It is a cool, quiet evening on the farm. Twilight. The lightening bugs are just starting to flicker, and the dark is settling in and making itself at home for the night. It’s my turn to do night rounds, so I walk quietly from shed to shed, making sure all of the poultry and animals are in for the night and then shutting their doors to keep them safe until morning. Josephine, the pig, has to be cajoled into her bed with a handful of corn, but otherwise all of the creatures are in their places and peaceful. By the time I get to the last cage it is fully dark, and I can see a sliver of moon rising over Willett Miller Road. As I shine the flashlight into the cage, the light catches the nest box, and I hear the warning cluck of a mother hen. She is sitting there glaring at me—puffed up like a brown and black feathered balloon.
I love hens. Of all the poultry on the farm, they are my hands-down favorite. They are industrious and practical birds. Unlike the peacocks and turkeys, they do not lie on the your front door mat while preening themselves in the glass of your French doors. Unlike the pigeons, they do not entertain you with wildly erratic acrobatic flight patterns across your barnyard. And unlike their flamboyant rooster counterparts, they are more drab in color and less bombastic in nature. They don’t feel the need to announce their presence every time you see them; instead, they spend their days clucking away contentedly with the other hens in their community flock, scratching the insects out of the dirt, and patiently laying their pearly eggs. In the evenings, they meet us at the barn and chatter away busily as they eat the corn we throw for them.
Until they hatch their young! Even before those first little chicks emerge from the eggs, bedraggled and wet, the broody hen changes personality. That little hen that peacefully pecked the corn around your feet at feeding time becomes charged with a sense of certainty and purpose. She sits on her eggs for 21 days hardly leaving the nest and pecking at you as you gingerly reach past her to refill her water. When she does come off to eat or drink (only because she would starve otherwise), she is fussy and cranky, and she dances around frantically gobbling up everything in sight. Then she rushes back to the nest as though she thinks that it might be on fire.
When the chicks hatch, it only gets worse. Although she weighs only 4 or 5 pounds, the hen manages to puff herself up into a fearsome looking creature. She is not afraid of anything. The same hen that cackled in panic over a chipmunk in the hen house will attack the neighbor’s German Shepherd with feathered fury if she perceives it as a threat to her chicks. Our own dogs—one a 125 pound coyote-killing Anatolian Shepherd, the other a English Shepherd responsible for keeping eight large horses in line—slink around the perimeter of the barnyard with their tails between their legs, fearful of stirring up her ire. We all know to move gently and stay out of her way. Even though we are more than 20 times her size, she will not hesitate to chase us out of the barnyard, scolding and flogging us at the same time.
Of course, the truth be told, hens are really quite vulnerable, and having loud, peeping chicks on the ground with them is a magnet to raccoons and possums, not to mention the occasional coyote who lurks nearby. Despite her bravado, a hen is no match for them. As my dad used to say, everything likes to eat chicken, and in the end, a little hen can’t really make herself big enough to ward off a serious predator.
But I love the fact that they think they can. Hens take on the daunting task of motherhood with fierce and unwavering dedication. They are such good mothers that we sometimes give them eggs that are not their own. The amazing thing is that hens will mother just about anything—guineas, peacocks, turkeys, even ducks—that hatch from eggs put under them. While guinea mothers lead heir tiny charges though the tall grass of the outer fields and lose many of them, chicken hens keep them close in to safe barnyards. Turkey mothers are sometimes too dumb to know when their babies have hatched, but chicken mothers always know the right time to come off the nest.
Hens have an innate ability to take care of their young. They know when to tuck the tiny fluff balls under their warm feathers and keep them safe, and when the chicks are strong enough to venture farther from the nest. Hens use their strong beaks like pickaxes to break the corn up into smaller pieces for their babies, calling them to the barnyard feast with loud, high-pitched clucks. Later she takes them farther afield and shows them how to eat crickets and bugs (not to mention my tomatoes if she can find them) and then how to fly up to the roost when their wings are strong enough. They teach them how to run for cover and then stand, statue still, when a red-tailed hawk is hovering overhead. By the end of the summer, the hens are ready to release their young ones from their feathered apron strings, and then rejoin their hen community, remarkably docile again as they cluck and gossip away with their sisters in the barnyard. To me that seems nothing short of a miracle, no matter how many times I see the cycle unfold.
How I long for the instinctive knowledge that defines a hen’s existence: the ability to patiently wait, submitting to life’s warp and weave, secure in the knowledge that new beginnings are on the other side of that wait. I wish I had the certainty and resolve that a hen exhibits as she cares for her offspring, confident that she is doing the right thing. I admire her predictability and how, even in the face of adversity, a hen goes on about the business of life: clucking, fussing, and doing her job.
So when I see that glaring hen in the nest box, I smile, even though she tries to peck me (hard!) when I reach over her. The world is a chaotic and unpredictable place. But seeing that fussy hen, puffed up and brave—prepared to meet any challenge — makes me feel a little braver myself. And as I make my way through the dark toward the house and my own family that waits for me there, I am grateful.
By Betty Miller Conway