Our flock of chickens had been cruelly bereft of it’s younger generation when last I wrote. Rooster and hen were the only survivors of cat attacks that carried off five promising young chicks. The two parents seemed to get over it and took to roaming about my yard, scattering mulch as they dug little holes around my ginger and turmeric in their search for bugs and other edibles. They began to wander farther and farther as they became comfortable with the territory, especially enjoying my neighbor’s vegetable plot, which covers her entire backyard. She would whoop and holler at the chickens whenever I would be in earshot, so I would know how perturbed she was at the intrusion, but since I’ve been patiently tolerating her hu-manure gardening technology within a stone’s throw of my dining room, I figured we’re even.
After spending the day foraging, the chickens would retire to their cage in the late afternoon and wait to be locked up for the night. Before too long, the hen began to make a peculiar kind of warbling that was followed by an egg! Learning to recognize the sound, I could predict when a egg would be arriving. Over the course of a week, she laid a clutch of three eggs. After the third egg, I locked the pair in the cage so the hen could concentrate on her duty. Yet something was wrong. She wouldn’t sit. I would put the three eggs together and add some dried leaves and grass for padding but when I returned from work, they would be scattered to the corners of the cage, cold to the touch. Then one day I looked to find an egg had been smashed. I declared the batch a failure and tossed the remaining two out. It occurred to me what has probably already occurred to you: you can’t leave the rooster in the cage. The hen wouldn’t sit not because of a lack of motherly instinct, but because the rooster was still pressing her for his own needs. I’m sure it was he who smashed the egg, too.
The next time our hen began to make her eggy warble, I evicted the rooster and put the hen on solitary confinement. The rooster, a derelict father, turned out to be a devoted lover. Morning and night he never left sight of the cage. During the day he would forage close by, and in the late afternoon he crawled into the narrow space between the back of the cage and the fence, where he could spend the night with his feathers touching hers. It was at this time that my daughters and I settled on the name Romeo and Juliet for our chickens. Maybe because of Romeo’s attentiveness, Juliet was still too distracted to sit. At times I thought I glimpsed her sitting on the eggs. She was at least being still for brief periods. But most of the time, she paced the cage, clucking pathetically as she probed the bars, looking for a way to reunite with her Romeo. After two weeks of that I gave up once again, released Juliet and chucked the cold eggs.
I decided next time she began to lay, not only would I lock up Juliet, but I’d quarantine Romeo in a separate cage on the other side of the house. Surely Juliet would be able to keep her hormones in check and sit on her eggs then! I never had to try. One day, KakNgah ran to inform me (before I could climb out of the car) that the hen had layed eggs – in our flower pot! Juliet found herself a little nesting spot right next to our front door, hiding in plain sight, as it were. Most importantly, she had found a place where cats would be unlikely to strike as she began her sitting. Romeo didn’t bother her either, since he’s skittish with people. Just to be sure though, I tethered him to the papaya tree in the back yard. Every day or two, we’d find another egg in the pot until finally there were eight. The next day she plunked herself down and sat quietly on those eggs for nearly three weeks straight. Once every day or two she would climb off and tear across the yard and then take flight onto a neighbor’s roof. Just stretching, I imagine. Before long, she’d be back on her clutch. Those brief breaks of hers were the only times we could count the eggs. When she was sitting, she was extremely agressive, pecking any hand that came close. She would puff up her feathers and spread out her wings over the eggs, appearing nearly twice as wide as she really is.
I heard a sqeak as I walked in the front door one day; a chick had hatched! I had to stand watch over Juliet for a little while before catching a glimpse of the newborn. She kept her baby well squirreled away under her feathers. She managed to keep them under her wing while they were few, but as one after another hatched, they became too many to keep locked down. I began to fear one would slip out of the pot and become cat food. Yet all the eggs were not hatched so I didn’t want to disturb the hen by transferring her to the cage. There was nothing for it: I picked up the pot and carried the whole thing in to the kitchen. That didn’t last long either though. Within a few days the chicks were spilling out onto the kitchen floor, where my normally well-behaved cats couldn’t help casting some hungry glances in their direction. Braving a few hen-pecks, I uprooted the hen and relocated her to the cage which I had reinforced with – what else? – chicken wire during the incubation period. We have five healthy chicks now, a black one, a yellow one and three striped ones. There are still three eggs as I write this. That should give me a grand total of eight, but of course, you don’t count your chickens before they hatch.
Previous chicken drama on Bin Gregory Productions:
Learning from Chickens