Backyard Farm Stories
Chicks for Odessa
Odessa wants to be a mother. Every day she patiently sits on eggs her sisters lay. Each evening I lift her up and take the eggs away from her. This has been going on for two months and even after all this time she has not lost hope that somehow, someday baby chicks will pop out of the eggs.
The other day my friend Tom lamented poor Odessa’s fate. She must be so sad, he said. What she most wants she cannot have.
Without a rooster what can I do? I asked.
I know someone who has a rooster and fertile eggs, he replied.
Thus began the project: Chicks for Odessa.
I drove east out of Denver to a school parking lot where the deal went down. Money changed hands and I drove home with six beautiful, fertile eggs.
When I went out to the coop with my treasures, Odessa was not in the nest box. She was out running around the yard with her sisters. I hoped this was not the day she’d finally given up on babies.
I put the eggs in the nest box and hoped for the best. Fifteen minutes later she was happily sitting upon them.
If all goes well, Odessa's chicks will hatch September 12th or 13th!
Odessa sat on her eggs all day, leaving them only for a few bites to eat. By three-thirty, I noticed that there were no eggs in the other nest boxes and wondered why the other hens hadn’t laid any. I looked all over the yard and found none. Then I thought to look under Odessa and there were ten eggs, the six fertile ones and four she had somehow managed to move from the other nest boxes so she could sit on them, too.
She really wants to be a mother!
Late morning, I found Odessa in obvious distress, clucking and pacing in front of the coop. I feared something bad had happened to the eggs but when I peered into the nest box I found Queen Charlotte sitting upon them.
In the flock's pecking order, Queen Charlotte ranks at the top and she is not a benevolent dictator. She's loud and cranky and the other hens do their best to stay out of her way. And now she'd kicked poor Odessa out of the nest and taken over her eggs.
Briefly, I thought about dividing the eggs so that both hens could sit on them but then realized that Charlotte is not one to share. She’d just chase Odessa away and take over all the eggs. So I took Charlotte out of the nest box (she did not go without a fight) and put her over the fence into the other yard.
I thought 'Problem solved!' but when I returned to the coop, Odessa was still outside, clucking and pacing. I looked in the nest box and there was D’Punker, sitting on the eggs. D’Punker is one of the younger hens, low in the pecking order but still above Odessa and she, too, had taken over the nest.
The girls seem to know that these are no ordinary eggs. Suddenly, everyone wants to be a mother!
Over the fence went D’Punker.
A few minutes later, Odessa hopped in the coop and plunked down on her eggs. She's a very sweet, laid-back girl and takes everything in stride.
All went well until evening. I have two yards with a coop in each and the girls have definite preferences about which coop they roost in at night.
I opened the gate between the yards hoping that everyone would go where they belonged. That did not happen. Queen Charlotte immediately ran to Odessa’s coop and tried to take over the eggs. I grabbed the Queen, put her in the other yard and closed the gate. Then D’Punker did the same. Over the fence she went.
Now some of the hens were in one yard, the rest in the other and none of them found this acceptable. D'Punker was body-slamming the fence trying to get through it, Queen Charlotte was yelling at me from the middle of the yard and the rest of the hens were running around in a frenzy.
I sat down to contemplate my options and finally made an arbitrary, executive decision: Odessa’s two Dark Cornish sisters, Carmine and Lenore and Starsky, Odessa’s good friend and one-time roommate would roost with Odessa. Everyone else ended up in the other coop.
Odessa seemed happy. No one else was.
Where's the eggs???
This morning I heard a noisy confrontation from inside the coop. I found Carmine, neck arched, wings out looming over Odessa. I assumed her angry clucking was chicken-speak for MOVE! MOVE! MINE! MINE! Odessa was holding her ground but looking worried.
Over the fence went Carmine.
This left Starsky and Lenore with Odessa and everyone else in the other yard.
In the evening when I came out to lock the coops lest the raccoons eat my girls, I could not find Starsky. I searched everywhere for him* and just as panic began to set in, I heard a rustling noise from above. And there was Starsky, up in a tree. Apparently, the blocked access to his regular roosting coop had freaked him out and he’d not known what else to do. I lifted him out of the tree and put him in the coop in the other yard where he belonged.
*When he was a chick I thought Starsky was a boy and even though he started laying eggs, he'll always be a rooster to me!
Now it was just Odessa and Lenore. Lenore is a strange, quiet, shy girl who doesn’t eat if anyone is looking and tends to hide in the bushes so I couldn’t tell if she was stressed about her solitary situation. However, she didn’t hang out near the other yard so I figured she didn’t miss the over-the-fence gang too much. And -- best of all -- she had no interest in Odessa’s eggs.
As for Odessa, she seemed content. Throughout the day she’d take breaks from her eggs to graze on the lawn, lie in the sun or enjoy a good dirt bath.
So far, so good.
Odessa spent the day in the nest box. Lenore got lonely so I put her with the rest of the flock. Now Odessa has the place to herself.
Late afternoon, I checked on Odessa and found her crop empty. She’d not been eating. I took her out of the nest box and, once outside, she shook off and stretched and pecked at the ground for a while. She looked like a perfectly normal chicken except that she wouldn't touch the chicken feed or the dish of cut-up vegetables I’d put out for her. The only things she’d eat were grapes and bread.
After a while she went off to a shady area and preened herself for a long time. Then, suddenly, without warning, she took off running, full-bore across the yard, squawking and flapping her wings. When she reached the far fence, she stopped dead. Then she strolled calmly back across the yard, hopped in the coop and settled onto her eggs.
I can’t imagine what’s going on inside her head. She doesn’t seem to be sick. If anybody has any ideas, please let me know!
First thing this morning, Odessa jumped out of the coop and ate breakfast. She looked and acted fine. I tried to stop worrying.
Her commitment to her chicks increases daily. This afternoon, when I lifted the lid on the nest box to check on her she puffed herself up and let out an ominous screech that sounded like one of those dinosaur raptors in Jurassic park.
Fourteen (or fifteen) days to go! I looked at the calendar again and maybe the chicks will arrive on September 12th rather than the 13th. Gestation is 21 days and she started sitting on the eggs in the afternoon of August 23rd. I’m not sure whether the first day counts or not!
I rarely see Odessa out of the nest box now but I hear her clucking to her chicks. Pluck, Pluck, Pluck… A hen does this so the chicks learn to recognize her voice while they’re still in the eggs so later on, when they’re out roaming around, she can call them.
I am in awe of Odessa. When we humans try to hatch chicks we rely upon machines which precisely regulate temperature and humidity and constantly rock the eggs from side to side to keep them moving. Odessa had no mother to teach her what to do. She never went to school. Her brain is the size of a pea. Her huge, horny, feet are equipped with claws that can be used as weapons. Yet she knows how to navigate around, and sit upon, a clutch of fragile eggs without breaking them, how to roll them around with her sharp, pointed beak and when it’s safe to take a break from the nest.
Odessa knows more about hatching chicks than I ever will so I try not to interfere but I cannot resist bringing her a plate of her favorites – tomatoes, corn and grapes from the farm with a chaser of bread every afternoon. She won’t come out of the coop so I feed her, piece by piece, in the nest box. She has this freaky, reptilian, retractable neck that she can extend in the blink of an eye -- like a snake striking -- that allows her to grab a bite without moving off of her eggs.
Odessa & Lenore
Sometimes, on a hot day, I gently lift Odessa out of the nest box and lower her to the ground. She stands where I put her, stiff and immobile, as though she has no idea where she is or what she should do. I drop a grape in front of her. She stares at it. I drop a second. After careful consideration, she picks it up, gulps it down and suddenly, like a switch thrown, she’s a regular chicken again. She pecks and scratches the ground, flaps her wings, stretches and preens, grazes the lawn and socializes with her sisters through the fence. She gets all of this done in two, three minutes tops and then she’s back to her eggs.
I don’t know if this R&R is good for Odessa but it is good for me.
Convenient reptilian, retractable neck
One week to go!
Yesterday, while Odessa was out of the box for her brief R&R, I noticed that one of the eggs had gone missing. The other five eggs and the nest box looked fine and undisturbed. Upon closer examination I found a tiny piece of shell. The evidence clearly implicated Odessa.
When Odessa returned, she sat down on her eggs as usual. She looked neither guilty nor repentant. I can only hope that the missing egg got accidentally cracked or that she sensed something wrong with it and took care of the situation by the only means available to her. Otherwise, we’re looking at a Jeffrey Dahmer scenario in which case I’d be very concerned about her mothering skills.
Two or three more days. Keep your fingers crossed that Odessa makes it to the finish line without any more unfortunate incidents!
A short while ago I found one of Odessa’s chicks lying on the ground outside of the coop. It was out of the shell but dead. There was damage to it's head which Odessa likely caused. The chick was fully formed and appeared normal so I think Odessa did a good job of incubating the eggs. She just doesn’t know what to do with the chicks that come out of them.
I brought the four remaining eggs into the house and put them into the incubator. Hopefully they will hatch into sweet little chicks. I’ll keep you posted.
As for Odessa, I gave her one of her sister’s infertile eggs and she is happily sitting upon it.
I am so very sad…
We have chicks! Three lovely babies popped out of their shells right on schedule. The fourth egg is still in the incubator. I took a peek inside the egg with a very bright light in a dark room (a process called ‘candling’ because candles were used before batteries and LED lights came along) and it looks like there might be something in there so there’s still hope for number four.
Since Odessa murdered two of her children, the chicks won’t be raised outdoors under the warm feathers and guidance of a momma chicken. Instead, they currently reside in the house in a big tub with a light-bulb for warmth and me for a mother. When I put my hand in the tub and go ‘pluck, pluck, pluck’ like Odessa taught me to do, they get excited and check it out but quickly lose interest. They know that the weird, misshapen, featherless apparition is most definitely not their mother…
‘Chicks for Odessa’ did not end the way I’d hoped but at least I now know that Odessa’s passion is to care for eggs and she does a great job. She made babies in at least four of her six eggs, a success rate far superior to the three out of thirty five I achieved last year with my incubator!
I’m sorry that Odessa turned out to be a psycho mom but at least we have three sweet little chicks. (I’ll let you know if anybody comes out of the last egg..)
A few hours old
It has been an emotional rollercoaster. Thank you all for coming along for the ride.
Click on the picture to see a video of the chicks first hours in their new home.