The last couple of decades of cognitive neuroscience and genome research have largely disabused us of the notion that sex differences are primarily anatomical. Men and women are hard-wired to operate differently in ways that stereotypes have had nailed since the advent of stereotypes. Women really are more compassionate, like to talk about their feelings, and are driven to buy shoes. Men really are more competitive, hate asking for directions, and enjoy communing with their chickens after a stressful day.
Oh wait … that last one might just be Kevin.
But it was Kevin, communing with his chickens, who first spotted a behavior that highlights the deep-seated differences between the sexes of all species.
Yes, we have a broody hen.
A broody hen is a bird who has abruptly shifted into motherhood mode. She is convinced, all evidence to the contrary, that she is hatching a clutch of eggs. In this case, the “she” is Queenie.
Before I tell you about Queenie, I want you to understand something: we didn’t name our chickens. A few of our chickens, though, named themselves. Baldie, may she rest in peace, got attacked by a hawk and had a bald spot on her back for several weeks. Blondie has lighter feathers than any of the other buff Orpingtons. Queenie is really, really big.
It so happens that only the Orpingtons have names. The Rhode Island Reds are harder to tell apart. Kevin swears that he can tell Big Red from Chicken Little at a glance, but they look so similar to, respectively, the second-largest and second-smallest Reds that the names haven’t really stuck.
Queenie, though, is pretty obvious. She’s gigantic. And it was two days ago that Kevin first noticed that she was spending an awful lot of time in the nest box, not laying an egg. When I put the birds to bed that night, she was still in the box, and she spent most of yesterday not budging.
We forcibly removed her a couple of times, both because we thought maybe she’d snap out of it and because she probably needed something to eat and drink. She did eat and drink, but she didn’t snap out of it. She hunkered down in a corner of the coop where we couldn’t quite reach her.
This morning, there she was, and we took her out again. After they’d laid their eggs, we let all the chickens free-range and we took the ladder to the coop down so Queenie couldn’t go back in.
Boy was she mad. She took a few desultory scratches in the leaves, ate a few random blades of grass, all the while making a sulky cluck-cluck-cluck. Then she hopped up on the low table outside our kitchen window and nestled down for the long haul.
As long as nobody gets too close, she looks like a normal, well-adjusted chicken who’s taking a rest. Get near her, though, and she turns into Henzilla. She fluffs out all her feathers, lifts up her wings, clucks ominiously, and employs all the resources at her disposal to look armed and dangerous.
It isn’t easy for a cute, fluffy chicken to look anything other than cute and fluffy – it’s kind of like when Meg Ryan played that tough, gutsy helicopter pilot – but I have to admire the attempt.
This is the power of evolution, the imperative of which is to propagate the species. Here’s a hen who has never so much as laid eyes on a rooster. She’s been bred for generations to just lay eggs and forget about the part that comes after. She’s enclosed in a coop where there aren’t any eggs to nest on. But still, nature will out. A couple hundred years of selective breeding is no match for millennia of natural selection. Hens will brood.
Everyone who keeps chickens encounters this problem sooner or later. In our case, it was sooner – older birds are more likely than our 11-month-olds to go broody. And it is a problem, for a couple of reasons. First, broody hens don’t lay eggs, as they’ve flipped the switch from egg layer to chick rearer.
This wouldn’t be such a problem if broodiness, like yawning, didn’t tend to be catching. Sure, it’s fine when one bird does it, but if you’ve got three or four or seven doing it, you’re in a for a long eggless spring.
The other problem is that a broody hen doesn’t like to leave the nest even for long enough to eat and drink. Their combs pale and droop. They lose weight. They’ve been known to starve themselves.
Add to this that they’re downright unfriendly, and you can see why broodiness is something you want to avoid.
There are many strategies for “breaking” a broody hen. The most straightforward is to put her in a suspended cage with a wire floor – a “broody buster” – so nesting is out of the question, and leave her there for a few days until her mothering instincts retreat whence they came. Others, more hearsay than strategy, include putting a clutch of ice cubes under her and dunking her in a bucket of cold water.
The most constructive strategy, though, is to get hold of some fertile eggs and make a virtue of necessity. (Chicken forums are filled with stories of chicken owners who, failing to break a broody bird, finally resolve to do this, scour the countryside for fertile eggs and pay through the nose for a clutch of them only to have the bird break of her own accord the moment they slip the eggs under her.) We’re not ready for a new flock, though, so that’s not an option for us.
We tried to get Queenie to spend most of the day free-ranging with her sisters, but she kept returning to the run and settling in a corner. When we take her out again, she seems distressed and unhappy.
I’m inclined to let the broodiness run its course – which should be about three weeks, the incubation period for a chicken egg. If all the other hens start thinking it’s a good idea, there may have to be a new broody-busting sheriff in town, but I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.
Meanwhile, I have to admit I’m impressed with the strength of Queenie’s purpose. Her single-minded focus is a testament to the very real differences between females and males, and I’d really like to know what’s going through her little bird brain as she sits, hour after hour, on her clutch of imaginary eggs.
I wish I could ask her about it. I’m sure she’d like to talk about her feelings.