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The Empty Nest

One of my three remaining Rhode Island Red hens was missing. The other two rushed from the coop for their custom mix of black oil sunflower seeds, clean rolled oats and organic cracked corn. Even the sound of a bonus scoop of crunchy mealworms did not draw her out. I had lost three hens already to a mini plague and became instinctively worried I might have lost yet another one.

I unhinged the latch to the nesting box on the hens' mobile coop where I could get a full view of the inside -- and also collect any eggs -- and there she was. "Prrreeeet," she trilled, fluffing up her feathers to make her appear larger on the nest. Sigh. I had seen this before. "Brrrtttt," she muttered, warning me that she was serious. I closed the door.

I have hens. Only hens. No roosters. I had roosters once after hatching some Bantam (small chickens) eggs. I hatched five eggs from an incubator and all five resulted in a rooster. That was the end of incubating eggs on this farm. It was also the end of roosters here, as the five became increasingly aggressive, biting the hand that fed them a few too many times. I am not unaccustomed to conflicts with the animals that come to live on my farm. As a matter of fact, every relationship -- first with the goats, then with the donkeys, and even a temporary cow -- started adversarially, before we built trust and an understanding. But the roosters were too much. Too noisy, singing rounds all day long, one cueing the next to crow, again and again. Too hostile, constantly attacking the back of my legs -- disconcerting even with high rubber boots on -- and then my face. No. They went to live with another farmer.

Not having a rooster meant little hope for my hen. She had become what they call in chicken circles "broody." Broody is the hen's natural instinct to hatch eggs for chicks. She hoards eggs in a clutch and sits on them day in and day out for 28 days. She eats little and rarely leaves the nest. She gets up to grab a quick snack, go to the bathroom and to wet her feathers to keep a little needed moisture on the nest.

I know this sounds obvious, but a rooster fertilizes the eggs in order for chicks to hatch. You are probably rolling your eyes and saying "duh," but you would be surprised how many people ask me -- knowing full well that I do not have a rooster -- if we hatch chicks here. When I reiterate that we don't have a rooster, they continue the line of questioning. "Well if you don't have a rooster how do the chickens lay eggs?" Hens lay an egg about 320 times a year, rooster or no rooster. Just thought I would clear that up.

My neighbor and good friend Carl has chickens too. A bunch of them. He resurrected his chicken coop after he helped me with my first six hens in 2010. He had chickens on his family's farm as a boy and had forgotten how much he loved them. Carl also has two roosters. So, he brought me seven eggs, all potentially fertilized in his coop. We drew an X on them with a Sharpie (because the other hens would continue to lay in the same box and we didn't want the X eggs to be confused with unfertilized eggs) and put them under my hen. Ahhh. Possibility. I marked the calendar.

Meanwhile, my friend Ken had been telling me about his Pekin duck pair: the female, a smooth white duck with a storybook orange bill and webbed feet and the male, a crested Pekin with a crazy white bouffant feather arrangement atop his head. They parade around his yard, waddling and quacking, quacking and waddling. The videos he'd send me were hilarious. The female duck was clearly in charge and had a lot to say about pretty much everything, while her mate followed faithfully behind.

Just about the time my hen started sitting on eggs, Ken's duck did the same -- on about 10 eggs -- at his house. "I'm going to give you the ducklings when they hatch." he declared. "Either that or they're dinner." he threatened. And so it went. I was counting down two maternity calendars at once and preparing one of the two donkey stalls (they always share one anyway) for all the babies. I scrubbed it clean, painted it white, insulated the door for the winter, screened the window for ventilation, built a 5-level roost and hung two nesting boxes. I installed fireproof heaters and a small box for the littlest babies to give them protection from bigger birds. Then I waited.

Periodically I would check the eggs under my hen when she'd get up to stretch her legs. I'd remove any unmarked eggs and add them to the carton in the fridge. And I'd count the eggs. We went from seven marked eggs to five and then to four. It's hard to say what happened to the ones that were missing. She may have sensed they weren't good and ate them. I kid you not, but I found no trace of them in the coop. At Ken's duckling ward, similar disappearances were happening. Ten duck eggs became five. At the conclusion of the two 28-day calendars no babies emerged in either nest. No chicks. No ducklings.

Life on a farm is nothing if not allegorical to real life. That is to say, you can't manage a farm without drawing connections to your own life, your relationships with friends and family, your community, the world. At least I can't. There's warmth and empathy, conflict and personality clashes. There's competition and cooperation. There's affection and irritation. And on full display at the farm this spring and summer was a powerful maternal instinct. My hen knew it was time for her to hatch some chicks. I wonder if the loss of her three flockmates made it obvious to her internal clock that repopulation was in order, or if it was just her time.

Within my own human family, this year marked some particular nest milestones. You hear about empty nest a lot when the youngest child in a family nears college age. This year, my daughter embarked on her first year in college as my son finished his last. It was supposed to be our first year with a real empty nest and both kids in school. The first semester went as planned with a laughable amount of Parents' Weekends, concerts and school breaks, connecting us with one or both of our kids in person for nine weekends in a row. Not really an empty nest after all. Then the pandemic emerged and our nest was quite the opposite of empty.

I have mixed feelings about the empty nest, but my instincts draw me toward a "new chapter" and "new opportunities" rather than toward a tissue box. That said, going from a probable empty nest to a quarantined full-time super full nest and then back to a completely and even emptier nest required a lot of prolonged energy, emotion and various transitions. I began to feel a very strong empathy for my chicken and duck mother friends.

To sum it up, by the end of August we had one empty chick nest, one empty duck nest, one refreshed-but-empty coop/nursery and one empty house. It was a lot of empty. Unexpectedly, the universe stepped in. Cue an unrelenting rainy day that brought a chill and inspired the first fire in the fireplace, definitely out of place for early August. Notebooks, pens and a my laptop on the sofa were all that I needed. It was too good to last. The familiar throttle of my neighbor's truck and the dog barking madly in reply forced me up from my cozy nest-like perch.

"Get in my truck," my neighbor insisted, when I got to the door. "It's pouring," I said, looking down at my bare feet. "Get in my truck. You won't melt." he chided. His truck was 100 degrees, heaters blaring. He closed the door and reached over the seat to grab two of what looked like Dunkin Donuts boxes... the kind they use for their donut hole Munchkins. I salivated without knowing it. And then I heard it. Peep. Peep peep. I opened the boxes slowly. Six butter-yellow, baby soft, fluffball ducklings huddling together. Three in each box.

Two weeks later my neighbor repeated the exercise, but with six baby chicks instead. You'd think I'd catch on, but they were a surprise too. He seemed to understand somehow that a mother needs her nest to be full. And so the previously broody hen and I had a new flock to look after and very full nests.

xoxo Farm Girl

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