Breaking Little Geri from brooding

Little Geri is on probation.

Yes, she’s a chicken. But I have a very good reason.

It all went down last week. For those of you who haven’t been following this grand backyard chicken farming experiment for the past year, let me just say that if one of the five hens was going to end up in the slammer, it was obviously Little Geri.

She’s bold, sassy and doesn’t follow the rules. She’s large and in charge. And she’s always been the odd one out.

This time, Little Geri fell prey to instinct.

Instinct is sometimes a brutal thing to deal with, I’m finding out. It’s not enough that chickens are prone to cannibalism, their instinct also leads to unhealthy delusions.

Nearly a year into the experiment, everything was going great until Little Geri fell off the wagon. The chicken five were each laying an egg a day, getting along in their pecking order and entertaining us with their hilarious antics.

Then, Little Geri started acting weird. It’s hard to explain — she’s always been unusual, but she started looking bedraggled, and her temper grew shorter each day.

Remember, she’s the hen we actually thought was a rooster? She’s the most masculine-looking hen, with gorgeous, distinctive markings and we’ve decided her genetics must be a little different than the rest of our barred rock hens.

So it seemed odd that the biggest hen with the most machismo would sit in the nesting box, all day long, and refuse to come out. She hogged the box, attacking the other hens when they came in to lay eggs. Then she’d hoard the other hen’s eggs, roll them into her spot, and sit on them.

She wouldn’t come out of the nesting box to eat or drink, and we literally had to remove her a few times a day so she would guzzle water and gorge on food. Then we could steal the eggs without her growling at us.

In the chicken world, this is called “brooding.” Some breeds are more susceptible to this behavior, when a hen attempts to hatch eggs when a rooster isn’t present (barred rocks are not known for this behavior). There’s nothing that could come of Little Geri sitting on those eggs, other than they would grow more and more rotten each day. But she was broody, and it’s a tough instinct to break.

After consulting with other chicken owners (my peeps, as I like to call them), I realized I had three choices: Do nothing, and let nature take its course. Eventually, Little Geri would stop. This could take months, but it’s natural.

The second choice? Try to break her of this behavior. If I cared about egg production, this was the clear choice, since hens don’t lay eggs when they’re broody. This seemed cruel, and required separating her and putting her somewhere it wasn’t fun to sit all day. Some poultry aficionados have cages for this purpose (even with names like “broody buster”) or they suggest putting ice in the nesting box to discourage hens from sitting.

The third option was to obtain fertilized eggs from someone else and let Little Geri be a surrogate mom.

It takes roughly 21 days incubation for a fertilized chicken egg to hatch. Did I want to spend time on that? No. We decided to let nature take its course and see if she quit on her own.

That was a terrible idea. Just a few days later, Little Geri’s reign of terror ensued. She commandeered the entire nesting box, attacking the others when they attempted to lay their eggs. The other hens patiently lined up on the ramp to the box, peering in and tiptoeing into the box, hoping she was in a good mood. Little Geri rewarded them with a swift peck to the noggin and a lot of squawking.

Torturing her nest-mates wasn’t enough. She also started ripping out her own feathers, presumably to line the nest. I ousted her from the nest and felt her bare skin on her underbelly. Further inspection revealed a bald patch that she had plucked herself. I put her down on the ground, and she just sat down, pecking at twigs and straw she immediately started arranging around her in a nest. It was really quite pitiful.

Clearly the broodiness wasn’t healthy for her. She started losing weight and didn’t leave the nest more than twice a day to eat and drink. She needed an intervention.

The next step was solitary confinement. Little Geri was sentenced to stay in the dog crate, without any nesting material contraband, until the broodiness ended. She had an open-ended sentence.

Luckily, after less than a week behind bars, Little Geri overcame her instinct and was allowed to return to the coop. She’s still adjusting to life on the outside, and has yet to return to her work laying eggs daily.

Erin McIntyre is an advanced master gardener, writer and Grand Valley native. Please email her at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) with story ideas or feedback.


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