The Speckled Sussex has kept its instinctive quality to brood where it has been bred out of so many other breeds of chickens.
Broody: I've always known the expression especially from when I was pregnant and have a husband who was, more or less, raised working on other people's farms. I was raised on one, too, more or less, in the summers, and then year round, but by that time my grandparents had a much diminished supply of livestock and by the time I was a teenager we were down to a few ponies, some dogs and various cats. In our somewhat Puritanical-strained household, all adjectives describing fornication or anything remotely to do with it were not exactly bandied about so it wasn't until much later that I learned the term.
This passage is from the marvelous, funny and unsentimental memoir, The Egg and I, of life with chickens and raising them alongside her husband, by **Betty MacDonald. She pauses for a rare bit of sentiment that also defines the essence of my childhood farm summers with our picnic lunches under the apple trees and around the few animals that my grandparents still raised–a flock of ducks, some geese, chickens for meat, and a calf or two (usually named "Mr. Peabody" after a friend of my grandfather's):
Prior to life with Bob my sole contact with baby chickens had been at the age of eleven. Lying on my stomach in our hammock which was swung between two Gravenstein apple trees in the orchard by the house in Laurelhurst, I pulled out grass stems, at the tender white part and watched Layette, Gammy’s favorite Barred Rock hen, herd her fourteen home-hatched fluffy yellow chicks through the drifting apple blossoms and under the low flowering quince trees. This sentimental fragment of my childhood was a far cry from the hundreds and hundreds of yellowish, white, yeeping, smelly little nuisances which made my life a nightmare in the spring."Feeling broody" is the state of wanting to have babies and make a nest and Layette was clearly allowed to let nature take its course and do her business as a mother, unstopped. Most of us have feathered a nest from time to time: whether our own, or in preparing a nursery for a new baby, or, good grief, in the full scale cataloguing of household books and closet-hoeing (yup, been there-done that with my first child and I've never been so organized since)–a complete and total "nest fest." Even as recently as a few years ago, in my early 40s, in what was retrospectively the start of perimenopause, I had what I call a distinctive "baby lust": I wanted to hold them, smell them, have them! [But reason prevailed and sometimes reason has its place.]
Yesterday when I let our chickens out in the mid-afternoon (which is really too early if you want them to finish laying eggs in the hen house first), I watched one of our Speckled Sussex hens wander into the open garden gate. [Our garden was a disaster this summer and wasn't helped by me being away for two weeks in June–so I've turned the hens into it.] She was making the oddest sound–part contentment, part strangely guttural–that I hadn't yet heard in the vast repertoire of chicken music. After a few minutes I realized she had hunkered down in a spot of tall grass (yes, the garden is that weedy right now!).
I went to pick her up to see if she was alright and she let me. There below her were three eggs. I wasn't sure if she had just laid them or if she had returned to a spot where she'd been laying these past few days. When I went to shut the chickens in at dusk–after they'd already filed into the hen house on their own–I noticed one more egg amongst the clutch of three. I decided, against my own motherly nature, to bring them in the house as they were very small eggs and I'm not even sure if they are fertile (although given the randy antics of Stew Standish they likely are–and as Jay Rossier notes in his excellent book, Living With Chickens [The Lyons Press: 2002] "chicken sex is short and not sweet"). As the chickens are just starting to lay, at 20 weeks and counting, we are getting four or so a day in different sizes and colors (so I know at least one of the five Aracaunas is laying). By the end of the month I expect more like twenty-five a day until the days really shorten this winter (one reason to place your chicken house in a well-lit southern-exposed area: like most humans, chickens need sunlight to be happy and productive). PHOTO: Chickens also do other instinctive things, like take dust baths to ward off the mites and lice that are naturally attracted to their feathers.
Before I snatched up the eggs, I had consulted my chicken books and the Internet, of course, for what to do with a broody hen. It seems that there are two schools of thought: one is to isolate the hen immediately and put them in a pen with no straw or anything, or boxes, to discourage nesting–kind of like a "home for unwed mothers." Well, that just rankled me and I thought about how it is against their nature to do such a thing. Other people say, hey, if you want to extend your flock, by all means, encourage the broody hens because they will be good mothers and may even adopt other eggs that you want to hatch. However, another book said that a broody hen is likely to lay a clutch of eggs that will hatch into other broody hens, so think twice about it unless you happen to want a lot of mother hens–and their chicks–around. I think I know enough about breeding to know that the chicks would not be true to their mother but a cross between a Barred Rock and a Speckled Sussex–well, or a little banty rooster who is now in the mix but he seems to keep his distance from all of them, probably out of self-protection.
We will soon be coming into the cooler months and while we have warm, often summery, autumn months and temperate winters, with the occasional short-lived wintry spell, here in Kentucky, I don't think this is the time to be encouraging more chickens–even though we are down about 10 total from our original batch of 37 chicks. Perhaps in the springtime. [And yet, August seems the hottest month in Kentucky and a clutch of eggs only takes 20-21 days to hatch. But then you have to keep Mamma and her chicks away from the others until the chicks are a bit bigger–and we're getting more meat birds in mid-September.] I also read, to my surprise, that the instinct for brooding has been bred out of certain varieties like the Rhode Island and New Hampshire Reds and the Plymouth Barred Rocks so that in the larger, egg laying poultry houses, this situation is virtually non-existent. However, the rarer breeds, like the Speckled Sussex (which is a beautiful bird and quite friendly), have kept this trait and good on them because it is their natural instinct to do so. Broodiness, as it happens, can also be catchy among chickens so if you want eggs to eat and/or sell, you have to try to nip this tendency in the bud. And, you can caponize a rooster so it isn't fertile (although there are few around who can, or are willing, to do this any more). Chickens, unlike wandering pets, really shouldn't be neutered. PHOTO: Chickens naturally want to be up on things, like porches or railings or in this case, our garden bench. It is part of their roosting instinct and what they will do at night when they sleep.
An image by Walter Crane for the poem, "My Mother," by Ann Taylor (and reissued in 1910). You can read it here where you can also see more illustrations from the book.
Of course, all of this got me thinking about motherhood in general–the argument for small numbers of children vs. larger broods (if I hear any more about Jon and Kate Plus 8, a show I've never even watched, and their antics, or the Octo-Mom, I think I'll scream!). How in China the amount of children you have is limited by the government, how here it would seem to now be a case of those fervently for large amounts of children vs. those who are just as self-righteous in their choice of one or, God forbid, two. With the common rhetoric it would seem that any amount above four is really pushing it. Three is acceptable. Four is borderline. [When I was pregnant with Henry my husband ran into an old acquaintance at the doctor's office. After greeting each other and talking about why we were there, this man said, "If you have more than two children, I'll never speak to you again." My husband was quick to note, "But Mr. None-of-Your-Business (not really what he called him), you had five children!" He blustered: "Well, it was different then...we didn't have the population explosion that we do now."]
But what makes people take license to be inappropriate just as they go up and pat the bulging tummies of pregnant mothers? Is it more than a visceral reaction to concerns about the environment, or something else? Why do some of us rankle when we see a large family, even one that can sustain itself by their own means, income or productivity? Few of us have read Margaret Sanger on the subject so perhaps it is something more primal, like being repulsed by the thought of women pumping out babies like eggs in a clutch. Why do people make such inappropriate remarks about a Mama and her large brood following her around in a grocery store? IMAGE: Chicks are also a symbol of fertility and new life at Easter, as depicted in this old postcard, and perhaps it is the power of fertility that both scares and attracts us.
My great-grandparents and their brood in Akron, Ohio, c. 1908: from left to right, Irene, John, Willard, Gertrude (next to my Grandpa James Penfield), F.A. (Franklin Augustus) holding baby Franklin, and Virginia.
We once were a nation of large families–in part because of a lack of birth control or education but also because it was a time when many hands were needed on a farm. My maternal grandmother came from a family of nine, albeit a very privileged family, with staff, in suburban New Jersey and she and my grandfather went on to have six children (mostly supported by their New Hampshire farm). My paternal grandfather, even more privileged, was one of seven children (one died in infancy). His father had been one of nine children, born and raised on a farm in the Ohio countryside. I can attest to the reality that a large family does not mean an impoverished, uneducated one. I'm willing to even wager that those in large families of the past–and today–might have even received more good and positive attention than of smaller families today where we can often be in our own little bubble worlds, further so by our computers, cell phones and portable music. Children in large families learn, at an early age, that they are part of a team that must work together to share and negotiate. Of course, anyone could argue the merits, and disadvantages, of families large and small.
In literature, large families were most often portrayed as a big, rollicking happy bunch like Margaret Sydney's The Five Little Peppers series and Cheaper by the Dozen, also made into a movie and later a remake (or my favorite family movie from my childhood, Yours, Mine and Ours starring Henry Fonda and Lucille Ball). Like everything else, a large brood should be a personal choice and I have nothing but admiration for those who can succeed in doing so without troubling the taxpayers. Of course, among the Mennonites and Amish, large families are just the way it is. A good friend of mine was one of almost twenty children–they adored their mother while their father was more distant and virtually uninvolved. She is still close with all of her siblings and they are all leading productive lives. I have seen the pros and cons of large families, that's for certain, and in a way I am very envious of them because I do not have a big, happy extended family and haven't for many years. A child of divorce tends to be insecure about such things and long for what they've never had. But I have reconciled that reality and am determined to create it within my own brood.
Then there is Flora Poste, the young orphaned English heroine of Stella Gibbons' Cold Comfort Farm  who liked everything tidy and set out to do so at the rambling, oversexed, slovenly farmstead of her relatives in the countryside, the Starkadders [think a cross between a Thomas Hardy or a Brontë rural genre novel, with the witty dialogue of P.J. Wodehouse, with a bit of Jane Austen, and you have the essence of Cold Comfort Farm–great movie, too, from 1995]:
"You see, Mary...unless everything is tidy and pleasant and comfortable all about one, people cannot even begin to enjoy life. I cannot endure messes."Later Flora asks one of the Starkadders about a suitor for Elfine's attentions:
"'Ay–blast un fer a capsy, set up yearling of a womanizer.'" The reply came clotted with rage, but behind the rage were traces of some other and more obscure emotion; a bright-eyed grubbing in the lore of farmyard and bin, a hint of the casual lusts of chicken-house and duck pond, a racy, yeasty, post-toasty interest in the sordid drama of man's eternal blind attack and woman's inevitable yielding and loss.Flora sought out to tidy up the procreation of the inhabitants of the farm and yard, as much as she did the direction of their lives. Believe me, there are many days I wish I were a little more "Flora" myself and she does have a good theory about why we should be tidy–and there are times when a farmyard and a household just are not. [Here is an excellent book review site (Stuck-in-a-Book) that I just came across with more about Cold Comfort Farm–its writer's profile, Simon Thomas, reads: "...I'm a Christian-bookoholic-vegetarian-twin, just finished a Masters in 20th Century English Lit. at Oxford University. Wherever I am, you can guarantee I'll be Stuck-in-a-Book!"]
There is also the mothering instinct. Flora didn't really seem to have it in Gibbons' novel, although she was young and was set out on information-gathering for her first novel that she planned to write one day. And she was mothering, although not ready to have children–or a husband–herself. Like chickens, I believe that some of us were born to be broody and others were not. Just because we have the biology does not make us necessarily fit for the task. IMAGE: I believe this painting is either by John Singer Sargent or Mary Cassatt of the late 19th century school of American painting in Boston.
Some women are excellent mothers with this admirable knack of multitasking beyond belief and the ability to be there for each child or to help the children help themselves. And the best are those who can do that without being martyred and having to do it all themselves (it's called effective delegation). I am somewhere in between. I try my darnedest but realize my limitations. I am trying to raise my children in a non-Pollyanna way but one that is also somewhat protective while fiercely humorous and always forgiving. Validation is the key, I've found, as is allowing your child to be who they are with a respect for boundaries–a respect for the individual in the family unit while also a respect for others–without keeping them from the world. You also have to allow a bit of mess to creep in the door from time to time and decide whether or not it is more important to strive for a happy household or to insist on perfection at all times. Fortunately, my husband picks up where I leave off and vice versa. Our children also see us, warts and all, and some would argue that might not always be a good thing. But it's the real thing and at some point they will have to live in the world, too.
So back to my broody Speckled Sussex which caused all of this philosophizing in the first place. For now I feel it is important to enact an overriding farm yard government birthing policy over my hens, even if it feels like Communist China. I want them to produce eggs to eat and not more babies right now. In the spring I might be more apt to let them do their thing on their own. When you really sit down and analyze it, the whole egg issue is a much greater one: we are eating, in essence, undeveloped chickens and that's not only gross when you take pause but a whole other philosophical realm that I'd rather not dwell in!
**As well as The Egg and I, a New York Times bestseller in 1945, Betty MacDonald is also the author of some of my favorite childhood books about Mrs. PiggleWiggle and her magical cures for childhood ailments. They are all back in print and all of her books are laugh-out-loud funny and your children will love Mrs. PiggleWiggle and her stories, too. Another sideline is that the characters of Ma and Pa Kettle originated in The Egg and I, and, as well as the original book-to-film, went on to have many movies about their adventures throughout the 1950s, starring the great character actress Marjorie Main and Percy Kilbride.
Sadly, in my husband's eyes, I will never quite live up to the raucous farm wife portrayed by Miss Main (and her movie image, that he would prefer, is less slovenly in demeanor than how she is portrayed in the book version of The Egg and I). But I do try. For example, I wear an apron with a handy rag and am often adjusting my bra as she seems to do. In the book MacDonald casually notes that Ma and Pa Kettle had fifteen children for whom Ma "baked fourteen loaves of bread, twelve pans of rolls, and two coffee cakes every other day..."