Doris Lessing on broody hens

Doris Lessing’s memoir, Under
My Skin
, contains
an eloquent passage about her childhood experience with broody hens:

Chicken embryo developmentThe best was looking after the sitting
hens. I was shown how to choose
only the largest eggs, assemble them in a box filled with straw in a
place, wait until a hen fell broody. But you could induce broodiness
a ltitle spoon of sherry, while the chosen hen was tempted up to the
waiting eggs. When the hen was ready, she marched into the nest, her
settling gently among the eggs. She dipped her beak into the tin of
water set in a corner of the big box. She fluffed her feathers, and was
once ready to peck at your enquiring hand. Several times a day I
her: did she have water, did she seem content? What was time like for a
hen sqatting there all day, all night, her fierce eyes on guard? Once a
she was lifted off the eggs, squawking, and encouraged to eat
grain, stretch her legs, empty great gobs of hen-dirt from her feathery backside.
Meanwhile I would be sprinkling the eggs with tepid water, to make them
easier for the chicks to break. She hustled back, pecking at me as she
came. And so, day after day, while the eggs got heavier in the hand.
she turned the eggs, she might roll with her beak an unsatisfactory egg
the edge of the nest, and then I took it away and flung it into the
where it imploded with the dull thud of a rotten egg. Fourteen eggs,
fifteen eggs under the big Rhode Island hens, more undr a black
whose downy under-caverns seem spacious enough for as many eggs as you
slid in there. Sometimes there was a wild stir and cackle from the back
of the house, and I went running to find one of the dogs had gone too
close, or a hawk sat on a nearby tree. It was not unknown for a rat to
come sneaking around in the dark, or even a snake. Once a hen was found
stretched dead, the eggs cold and scattered. A snake had taken off two
three. But the dogs, who prowled all night, and the cats who seemed to
know everything that went on, were a good warning system.

Rhode Island Red chickAnd then at last it was eighteen, nineteen,
twenty days…I sat holding a
hot egg in both my hands looking to see if there were signs of a chip,
held it to my ear. You could hear the chick turning and shifting, and
then there was the minute crumbling blemish on the shell, and it became
tiny star, and the chick’s beak, with its palid hardened tip, showed in
the hole. And, soon, the egg fell into two halves, and out flopped the
pathetic ugly wet little chick, with a look about it of lizard–the
sloping head, the big helpless claws–but within a few minutes it had
dried, it
had achieved its status of being adorable, nestling in the outer fence
its mother’s feathers, cheep, cheep, while under the hen the
still unhatched chicks knocked and tumbled about in their shells. Being
adorable was a condition it kept for only a day or so, for it would be
stringy and lumpy for the weeks of its growing up, but then become a
handsome beast, like its mother, destined for a life of egg-laying and
sitting, or, if a cock, with less good prospects, for most soon ended
the pot. Even a good-sized flock of fowls nedded only a couple of

I could have used this
lesson on broodiness last month before I set my Cochin on eleven
fertilized eggs.  But we did
hatch one
, and I’ll be
better at it next time!

Our newest chick took to our homemade chicken
in seconds.

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