The nesting instinct

`THIS would be a good night to set a hen,'' I offered as I came in just in time to clean up for supper, and as we haven't set a hen in years she said, ``What in the world made you think of that?'' The time of year, of course. One who has ever set a hen will not soon forget setting a hen. So as we partook of our frugal meal we reminisced about certain hens in our lives, and wry humor prevailed. The hen which gets hot and embraces the idea of motherhood is no doubt long gone, as the poultry industry moved away from barnyards, and the broody hen in my context belonged to the days of ``keeping a few birds.''

The hen in full possession of her faculties and unencumbered was never an outstanding practitioner of intelligence, but when smitten by the vast desire to reproduce she loses what little she did have and descends fully to the lowest notch of unmitigated stupidity. She faces three weeks of incubation - 21 days of introvert meditation. Vacant-eyed and vacant-minded, she will just sit there.

One of the hardest things to do is to ``break up'' a hen who has decided to set and which one does not want and need in that condition. Folklore has the nine and 60 ways to break up a broody hen, but not a single one of them will work.

An uncle in our family recommended sticking one in a length of six-inch tin stovepipe and plugging both ends. He never did that, and neither did anybody else, but the idea emphasizes that there is no hope.

On the farm we had a ``broody coop'' where we stuck broody-hot hens if we didn't need their services. The coop had a slat bottom so the hen couldn't squat in the manner of nesting, so she'd stand there and think things over and finally cool off. I'm sure bird lovers today would protest this downright treatment, but folks who remember true broody hens will nod and say, ``It's worth a try!'' That same uncle used to tell about a hen Cap'n Lem Otis had, down to the village. He stuck a broody hen in his broody coop, and she stayed there six weeks without effect. When he let her out she went across the street to the Grand Army Memorial and sat until snow flew on a pyramid of cannon balls.

Hens that went broody and stole away nests and brought off chicks were one thing, but a hen that would steal away and sit all summer on a lost doorknob was quite another. And still another was the hen that was ready and willing but wouldn't ``stay'' when you applied her to a clutch on purpose.

When I was a boy a neighbor gave me a setting of his prize Buff Orpington eggs and I tried to get a hen to hatch them. None of our own would stick, so I borrowed the only hot hen our neighbor Ruel Blake had - a red bantie. Orpingtons are big birds and lay big eggs, and this bantam was not designed for the job. But she ``stayed'' and brought off every egg. I returned the bantie to Ruel along in the summer, along with a pullet and cockerel of her surrogate chicks, and he commented that she looked ``summat used up'' after performing so devotedly out of her own class.

Except for two antiques hanging in museum manner from my shop rafters, the bushel market basket of bygones is hard to find. One was perfect for setting a hen. Fill the basket with straw, arranging it into a nest, and lay in the setting of eggs - 13, usually. Set the basket off by itself, away from the flock where the old lady can sit without distractions. It wants to be a spot safe from cats and dogs, and wildlife. Then, just before dark, approach the broody hen you have chosen for this lonely chore, and lift her gently and carry her to the basket of eggs. In the twilight she will not remonstrate, but will cluck pleasantly. Place her over the eggs and lower her until she feels them. If things go well, she will hover and settle in. Then with fingers crossed the hen-setter moves away.

If the hen ``stays,'' there will be peeps in three weeks, and the chicks may then be counted. But 99 times out of 54 the hen will move over during the night and in the morning will be found up on a cultivator seat. She clucks and brags, and the eggs down in the basket are cold. Sometimes you can try her again, and sometimes she will stay, and sometimes you can try another hen.

It was the time of year that put me in mind of setting a hen, and we were lighthearted because we knew that we'd never have to do that again. The bucolic truth is, I suppose, that hens being hens, there's really no night that is a ``good'' night for setting one.

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