Well done, Helen.

A new baby in the family is always cause for joy and for worry. A setting hen for me is in the same category. I’ve had many hens who have tried their hand at motherhood, some with wonderful success and others with disaster.

As I’ve explained before in this space, a hen has to be not only doggedly determined, but also clever and wily to hatch chicks at our place. It simply doesn’t work to sit on eggs in the chicken coop, for example, although that’s what most broody hens try to do. The structure is just too small for that, and the other hens will bully the setting hen off her nest, and lay fresh eggs in her spot. She’ll sigh and dust herself off and she’ll get up and just go to a different clutch of (freshly-laid) eggs and start afresh, leaving the other partially-incubated eggs to chill. Also, the heavy-footed Farm Woman (that’s me) picks up every egg in the coop, every day, so it just doesn’t work.

Nevertheless. I have a number of very determined hens who sit all summer long, inside the coop, on whatever eggs they choose. They are serious. They are quiet and sober. They are tenacious. But they aren’t clever.

A clever hen will hide her nest someplace where nobody, and nothing–no fox or farm cat or clumsy, egg-hungry dog, or weaselly opossum, or heavy-footed Farm Woman, or well-meaning guest child from the town–will disturb the nest. She will lay an egg a day, whistle innocently in between, as if nothing is happening of any import, and then when the nest is full, she will settle down and sit and warm the eggs, turning them several times a day, not leaving the nest, except for the occasional bite to eat, or drink–for twenty-one days.

Helen has proved herself to be a clever hen. She was sitting on a clutch of eggs, in fact, that we were unaware of, hidden as she was in the compost pile. One day Bryan loaded some grass clippings into the compost, disturbing Helen and upsetting the nest. The eggs went rolling down to the ground, and I discovered them much later. Helen had claimed another spot by that time. I was impressed by her cleverness, so I gathered up some fresh eggs and put them underneath her, and crossed my fingers.

The compost pile is a very smart place for a hen to brood eggs, for many reasons–it’s near a great food source (weeds, garden plants, weeds, and bugs, and numerous weeds) and it’s nearly invisible and since there’s a fence around my garden, and the compost pile is inside my garden, it’s a protected spot. The dogs are not allowed in my garden, and since I trudge through the garden every day, I could keep an eye on the wanna-be mama. And so I did. And this is what I saw in Helen: a steelly-eyed, fierce firmness of resolve that impressed me. I hoped that this resolution would translate into Helen being a good mama to new chicks, too.

Because our weather has been fairly turbulent for this season, with many wild thunderstorms and some hail and high, scary winds, I took a moment to build a little roof above Helen–it was just a plastic trash can lid with some boards to keep it in place, propped up above her and against the side of the compost pile. It would give her a bit of protection against the weather and the hot sun bearing down on her. I wished her well.

Well done, good and faithful chicken.

A cause for joy. Well done, good and faithful chicken.

I counted the days on the calendar and wrote “Helen” on Wednesday of this week, 21 days from the day I put the fresh eggs underneath her. On Tuesday, I was weeding (natch) in the garden and glanced over at Helen. I saw yellow fluff. I saw bright little eyes and movements underneath her feathers. I saw a little miracle, a cause for joy, a cause for rejoicing. She had four little chicks, poking out from underneath her feathers, and then ducking back underneath her. She had done it. Helen was a mama.

She didn’t budge off the last few eggs (one did hatch, and two didn’t, and then she abandoned them the next day) while the new chicks played around her. I was so proud of this hen. Sometimes bad things happen once the chicks hatch: a new mama will sometimes attack the chicks, or immediately abandon them. Not Helen. As I watched, the chicks curiously pecked at her waddles, her comb, even her eye, and she just sat quietly, murmuring deep in her throat, in that peculiar voice which is unique to broody hens.

“There, there, my darlings. Mama loves you. Not so close to the eye itself, dears. You are a delight to me, every one of you, my precious children.”

Once Helen and the chicks got off the nest and started wandering around the garden, little Mack and I caught them up and put them into the nursery, with water and feed and plenty of green weeds and grasses to peck at. I’ll keep them in there for a few days, until the chicks are just a little bigger and know the robes about doing just what mama says, and then I’ll let Helen lead them back outside and that’s where this new little family will spend their daytimes: walking about, learning which weeds and which bugs are the best, scratching in the dirt, taking naps in the sunshine, being taught about the dangers of life from their mama, and learning about life itself.

I could draw plenty of human parallels here, but I hardly think that is necessary. Anyway. It’s a beautiful day, and I need to get the kids outside. 😉

Well done, Helen.


Hey there–I’m going to link up this post with the cool folks over at The Prairie Homestead. Join me!


25 thoughts on “Well done, Helen.

  1. rita

    I told you about 3 weeks ago that I had given my broody hen, who had been sitting on unfertilized and even on no eggs, some fertilized ones to sit on. ‘Chick’ day was last Thursday and nothing has happened. Thank you for linking to your disaster post about Ginger. You mentioned there that eggs turn pearly and nearly translucent as they’re about to hatch. These are not doing that, at least as of last week, when she last got off and I was able to peek. Of the original 6 eggs, 4 are left and it looks like none of those will result in any peeping. Do you think I should take the eggs away next chance? Poor sitting Mama-Wanna! She’s been doing this for about 2 months now. I’m worried she’ll have no leg muscles left. That certainly would be my problem if I were sitting like that for that long. sigh. so sad.

    1. dramamamafive Post author

      I’m sorry, Rita. Probably the best thing to do would be to remove the old eggs and start afresh. It might be that your hen allowed the eggs to chill for a few hours, but now that she has had experience, she might do a better job with the next clutch? Can you get more fertile eggs?

  2. Arla DeField

    What a fun story! I am so glad you provided cover for your determined mother hen to be! I have been watching the kill deer birds, as they nest on the side of the road in the direct sun. Looks too hot for me.

    I really enjoy watching my dog stalk the mother kill deer, as they lure her (the dog) away from their nest, and they fly away before she even gets close. And yes, I call her back.

  3. Mari

    Oh, Amy, I am so very glad you posted this today! You have answered some of my questions. Two of my girls are wanna-be mama’s and they are not the clever ones. However, they have no chance to be clever since their yard is not conducive to cleverness. There are no hiding places, and where there might be, I am checking, checking, checking. My two girls are the not-so-clever kinds that are tenacious in the hen house, in the nesting boxes. I am afraid poor Baby Amelia is going to die because for many days in a row, she wouldn’t eat or drink and Texas is hot. It is not a good idea to go on a starvation diet. I was letting her sit on some eggs (always new ones) but she just doesn’t leave the nest. Barbara left over a week ago, but Baby Amelia wants to be a mama so badly that she just doesn’t leave. I have even thought about buying some baby chicks and putting them under her one night, but I know the other girls would kill the babies and I have no alternate place for her to go. I also have no rooster so she will never have fertilized eggs to sit on. It is so much fun to hear about your broody hens and their babies. You have a wonderful environment for them. You know, I think you are the clever one in all this. You find them and help them out so they will give you more chickie babies each year. I think I need to take some pointers from you and create the hiding places.

    1. dramamamafive Post author

      Mari, I do try to help my broody hens along–but only some of them. It really makes me feel bad to take the eggs out from under the others (I have 3 or 4 broody hens who are sitting on eggs, as I type!) but we just don’t need that many chickens!! Regarding your broody Baby Amelia: she undoubtedly is getting up, maybe only once a day, probably not when you’re around, to grab a drink and something to eat, and to relieve herself. You’re right about her needing the hiding place: I have actually tried to move a hen and her nest full of eggs to a private spot, always after dark, when she has been asleep for a bit (you know how dopey hens are when they are asleep, or close to it) and the hen has cooperated and stayed on the nest. Some hens won’t abide by it, though, and will stoutly abandon the new nest that you made for them and will go sit on the old spot, even if all the eggs are gone! Good luck with it all, and keep me posted: I’d love to see a picture of your new chicks, if your hens prevail!

      1. dramamamafive Post author

        But maybe you oughta get a rooster . . . ? If you weren’t so far away I’d give you one of mine. I have more than I need. 🙁

      2. Mari

        Alas, my girls can’t prevail. I have no fertilized eggs since I have no rooster. That was a choice I made when the roosters were terrorizing my girls to the point that they wouldn’t even go into the hen house at night to roost until I carried them in and forced the issue, and they wouldn’t leave in the morning. It was a terrible time for them. I moved the roosters out and there was peace in the pasture! Now there is also no hope for mama wanna-be’s! Sigh. Thanks for your answer. I need to work on my girls’ hidey holes. Even if they can’t make babies, they can have fun. That is all that matters. I love their eggs, and they make the most wonderful compost ever, ever. That is why I have them – although they are wonderful pets and we have the most delicious conversations during the day. They sit on my knee while I am in their yard, and they talk and I pet them and listen to their stories. They tell the best tales. They tattle on each other and tell me their dreams. Right now they want to have a bigger yard and a second hen house. That is my next projects for them. You see, I listen to them!

        1. dramamamafive Post author

          So Mari, I must ask: what did you do with your roosters? Did you just re-locate them, or did you make soup? You know if you ever want to try roosters again, I have had good luck with bantam roosters. Well. Except for one little bully that ended up in the stockpot, after all behaviorial modification techniques failed. 🙁 A little bantam rooster would take care of making sure there are plenty of chances for chicks 😉 without being such a menace. And they are cute. Chances are, if you get a few bantams when they are in the feed store in the spring (they always come straight run, it seems) you’ll get a rooster or two and you’re set. The female bantams are cute, too, nearly always go broody and have sweet personalities, at least in our experience. http://vomitingchicken.com/babes/
          By the way, I’d love to hear some of your chickens’ dreams, Mari.

          1. Mari

            Out of 30 supposed girls, I ended up with 2 roosters. I had decided before I ever got chickens that they would be used for eggs and not meat. I am not good at eating what I raise. I know, I know – all Chicken Mama’s should have the wherewithal to butcher when the need arises. It is just not in me to be able to do that. I have decided to keep them around till God takes them home – hopefully after a rich and full, long life. We have been working out retirement contracts for them. It is coming along nicely and they will be my little fertilizers for their lifetime.
            Anyway, the two boys – Big Daddy O (Buff Orpinton) and Jesse Ray (RIR), had to go live with a friend. If they were good boys they would avoid the pot. Otherwise….. I can’t bring myself to go over there and learn the truth about my boys. Bad as they were, I was hoping to save them and let them do their manly thing with girls that are perhaps tougher than my baby girls were.
            By the way, it was several months ago and I was just going in for surgery on my feet. Since I have x-ray ears and understand Chickenese, I overheard this conversation. It was the first of many conversations. They were just beginning to lay eggs….
            WENDY: OK, everyone. Come over here. We need to have a family pow-wow.
            (All the girls gather around, knowing that something really important was up.)
            WENDY: Did you hear what I heard this morning – really early?
            BARBARA: I didn’t hear anything. Didn’t you have your head tucked under your wing like Chicken Mama tells us to do? When you do that, it makes it so you can’t see anything and you can’t hear very much. I had my head tucked under my wing just like Chicken Mama told me to. Didn’t you sisters do the same thing?
            HONEY BUNS: Of course I had my head under my wing. That is what hens do, stupid!
            AMELIA: Well, apparently ONE of us didn’t have her head under her wing. What did you hear, Wendy?
            WENDY: Come in here really close. (whisper) I think there is a ghost hanging around our hen house! This morning really, really early, I heard a noise of the gate opening. I always listen for the gate in case some big, bad wolf comes around to knock on our door. Never, ever open the door if you hear someone knocking on it.
            EVERYONE IN CHORUS: Never, Wendy. No we won’t. We will never, ever open our door. We can’t reach the door handle!
            BABY AMELIA: Well, I had my head under my wing, but I could kind of…tell…that something was going on outside. I heard someone walking and some scraping of stuff. I was so scared, so I just huddled up closer to my sister Amelia and put my head further under my wing. I don’t WANT to hear anything. Was it a GHOST!? Ohhhh, noooooooo.
            WAYWENE: Oh, stop being such a baby, Baby Amelia.
            BABY AMELIA: I AM a baby, Waywene. Chicken Mama always calls me Baby Amelia. That’s because I am so petite and sweet.
            HONEY BUNS: Why don’t we stop this bickering and get back to whatever Wendy thinks is the problem. I think there is a problem, too.
            WENDY: Anyway, I heard our doors open – all by themselves. I am sure it was a ghost. What else could it be?
            HONEY BUNS: Well, I am worried that the ghost might – just might – have got Chicken Mama. You know that she didn’t come down here this morning. Do you think she is mad at us, or that she is DEAD!!!!!
            BABY AMELIA: (crying) Chicken Mama dead? Oh no! How terrible! (now she is sobbing) Chicken Mama, oh, Chicken Mama, where are you? I need you. Come here right now!
            BARBARA: Don’t cry, Baby Amelia. I don’t think Chicken Mama is dead. I think she might be mad at us and is leaving us alone for a while to teach us a lesson.
            WENDY: Why ever would she be mad at us?
            HONEY BUNS: Because SOME of us aren’t laying enough eggs yet. She thought we would all be laying by now and we aren’t all laying by now. SOME of us haven’t even started yet. Yes, she might be mad.
            WENDY: Who, us? We haven’t laid any eggs yet because our bloomers haven’t come in yet. I heard Chicken Mama talking to Chicken Daddy about us being late bloomers. We will start laying just as soon as we get our bloomers. We can’t help it if they are late coming in!
            WAYWENE: (puffing out her chest) WE are laying a lot of eggs. Chicken Mama told me how proud she is of us girls. She said we were the very best layers.
            AMELIA: Well, she likes our eggs. They are the pretty eggs! She always has a smile when she gets ours. So I know she isn’t mad at us.
            Well, if she isn’t mad at us, then she must be dead!
            BARBARA: That’s not necessarily true, Amelia. Maybe she is sick.
            WENDY: Yah, maybe she is sick of us! Maybe she doesn’t like us anymore. Maybe we will have to live like the other chickens that were not picked at the store. You know, some of them are already…in the pot. You know, Big Daddy O and Jesse Ray aren’t here anymore. Maybe they are in the pot. I know Chicken Mama was really mad at them. They were bad boys. I bet they are in the pot.
            BABY AMELIA: (still crying) I haven’t laid an egg yet. Do you think Chicken Mama will put me in the pot? OH, NOOOOO!! I don’t want to go in the pot.
            WAYWENE: Hush, Baby Amelia. You can lay an egg. You come in with me and I will show you how to do it. It is just like having a big, BIG poop! Only you have to do it in the nest.
            BABY AMELIA: I have to poop in the nest?! That is not where we are supposed to poop. Didn’t you listen to Chicken Mama when she taught us Hen House 101? NO POOPING IN THE NESTING BOXES. I didn’t even know what she was talking about, but I know now, and I know I am not supposed to poop there.
            SISTER AMELIA: I have an idea, Baby Amelia. You watch when I lay an egg, then when I am done, you hop into the box and sit till Chicken Mama comes down. Then when she is in the hen house, you jump off the nest and she will think you did it!
            BABY AMELIA: Oh sister, would you do that for me? Really? I think you have saved me from the pot. Oh, thank you, thank you!
            BARBARA: Did you notice that no one has cleaned our poop trays? I can hardly stand to go in there, it is so stinky. No one has changed our water. No one has given us any treats. No one has turned on the fan yet. No one has turned on the mister. NO ONE HAS BEEN HERE ALL DAY! I think we better start getting ready for a funeral. If you see Chicken Daddy get on that big old yellow backhoe, we better watch to see if he is digging a hole. It will have to be a big one to fit Chicken Mama into it. Keep your eyes open. Watch him like you were a hawk instead of a chicken. The Amelia’s should be pretty good at that since they look like they are half hawk.
            AMELIA: Well, that is better than looking like a big ball of butter like the Honey Buns!
            HONEY BUNS: Chicken Mama said she loves butter, so I am happy to look like a butter ball. That’s a good thing! Thank you, Amelia. I accept the compliment.
            BARBARA: Well, I have an idea. I think someone will come sometime today, so why don’t we make Chicken Mama happy and lay lots and lots of eggs to show her how good we are. If everyone laid one egg each, she would come back and not be mad anymore.
            WENDY: Well, that’s good enough for you, Barbara, but our bloomers aren’t here so we can’t lay any eggs yet.
            WAYWENE: That’s not true, Wendy. If you go into one of those boxes – they are magic boxes – and push hard enough, it makes a big, huge poop. If the poop is BIG enough, it turns into an egg! That is the way the magic box works!
            WENDY: (not convinced) I don’t think that is true, Waywene. Just because you Waywene’s lay so many eggs doesn’t mean you know everything. I think it matters which box you go into. You just have to guess and if you guess right, your box will make an egg come out. If you don’t get the right box, then you wait and wait and finally have to leave because sisters are out getting all the treats.
            AMELIA: This is true, this is true. Sometimes I have sat in there a long, long time and I guess I wasn’t in the magic box because all that was in there was one of those stupid, phony eggs that Chicken Mama put in there. I know they aren’t real because I tried to hatch one once and it didn’t work. So you really have to know the right box to choose. Now if you go into the top left box, it is always magic and there are no phony eggs in it. Also, the lower right one is usually magic. Sometimes some of the other ones are only magic off and on, so you are really taking your chances when you try to use them – especially the ones on the top in the middle. Usually those don’t work at all. Maybe there is a secret button you have to push to make it work right. Hmmm.

          2. dramamamafive Post author

            Oh Mari, you are precious. “It will have to be a big one to fit Chicken Mama into it.” You’re so silly. I love to hear what your chickens are saying. And so . . . where were you, anyway? Your hens are blessed indeed to have such a caring and intuitive mama!

          3. Mari

            I was having yet another – ANOTHER – foot surgery, sporting pins out of 5 of my 5 toes! Ahhh. I am so glad that the chickie babies were able to carry on without me for a few months although it was hard on all of us!

          4. dramamamafive Post author

            Oh my goodness, Mari, that sounds awful. I hope it all went well for you!

  4. Deborah A

    My hens are out of luck because we don’t have a rooster. But my ducks are another thing. We had hatched 3 females, but had no drake. A friend gave us one a few months ago, and we incubated some eggs. But our ladies were not happy about me stealing their eggs. A few weeks ago, they started refusing to go back into their pen at night. I knew they must be doing something with those eggs. My son finally found them, next to the old compost pile. I guess great fowl minds think alike! They made 3 nests right next to each other and they sit rather communally, taking turns to go eat and drink. I’m not sure how long they have been on the nest, but since ducks take 28 days, we have a little longer to wait to see the results. But they have even stayed on the nest the past two days during the storms we have had coming through. Hopefully that means they will be good mothers!

    1. dramamamafive Post author

      Best wishes to your ducks, Deborah! We used to have ducks (and I hope to have them again someday soon!) but the predators around here are really hard on them. The last time I had a mama duck sitting on eggs in the duck coop, some wily creature tunneled in and took them all, the hen and all the eggs. It just about broke my heart, and I haven’t had the heart to get more ducks since then. I hope your mama ducks are successful!

  5. Ann Lia Rubio

    Good work Helen! I was googling what to do with a broody hen in a hidden nest and came upon your lovely blog. Thank you! My little Woo (a buff orp) has tucked a nest on the side of our shed. I am going to put a little roof over her as well. 🙂

      1. Ann Lia Rubio

        Hi! I (so belatedly) just saw your reply. Woo, I am pleased to report is the dedicated mother of five gorgeous little chicks! It is hilarious watching them trail along behind her. They are about a month old now. They should be big enough by the time winter arrives to do very well. Thanks again for your reply and I love your blog!
        Warmest regards,

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