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February 4, 2011
A Mother’s Job…
by Helen Downing, UNH Extension Master Gardener
A flock of eleven chickens, even in a well-built chicken coop and fenced-in yard, cannot last forever. And so it was, that my valiant little flock began to ebb as a combination of bears, old-age, and illness each took their share. Finally, after six years, we were down to one elderly, taciturn old hen. She still went out each day, but plainly missed her friends, and seemed in no mood to learn new tricks. That, however, was not the way things went.
Ms. Chicken had been in the lower part of the pecking order, but she had a friend, and when that friend just up and died of old age, she was distraught. Her only companion left was an even older hen we had adopted from my son in Vermont whose own flock had become depleted. Never quite accepted by this strange new flock, she lived out her days with us, eventually losing her voice and ability to attack our feet, but content nevertheless. The two were never close, but they formed a wary companionship that made their days bearable, and then she too, was gone. Taken by old age, she never suffered; left behind, however, Ms. Chicken existed but did not thrive.
And then, along came 26 baby chicks. Arriving in a box no bigger than what one keeps tissues in, they sat on our post-mistress’s desk, quietly peeping. That all changed once I brought them home and put them in their new home, a plastic wading pool with wood chips, water, and chicken grower mix. Suddenly, their voices became exponentially louder!Peep! Peep! PEEP! Curiousity, hunger, thirst, and the need for warmth seemed to rule their existence. Power naps were a necessity of course, as well as the occasional foray out of their new home, and then the immediate regret and pleas to get back in as soon as possible. Just as with people, there’s no place like home!
As weeks wore into months, the chicks were growing too large for their “pool”, and so it was, that when warm weather began to stabilize, the chicks were moved to their permanent home in the coop. By now, they were 23 in number having lost three to an unseasonably cold night.
At first, we tried to keep Ms. Chicken separate. The coop was divided into one large area for the chicks and a smaller area just for the elderly auntie. We feared for the safety of the youngsters if she were allowed to peck and investigate as she pleased. So separate they were…for about two days. She watched from far above in her old nest box and seemed quite aloof to these young hoodlums who had invaded her home. Somehow, the next thing we knew, she was the housemother of 23 freshman girls. And as time went on, she began to mother, teach, and even sleep on the floor, wings spread out to keep up to six chicks warm! When fed, she waited for her girls to eat first. Even when I brought special treats of Japanese beetles or cabbage worms, she waited for the chicks to eat first. She showed them how to scratch for corn and how to go in and out of their house. Her constant cluck-clucking showed her concern for her new little flock. When jays or crows flew too near, she would usher them all in the coop, and then looks about as if to count them. Her feathers brightened and actually looked thicker, and her step quickened.
When one of her “girls” began to cockadoodledoo, she never blinked an eye, but kept right on caring for her young ones, now a dormitory of 22 freshman girls, and one young cockerel, we nicknamed “Elmo.” The combination of his breed’s characteristic top-knot of tousled feathers(our reward for purchasing 25 baby chicks was one un-sexed exotic chick) and smaller stature also made him a bit lower in the pecking order. Nevertheless, he persisted and earned a roost on the top rung when he decided he no longer needed to sleep under Ms.Chicken’s wings. His legs have also turned gray-blue and his feathered upper legs appear so dark and rich, he appears to be wearing velvet knickers.Very natty, indeed!
Just as mothers of young children need a few hours away from the constant needs of toddlers,occasionally I will hold the gate open for Ms. Chicken, who rarely takes the opportunity, and when she does, it is only for short excursions and a few bites of fresh grass. Such devotion makes her my choice for Mother of the Year, if there were such an award for chickens, and I know she would wear her little silk sash with pride!
Alternate conclusion: The need for friends, family, and an occasional day out-of-the-coop does wonders for us all. We can learn a lot from our feathered flocks, and that’s the truth.
February 22, 2010
January 21, 2011
November 9, 2010
Thank you for sharing that! In a way it kind of reminded me of my own mom and her grand-children. And then again myself and my daughter, you will always love the ones you loose through life but I think that makes you treasure the ones you have now!
February 4, 2011
Thanks to all of you who took a moment to respond. This article was one I wrote for a column written by NH Master Gardeners. Each week an essay written by one of us from our writing group is sent out to newspapers across NH. I never know where or when they will be published so I rarely get to see them in print or get feedback except from my editor who is a terrific help and source of inspiration. So, hearing from you all has made my day! Writers need pats too!
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