Friday, August 2, 2013

The Hen Who Raised Ducks

I have been meaning to share this story with you for quite some time, and if you follow Simple Little Home on Facebook or Instagram you may already be familiar with the tale I'm about to tell. I've been too excited to keep it to myself! This story makes me smile and fills up my heart; it pushes my often quick human assessment of the natural world to include some mystery and wonder. I like that. Plus, it involves ducklings. Ducklings, people. They are so cute and fuzzy and they peep and... well, I digress.

Here is what happened.

Several weeks ago one of our hens, an australorp for those who keep track of these things, started having a hard time letting go of her eggs. Each time one of us went to collect eggs in the morning we found this hen particularly defensive. As the days went by we found her becoming increasingly agressive toward us, and any other animal for that matter, who came close to the eggs in the coop, regardless of who'd laid them. There could be only one explanation: she'd gone broody.

I'll pause my story to share with you a brief tidbit if chicken biology here. Chickens go through hormonal cycles which cause them not just to lay eggs, but to encourage them to stick around to sit on said eggs. Call it the poultry version of a biological clock, if you will. When a chicken goes broody, she's looking to hatch herself some chicks.

A problem with this natural state immediately presented itself: none of the eggs to which our dear hen had grown so attached were fertilized. We didn't have any roosters to- ahem- "help her out" with this particular task, and she was becoming increasingly distressed over the removal of her precious eggs each day. So we began to look around at local hatcheries to purchase a few fertilized eggs for our hen to sit upon.

The first eggs we happened across were being sold by a teenaged homeschooler a couple of towns over, and of course we were interested in supporting this young woman's small business. She had chicken eggs to sell us, but you know, she also had something cooler. Duck eggs.  Cooler, I say, because we didn't have any ducks, and ultra-cool (by farm standards, anyway) because we discovered that our broody hen wouldn't care if the eggs were ducks or chicks. Really, she just wanted to sit on them to keep them warm. So we bought the duck eggs and we brought them home.

The transfer was remarkably easy. We wired off a section of the chicken coop just for our fledgling family, and simply put the eggs and broody hen into it. In thirty seconds or less, Mama Hen had gathered those eggs into a tight bundle and had stretched herself over as many as she could. Unsure of exactly how many eggs she'd be able to sit on at once, we overshot and wound up with a few eggs in our trusty incubator on the kitchen counter. Rather suddenly we found ourselves the eager onlookers to the miracle of life, in a very different way than we'd ever considered it before. We had a mother hen, acting on her natural instinct to well, mother, yet doing so to a bunch of eggs which wouldn't ultimately hatch her own species. We also had a incubator humming away and turning eggs every few minutes on our kitchen counter which did it's very best to simulate the life-giving experience of a mother, but which was sadly limited by it's machineness. It didn't care what it hatched. I was enthralled by the comparison.

Familiar with hatching hens, I wrote on our family calendar the date 21 days from that one. My husband corrected me: ducks take 28 days to hatch. Hum. Who knew?

We waited.

Mama Hen was fastidious in her duties. She barely rose from her little brood to eat and drink. She'd hurry through whatever business to which she must attend, then rush back to her dear eggs, fluffing her feathers out and puffing her breast to enclose each and every one of them with some piece of her. She pulled errant rollers back to her with a gentle nudge of her beak and roll of her neck. The snuggling I witnessed in the coop during those days was really unparalleled. She snuggled like a human baby or toddler does- with every. Single. Inch. of her body touching every. Possible. Inch of her eggs. Beautiful. 

At last, hatching day happened. It began in the coop earlier than in the incubator, by more than 24 hours in fact. (Another biological note here: unlike human labor, hatching is extremely precise and can usually be predicted to a matter of hours.) Garrett noticed it first, while he was feeding and watering the hens for the day. Mama Hen seemed unusually agitated, and after nearly a month of seemingly painful stillness she seemed to be vibrating with energy. Then, the peeping could be heard. Calling for the rest of us excited onlookers, a hush soon fell over us as we saw the first few little ducklings pop their heads out from under Mama. Quick, jerky little movements before Mama gently tucked them back into place. I'm not sure I could have ever called a hen "proud" before this moment, but I am quite sure I witnessed chicken pride for the first time that day. Mama was beaming.

(The following pictures are of poor quality, but I know you'll understand when I tell you we were snapping them quickly and getting out of our little family's private space. Poor pictures were worth the respect we were trying to show them.)

The next day, the peeping began in the incubator and soon we had more babies to add to Mama Hen's brood. We were so fortunate to have born witness to the miracle of birth in a more natural sense in the coop the previous day, but watching the event in the incubator was almost more intimate because we could see it so closely and without impediment. We'd watched chicks hatch many times before, but never ducks! It was so thrilling! 

You're dying to see a video of the hatch, aren't you? Good. Because here it is:

 (Can't view the movie here? Check it out on You Tube.)

Once everyone who was going to hatch in the incubator was in the world and dried off, it was time for them to meet Mama Hen and their siblings. Again, Mama took one look at the brand-new ducklings and without the slightest hesitation pulled them right under her to warm them up. A true testament to the spirit of motherhood if I have ever seen one.

The little family developed a rythym right away, and seemed to delight in each other's company. In a very human way, the ducklings would climb all over Mama and peck her gently. She'd shiver slightly to shake them off, then groom them and push them back under her where she could keep tabs on them. I could completely relate.

When the little family became too big for a section in the chicken coop, we moved them out to their own private coop with a little more breathing room and some fresh pasture to graze. You know the old expression "like ducks in a row"? There's a reason for that expression, folks: the ducklings would line up behind Mama and wander around the coop with her in the most organized fashion. Chicks don't do this of course, they just run rampant, but if Mama wondered about her babies' odd behavior she never let on. That is, until they were old enough to want to play in the water.

Chicks and chickens take dust baths to kill any mites which might be trying to hitch a ride in their feathers. Chickens don't like water, and certainly do not swim. But ducks do. When the chicks were old enough to require water (they soak their food to soften it in addition to using water to cool and clean themselves), Garrett added a small wading pool to their coop and our family watched curiously to see what would happen. Sure enough, instinct kicked in and the ducks took to water like, well, ducks to water (you notice a lot of old sayings have to do with ducks? Me too.). Mama Hen paused as the first few tumbled into the water, as if considering what should be done about the scene before her, but ultimately did the chicken equivalent of shrugging her shoulders and shaking her head. She retreated to the far end of the coop to watch the madness as her babies jumped, pushed, and fell into the water in the most amusing of shows.

Not long after the ducklings took to the water, Mama Hen knew her time as their primary caregiver was over. Just as suddenly as she'd grown protective of those first few eggs, she simply got up and walked out of the duck coop during a water change and feeding session. Right over to the chicken coop in fact, where she waited to be greeted by her (chicken) coop mates, some with little fanfare and a few with brief squabbles. Then she headed back inside and took her place on the roost. Simple as that. Her duty done, she settled in that night as if nothing unusual had happened.

But something unusual had happened. She had heard the natural call of her body to bring forth the next generation, she had mothered a set of little ones with the love and attention one might (erroneously) consider to be exclusively biological in nature; and she, like a wise maven of motherhood, knew when it was time to graciously step back and let her little ones go into the world on their own.

Now when I see her in the yard, looking so alone with no babies in a row behind her, I think she stands just a bit taller and struts just a bit longer knowing now what it means to be a mother.


  1. I Absolutely adore this story. How remarkable!

    1. I must confess, I adore it too. I had no idea it could happen this way!

  2. How beautiful! I have seen ducks incubate chicken eggs but not the other way around! Your lucky that she accepted those that were hatched under the incubator. We introduced a chick that hadn't hatched under mum, noticing that the egg hadn't hatched and mum wasn't sitting we threw it in the compost thinking it was unfertalised only to hear chirping, so we put it under a light that night and the next day it hatched, I returned it to it's mother and she pecked it to death (it was very sad!)

    1. Nathalie,

      Oh my, I am sorry to hear that your experience wasn't quite so positive. I can't claim to have done it any more than once, but from our perspective it was a seamless transition. Otherwise it might have been difficult to explain to our children... how many chickens do you have?

  3. Thank you so much for sharing this story! It brought a huge smile to my face and I can't wait to share it. What a good mama. :)

    1. Hi Alicia,

      I'm glad it made you smile! It is a fun, happy little story, isn't it? :)

  4. Beyond cute! Totally shared and pinned! You need to write a children's story! Non fiction! Using your awesome photos! (I'm a publisher!)

    1. Hi Lisa,

      I love the idea of our experience being a story for kids- so many good messages about unconditional love and acceptance, don't you think? :)

  5. That was the sweetest story! Thank you for sharing it. I don't have any chickens, but my sister does and we all can pull up a chair and be entertained by them. Better than a lot of TV shows!

    Donna <3

    1. Donna,

      We often enjoy the pleasure of simply sitting and watching our chickens wander about the yard. They are each so unique, with their own personalities and preferences, but are all so entertaining. Especially when our children join in to chase or pet them. All in good fun, of course!

  6. So very sweet! I too got one of my broody hens to hatch and raise a black Swedish duckling (his parents abandoned the eggs after a couple of weeks of sitting on them). They are inseparable, even now as he is a full grown duck. He adores his momma and her hen friends (who accepted right away) him , and hangs out with my chickens instead of the ducks, and his momma hen still calls for him at snack/treat time to make sure he is not missing out. Its the cutest family dynamic I've ever experienced. We always joke, "She once sat on the golf ball in her nest box, then one day it hatched into a duckling. "

  7. Maggiemay (New Zealand)December 7, 2014 at 2:05 AM

    Beautiful story! I loved reading it. I raise ducklings using chicken too and it's always so delightful.

  8. hi we have a broody hen who has just incubated 2 duck eggs and 2 goose. the ducks have just hatched last night, and we are hoping the goose eggs will follow suit. this is my first time with newly hatched chicks, have you got any advice. she is presently in a run with the chicks, away from my hens. i have put some water and chick feed in the run along with my hens foods? thank you indavance Michelle

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