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How chickens I didn't want taught me the lesson I needed

Updated: Aug 9, 2022

My chickens are mentally ill. Naturally, I assume they got it from me, but every poultry article in the blogosphere says some breeds are just prone to it. Kind of like people.

Broody hens just need some TLC. Kind of like people.

My teenage daughter is raising ten hens in our backyard. I am not a great lover of the animal kingdom, so she and my husband handle nearly all of their care. So far the arrangement has been tolerable.

In February, Sunshine, a beautiful Buff Orpington hen, started acting strangely. She wouldn't leave her nesting box, not even to eat or drink. She started plucking feathers from her chest to fluff up her nest. She would growl (fun fact: chickens do growl) and peck at anyone who tried to touch her.

Sunshine's mentally ill behavior is called brooding. She thought she was protecting her clutch of eggs, waiting for them to hatch. We do not have a rooster, so our chickens' eggs are not fertilized. The eggs never become baby chicks. Sunshine's expectations can never be realized.

The first time this happened, Lexi and I researched the problem online and discovered that removing a broody hen from the coop and housing her somewhere else for a few days can be helpful.

We borrowed a dog crate for Sunshine to live in. Four days later, she happily rejoined her chicken friends and we thought all was well.

It turns out that Sunshine is prone to broodiness. It's a common trait of her breed. In the last few months, Sunshine has been broody several times. We have separated her from the flock again and again. She always rebounds after a few days, but the extra work required of her keepers can feel annoying. We think or say things like:

"Not again!"

"Sunshine, what are you doing?!"

"When are you going to snap out of this?"

"Don't you know these eggs aren't your babies?"

"This is very inconvenient."

During Sunshine's last broody episode, when I was moving her from her nesting box in the coop to a temporary enclosure, I saw her predicament with new eyes.

I remembered a time when I couldn't get out of bed. My emotions didn't make sense. I couldn't snap out of it. My illness was called depression, and I needed to be handled with care. Eventually, I stopped some painful behaviors because I started to heal. But I can still have bad days at any time.

Sunshine and her fellow broodies regularly teach me this important lesson: I am more than my illness.

These days I treat Sunshine with a little more compassion. I'm more gentle and understanding.

We all need a little help sometimes.

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