Raquel, Reinvented

September 21, 2014

Raquel has been our alpha hen since we got our first three chickens in 2010. As we’ve added new chickens to the flock over the years she has maintained her status as queen of the chicken yard, and her subjects give her a wide berth, especially when treats are involved. This summer we had one of our lowest hens in the pecking order, Violet, hatch some chicks (Chick Love). We set Violet up in her own smaller enclosure in the corner of the chicken coop to keep the other hens from bothering her, and she happily doted on her chicks in the nursery area of the coop. Within a few days of Violet hatching her chicks, Raquel went broody, which means that she wanted to set on and hatch eggs. I like to think that Raquel had a chicken mid-life crisis. Raquel had happily been the boss lady for over four years, and then perhaps she began to think that maybe there was something more to life than being the boss. She determinedly sat in that nest box, right across from Violet and her adorable chicks, for almost 24 hours a day for nearly 7 weeks, which is a long time to be broody. This is more than double the length of time it takes to hatch chicks, and many broody hens would have given up by now. I began to take pity on Raquel, and I thought that if she wanted chicks so badly perhaps we should let her have them. I had to admire her perseverance. Besides, I had recently had my own mid-life crisis of sorts causing me to quit my job and move to the country, and I’ve never been happier. Didn’t Raquel deserve the same chance at happiness? Okay, I know, she’s just a chicken, but still it just seemed like the right thing to do.

We gave Raquel six eggs to hatch, but the strangest thing kept happening. When she would leave her nest for the 10 minutes or so a day that a broody hen goes outside to eat, drink, and poop, her eggs began to get broken. I suspect that another hen was sneaking into her nest box and breaking the eggs to eat them. Egg eating is a bad habit that hens can sometimes develop when they are in need of extra protein, and it happens occasionally, but it was frustrating that of all the eggs in the coop it was the ones we were trying to hatch that were getting eaten. Finally, after four of the six eggs we had given Raquel had been broken, we decided that our plan to let her hatch chicks was not going to work. So we resorted to Plan B, which was something that I had read about and hoped would work for us. How it is supposed to work is that you buy very young chicks, just a few days old is best, and you put them under the broody hen under the cover of night and remove any eggs she may be sitting on. When the hen wakes up, voila, she’s a momma! That’s the best case scenario, but I’ve also read about this method failing miserably resulting in the death of the young chicks. Nevertheless, we decided to try it, and I’m happy to report that it worked like a charm!

We bought four Golden Comet chicks for Raquel. These are a hybrid type of chicken that can be sexed when they hatch based on the feather color of the chicks. Gold chicks are female, and white chicks are male. Since we already had four new roosters from Violet’s chicks, we definitely did not want any more roosters so we decided buying the hybrid chicks was the way to go. The morning after our experiment, I got up early to check on Raquel and the chicks, and I found them happily bonding into their own little family. Raquel has taken to motherhood like I never would have imagined. I have to admit that she was such a brat as the flock matriarch that I wasn’t sure that she would be a good mother. But Raquel has turned out to be the most affectionate mother hen we’ve had. She has displayed all of the usual mother hen behavior, and often allowed her chicks to ride around on her back which is something I’ve not seen with our other mother hens and chicks. Raquel is also an extremely protective mother. You know how they say it’s dangerous to get between a mother bear and her cubs, well that’s a good analogy for Raquel and her chicks at feeding time. Any hen that comes within a few feet of Raquel and her chicks will get chased away with a vengeance for a surprising distance.

Typically a mother hen will stay with her chicks until they are about six weeks old, and then she’ll rather unceremoniously let them know she’s done with the whole motherhood thing by giving them repeated pecks of the beak when the chicks continue to follow her around or get a bit too close. It’s usually a pretty abrupt separation when it’s time for the chicks to leave the proverbial nest, and then typically the hen wants nothing further to do with the chicks. Raquel however, spent her nights with the chicks in the nursery until they were eight weeks old. When Raquel finally went back to sleeping on the roost with the other hens, the chicks continued to try to sleep with her including jumping on her back when she was on the roost which she has tolerated quite well. She’s only pecked at the chicks once or twice that I’ve seen, and they continue to spend quite a bit of time together during the day even though they are almost 10 weeks old. I’m glad we gave Raquel the opportunity to be a momma hen, she’s shown us a whole new side to her personality and it’s been a joy to see her raise up the next generation.