After almost five months working with a number of broody hens to produce partridge poults, it’s been very interesting to see the variety of attitudes different individual birds have to rearing their chicks. Some mothers (the best ones) are attentive, communicative and light-footed around their tiny charges, while others never seem to form a bond with their chicks, spending their time stealing all the food and crapping grandly into the water. As with human beings, hens are a mixed bag, but it is fascinating to note that while the behaviour is not always perfectly conducive to the growth of healthy chicks, it is always there in one form or another.
In April, my girlfriend “rescued” two ex-battery hens which had outlived their period of peak-production and were subsequently due to be ground up and re-made into something more useful. The bald, cowering organisms had never seen daylight before, let alone fresh grass. For a few days it looked like they were going to die, then they gradually marshalled their resources and started pretending to be hens. As much as I know that “rescuing” ex-battery hens should give me a warm glow of satisfaction, the ressurrection of these two birds has been a wholly unrewarding experience. I am pleased that they weren’t condemned to death by a society that never truly seems to appreciate that a hen is a living animal, but they are such unpleasant birds that embracing them with warmth and love is beyond me. I feed them, water them and provide them with a garden to forage in, but I have no affection for them at all. They are aggressive, saucy and deeply hostile, and they have never even really started to lay eggs.
However, we were all quite surprised when one of the two went broody a month ago. Assuming she’d give up, we ignored it altogether. After a week, she was still sitting soundly, so I decided to try her on some plastic eggs in a broody box, finding that she really was quite determined to sit. Given that I was getting towards the end of this year’s partridge eggs, I put fifteen under her from one of the last batches, more as an experiment than anything. Imagine how surprised I was to find that she hatched them off – twelve chicks from fifteen!
This bird has been selectively bred to minimise the risk of broodiness; she was hatched in an incubator and understands nothing of reproduction, but to watch her grabbing beakfuls of chick crumb and feeding them to her little partridges really is amazing. She clocks happily to tell them when food and water is available, and I even saw her cock her eye up protectively to assess the danger from a seagull flying overhead. She has turned out to be a fantastic mother, far better than some of the other birds I bought specificially to raise chicks. That breeding instinct must be deeply hard-wired into what little brain matter hens have, and although I still don’t like her, I have developed a quiet respect for this ex-battery hen.