Psycho, Honey and Momma Flake

Our hen numbers are declining, due to old age rather than foxes, so we decided to hatch a few eggs this year. We now have six near-adult sized birds, but four of them are cockerels and no matter how hard they try, the lads aren’t much use in the egg-laying game. Late in the year, we decided to hatch a few more.

Meet Psycho, bloody mayhem to her enemies, or anyone just getting too close, the hen putting the aggression back into motherhood. She hatched another round and now has four six week old chicks in tow. She’s not the perfect mother, does have the occasional ditsy moment and forgets that they can’t fly as high as she can, but overall Psycho is the prime candidate for future egg hatching.

That was supposed to be it for the year. Roll the dice and hope there are at least a couple of hens in the Psycho family. That was until a hen called Pale Horus built a nest in the top of the Cornish hedge without mentioning it to anyone. She laid fifteen eggs in a shallow dip with nothing more than a few blades of grass and a prevailing breeze to hold them in, and settled down to brood them in a prime spot to be taken by any passing fox.

At this point we had a decision to make – block the nest and put her in with the rest of the hens over night or move the nest and Pale Horus to somewhere safe. As it happened, Psycho was about ready to bring her chicks out of the end of the greenhouse, so I set up the spare nest box in there, moved the eggs and put Pale Horus on top, after dark.

I thought it was a perfect arrangement. Pale Horus threw a total hissy fit and refused to sit on the eggs. Having decided to try to hatch them, we split them into two groups and popped them under two hens who had been broody for a week or more and were determinedly keeping the hay warm in a pair of empty nest boxes.

Meet Honey, who perhaps ought to be called Psycho II – a sequel, but not quite as good as the original. She hatched four out of seven eggs and quickly demonstrated some wacky behaviour. All the Psycho aggression is there, but poorly coordinated. She will spin wildly on the spot, wings fluffed out, looking for a target and doing a fine impression of a dying Dalek that’s just had a sonic screwdriver shoved up where the sun don’t shine.

In the first week or two, it was clear that Honey was a bit of a flop in the motherhood department. Unlike Horus (not to be confused with Pale Horus), who hatched six out of eight eggs and focussed on the job of teaching her chicks to peck and explore the world. No crazy aggression (or rather, no more than the average hen), just getting on the with job of being a mother.

First impressions with hens can be so misleading. Honey, the Psycho Sequel, has settled down, her chicks are doing well, and now that they are out and about, free-ranging, she keeps them close, keeps an eye on them and is proving to be an exemplary mother.

Horus, on the other hand, now that the chicks are a bit older, is not doing so well. We’ve had one chick spending its days in a box, in the bath, under a heat-lamp. At first we assumed that it was just a weak chick that needed a bit more care, but it’s increasingly obvious that the problem is Horus. She no longer pays attention. She wanders off without checking the chicks are following. There’s one that always keeps up, another couple who struggle, and then the stragglers who are left completely behind and getting chilled. Unlike Honey, Horus doesn’t pause to do the feather-down umbrella routine for her chicks to take shelter and warm up underneath.

We actually tried fostering the weaker chicks onto Honey, but they were nearly three weeks old and she could tell the difference. No free-loaders in the Honey family.

There’s two ways to go about raising chicks – hatch them in an incubator or under a hen. There’s more control with the former approach, but the advantage of the hen is that she does all the hard work of looking after the chicks, teaching them how to find food and take cover from outdoor threats. That’s not been working so well with Horus – I’ve had a timer running on my phone to go and check on the Horus brood, every fifteen minutes. Just so that the chicks who really can’t cope get moved to the bathroom to warm up before they go back out again.

We’ve had chickens in a box in the bath before, even had a sick sheep in there, but it really makes it tricky to use the shower.

Frankly, Horus needs a new name. In my head it’s Momma Flake. We’ve moved her and the chicks back into the greenhouse for a week or two because her chicks clearly need to be bigger and fitter before they get exposed to the Cornish Autumn. They can all come out when her chicks can cope with the bird-brain performance of Momma Flake.

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