Sometimes I lose track of which expressions are English, which are American, and which are universal to the English-speaking world. Do Americans describe themselves as "feeling broody" when they develop the urge to nurture offspring? In England, it's a common euphemism.
In this case, though, it's not me who's feeling broody -- but my chicken, Ralph. (If my husband were reading at this moment, he would now start breathing normally again.) What follows is an illustrative country tale . . . on how you spot broodiness in a chicken, and what to do (or not) about it.
I should have known something was up when I tipped out Sunday's leftover pancakes and only one chicken came running.
As I've mentioned before, the one thing you can count on with chickens is their insatiable greed. They would, and could, eat happily all day long. One not-very-fine day, I lazily dumped some stale bread out of our kitchen window instead of sprinkling it on the lawn, or taking it to the compost heap as I would usually do. I was stunned to see how quickly the chickens came running! And quicker than you can say Pavlov, the minute I unlatch that window they are racing to the spot . . . hoping for human grub, which surely makes a nice change from nutritionally balanced pellets.
According to a website called "Raising Chickens," chickens have "interactive emotional states similar to humans. They feel jealousy, greed, pleasure, affection and camaraderie." Well, personally I can't vouch for all of these traits: but I will definitely agree with "greed," and I will throw in "competitive" too -- which I suppose is a negative form of camaraderie. If you give Ralph some bread, usually Lauren will be right there, open beak at the ready, trying to get his fair share. (Just like children!) So really, I should have noticed when leftover pancakes only yielded one greedy chicken.
But being singularly uncurious about my chickens, it took me about two days to casually mention to one of the kids, "Hey, have you seen the skinnier chicken?" (I keep half-hoping that they will decide to cross the road one day.) After a bit of looking in Ralph's usual hangouts, "he" was found in the nesting box -- which is located on the 2nd floor of his little chicken condo. Oh dear, what could the matter be? Was he depressed, sulking, tired? It took my oldest daughter only a few minutes to come up with the answer: Ralph was broody. (My oldest daughter is quite handy with Google, but she is also the only person in the family who actually read the chicken handbook. She is the "brains" of the outfit, while little sister and mommy do the grunt work.)
In other words, Ralph thought that he was about to be a mother. He was trying to keep the eggs warm, bless him.
At first I was confused. Over time I have grown to think of Ralph and Lauren as a gay couple -- conveniently ignoring that they must have some sort of poultry ovary, as they do in fact lay eggs every day. This illustrates at least a couple of things -- and not just that I am a ding-a-ling. (Although, clearly, my parents probably should explained the "birds and the bees" a little more carefully; that, and/or let me have pets when I was a child.) First of all, my momentary confusion regarding Ralph's natural instinct to hatch offspring shows the importance of WORDS -- of naming things. Over time, "Ralph" became a boy in my mind . . . because he had a boy's name. This gender confusion was aided and abetted by my natural tendency (again, I blame my parents) to "gender" all animals. In my mind, dogs are boys and cats are girls. Fish are neither. Rabbits are girls. Horses, boys. Cows, girls. Chickens -- boys. In fact, I think a chicken is the exact equivalent of an adolescent boy. (If you don't agree with me, read this for an insider experience.)
When we were in Texas, I just happened to read a story in People magazine about a "man" who was having a baby. Did anyone else catch this one? Now, as you will probably guess, the man had once been a woman -- and thus, still had most of the female equipment, sans breasts. However, "he" looked just like a man! It was quite disconcerting, I have to admit. Anyway, this came to mind when I realized that Ralph was broody. Momentary confusion . . . and then the other shoe dropped.
After I got my confusion under control, I turned to my children to see what they were going to do about the fact that Ralph had been hunkering down in the nesting box for days. Again, a little Internet research came in handy. Isn't it wonderful how the Internet not only allows us to self-diagnose, but also to cure those problems which plague our animals? A helpful, if oddly spelled, site called "Omlet" offered two possible solutions: (1) remove all of the eggs from the nest, or (2) dunk the hen's belly in a pail of cold water.
In case you haven't guessed, a broody hen is not particularly accommodating and will not willingly abandon her job. Removing the eggs is pretty much impossible if the hen is actually sitting on them. (Dunking her belly also seemed to involve many dangers -- not to mention technical difficulties.) In the end, the children used a carrot and stick maneuver . . . which I didn't happen to witness, so really can't be held liable if any of you decides to contact the RSPCA. The next thing I knew they were bringing in a large bowl containing FOURTEEN EGGS.
Poor Ralph. She really DID think she was having a brood.
As Omlet so helpfully tells us, "if you are not removing the eggs everyday there is more chance that a chicken will go broody." Somehow, between their father's tender care and jetlag, the chickens were ignored. For days.
Let it be a lesson for all of us. If a child or an animal is being too quiet, it is probably up to no good.