Fluffy – the Little Hen that Could
Reading Time: 4 minutes
By James L. Doti, Ph.D.
I’ve read that pandemic-panic buying caused eggs to disappear from shelves. The Wall Street Journal listed eggs as the hardest hit of all the food shortages.
Not so for our household. Our girls, an assorted mix of six gorgeous hens, have kept us well-stocked with a bountiful supply of the freshest eggs around. So bountiful, in fact, that I’ve used them to barter with my neighbors. Here’s an example of the going exchange rate: In return for six eggs, our next-door neighbor gave us a bottle of Pinot Grigio with a roll of toilet paper wrapped around its neck.
We wouldn’t be so rich in eggs if it weren’t for our best producers, Henny and Penny, who like clockwork regularly lay extra-extra-large eggs every morning. But Henny and Penny wouldn’t have been part of the flock if it weren’t for our smallest, most timid, and least productive hen — Fluffy.
When I bought Fluffy from our local feed store a year ago, I was attracted to the fluffy-looking feathers that wrapped around her ankles. These low-hanging feathers, however, gave Fluffy a lopsided gait that slowed her down considerably.
When I’d arrived in the morning to give the girls their treats, they’d charge around me waiting for handouts. Not Fluffy. She was always a beat behind as she waddled behind everyone else. Maybe because she was odd-woman out, the other hens bullied her. The only way she would end up with any treats is by me placing her in a neutral corner with her own separate cache.
I think the constant harassment caused Fluffy to become a loner. She tended to hang out by herself, distancing herself as much as possible from her abusive sisters. After a while, I noticed that Fluffy began to spend all of her time by herself in a nest box. I figured it was the constant harassment that led to a self-imposed exile. But after reading an article in Backyard Poultry, I realized there was another reason. She was brooding.
The brooding, it turned out, wasn’t because of the antisocial dynamics of my flock but because she wanted to become a mom. For reasons the article didn’t totally make clear, hens periodically decide to sit on their eggs or anyone else’s eggs in order to incubate them. Turns out that it takes exactly 21 days for the incubated eggs to hatch and become a clutch of baby chicks.
Nothing, and I mean nothing could roust Fluffy from her nest. I tried luring her out of her nest with tasty treats like her favorite mealworms, but she wouldn’t budge. Even if I picked her up and brought her to the worms, she’d do a fast-waddle back to her nest. There she would resume brooding seemingly content, her eyes frozen in a blank stare.
Unfortunately, there was an intractable problem with all this brooding, a problem of which Fluffy was totally unaware. She could sit on her eggs until hell freezes over and never become a mommy. Without a rooster around, she was sitting on blanks.
Backyard Poultry suggested placing a frozen box of peas under a brooding hen to help dispel a broody hen’s motherly instincts. When I tried that trick, Fluffy didn’t move. In fact, she seemed to enjoy the cooling comfort of the frozen box.
Removing the eggs also didn’t work. She’d continue sitting on her nest as if an imaginary clutch of eggs were under her.
I finally gave up and concluded that it’s well-nigh impossible to distract a broody hen from doing what comes naturally, namely producing baby chicks. “So why not just go out and buy fertilized eggs and plop them under your broody hen?” the article concluded. And that’s precisely what I did.
Lo and behold, exactly 21 days later, I found eggshells around Fluffy. Looking more closely, I saw two little featherless blobs squirming around. Fluffy seemed to have a proud, confident air about her as she showed off her newborns. How this timid, clumsy, and socially inept gal somehow had what it took to be a mommy was totally beyond me.
But that she did. Fluffy was transformed into the best mom one could ever hope for. How she kept her two little guys warm without smothering them was a mystery to me. As they grew, Fluffy would push them toward their feed and always let them have first helpings. What most shocked me was how Fluffy, as timid and fearful as she was, would spread out her wings and go after any of her former nemeses if they’d get too close to her babies.
In no time at all, the little guys sprouted feathers and grew prodigiously in size. They got so big that they had to struggle to find room under their mommy. One night I flashed a light to check up on them and saw two little heads popping out for air on top of Fluffy’s wings. It was the cutest thing I’ve ever seen.
A year later, those two little chicks have grown to be the largest in our flock. They turned out to be “California Whites,” a breed of chickens known for their great egg-laying ability and their gentle dispositions.
Even though Henny and Penny are twice the size of their mother, I notice they still run to her when they became frightened about anything. While they tower over their mom in a way that reminds me of the old “Baby Huey” cartoon series, they seem secure being close to her.
Henny and Penny are way too big to be with mom in their nest together anymore. I find comfort, though, at night when I check up on the flock and see little Fluffy sitting on her perch with Henry and Penny close by on either side of her.
James L. Doti, Ph.D. is President Emeritus and Professor of Economics at Chapman University and is a Backyard Poultry subscriber.
Originally published in the October/November issue of Backyard Poultry and regularly vetted for accuracy.