We’ve brooded chicks bought from a hatchery. They arrive in a box in the mail. We put them in a plastic kiddie swimming pool in the basement, under a heat lamp, until they’re big enough to start jumping out. Then we move them to a barn stall with a heat lamp. Finally, once they’re feathered out, we introduce them to the flock.
But we haven’t done that in a while. Now we add a few chickens each year by allowing some of our hens to go broody and hatch them. We have one hen tending four chicks she hatched right now, and there is another hen hatching eggs as I type this. Three more are sitting on clutches that haven’t begun to hatch.
It is a joy to watch how a mother hen raises chicks. It is particularly interesting to see how she teaches them to forage and shows them what to eat. When the hen comes across something edible, she begins scratching and clucking, to get the attention of the chicks. Then she’ll pick up the food, clucking loudly, then drop it. If it’s too large for the chicks to swallow, she’ll break it with her beak then drop it. The peeping chicks will scurry over and eat when this happens. This is not, of course, how a hen responds to food when she doesn’t have chicks. Without hestitation she gobbles the food right down. Mother hens, on the other hand, share food with their chicks, teaching them how to find and eat it at the same time.
The little chicks are always very close to the mother hen. She clucks fairly constantly, and they continually peep. This keeps them from ever losing one another. If a chick is distressed the peeping is much shriller and louder and the mother hen will rush over. Hens, which are by nature easily frightened (“chicken,” if you will) are bold when they have chicks. If the hen feels the chicks are threatened she’ll puff out the feathers around her neck (to look fierce) and rush at the threat. I’ve been pecked a few times myself by a protective mother hen.
I love raising chickens this way and I’m sorry our culture has become disconnected from the natural way of doing it. In the chicken factories, which house millions of caged miserable birds, they have enormous hatcheries. They sex the chicks at birth, keeping the young pullets (females) to brood artificially and tossing the young roosters into machines which grind them up. As I’ve written before, chickens are by far the most tortured and abused animals on the planet.
But not on our farm.
So that’s enough about our chicks. Time to go check on those that hatched overnight.