Setting a Hen

Actually, she was already setting; I was just setting her in a new place.

You decide in the morning that it’s time to move the second setting hen out of the coop and into the enclosure you made last week for the chicks and their foster mother. (She escaped one day and I’m not even sure I got the right hen back into the enclosure. But since there’d been one walking around outside anxiously clucking to the chicks, wishing she could do some mothering, I got one of the right hens back inside.)

So you decide that it’s time to move the other setting hen, and her eggs, into the other blue plastic barrel with the wood shavings and the excelsior pad, so that when (we hope!) her eggs hatch, she’ll be all set to take care of the chicks. And you already know, from two nights ago, that it’s fairly easy to move her while she’s sleeping; you had moved her out of her nest box 3 times in a fruitless search for a peeping chick that hatched just that morning.  It turned up in the middle of the coop again the following morning, and in fact that chick is the reason it’s clearly time to move the hen: it’s too small to compete with the other 13 chicks, mostly 2-3 weeks old, that the first setting hen is busy teaching how to scratch and peck in the grass, and it seems to have gotten a bit trampled in the last day.

But you had put the children to bed, instead of doing the evening milking and closing the chicken coop for the night, so you forget to set the hen. And at 11:35 pm you remember. So you get out of bed, put on barn clothes, find the flashlight and a small egg basket, and head out to the coop.

The moon is full so the stars are faint points of light. It’s cool after a hot day. The hen moves with little complaining to wait in an adjacent nest box, and the eggs are smoothly transported to the waiting blue barrel. All except for the one that’s half-open to reveal a feathered little chick who died sometime yesterday or today without making it out of the shell.

The hen protests a little as you try to put her into the new nest, but then she slowly settles down onto the eggs, and you slide the bushel basket (that you already figured out how to fit into the barrel) over her head and trust that she’ll remain. Your chicken teacher has told you that the way you “set a hen” (or “lay a hen”) is to do this — leave the bushel basket over her for a day — and then usually she’ll stay with the eggs. Since this one has been persistently broody for about the last six weeks, there’s not too much worry that she’ll abandon the eggs for her old haunt.

Then you say goodnight to the goats, who were out earlier to see what in heaven’s name you were doing out by their barn at 11:3o at night, and come in to write it all down, because it’s just such a surprising and delightful and strange thing to be doing.  For a kid who grew up in a city.  But always wanted to be in the country.