by Bernice N. Fishpaw of DeLand, FL
“Grandma, if you were an animal, what animal would you be?” Without too much thought I said, “I guess I would be a settin’ hen.” I already knew the next question.
“What’s a settin’ hen?”
“That is a mother hen that sit on her eggs to keep them warm so they can hatch into baby chickens then protects them until they can take care of themselves.”
Heidi and I sat in the big wing chair and my arm was around her shoulder. We had just finished reading the story of Bambi. (I felt just like one of our hens with one chick, my arm like a protective wing.)
I then told her about growing up on the farm in Wisconsin. Chickens were as much a part of the farm scene as the cornfield or the cows and pigs and all the other activities that made a farm in the 1920’s.
A hen’s mission in life was to lay eggs. Eggs were one of the foods that we ate for breakfast and used to bake with. We took what we did not use at home to town to sell to the grocery store. The hen, of course, had a different reason to lay her eggs because it is from her eggs that baby chickens hatch.
Hens, when not kept in a pen, hide their nests all over the place, usually under something where they will not be disturbed. It was my job, every afternoon after school, to hunt in all the hiding places to find the eggs and put them in my basket. They were under the steps to the porch, behind the door of the tool shed or between the studs of the barn in the haymow, or in the manger of an unused horse stall. Some were even in the weeds between the buildings.
It was a great game for me to hunt for the hidden nests. I liked the money I got, which was half of what the store paid for the eggs. That was ten cents a dozen.
But I always left a few nests so that we would have a new supply of chickens each year. My mother allowed a couple of roosters to escape the frying pan so that the eggs would be fertile and could hatch into baby chicks. Some people even think that fertile eggs are more nutritious.
A hen laid from ten to fifteen eggs before she started to brood, or sit on them. She would only leave the nest long enough to eat and drink some water, so the eggs stayed at just the right temperature. It took three weeks for the chicks to hatch.
When a hen sat on the nest she was very protective, pecking any living thing that came near, such as a curious cat. They pecked me too, but like the kitty, I quickly learned not to mess with a settin’ hen. They would properly be called sitting but to me they were settin’ hens.
As soon as the chicks hatched, mother and chickens venture into the wide world of the farmyard where all sorts of danger awaited them. Then the mother hen became really mean. She ran at any animal that came near them, chasing it way across the yard. She would make her feathers stand straight out and spread her wings so that she looked twice as big as she really was. If a hawk flew over, she hunkered down, called the chicks to her and spread her wings. They snuggled under them, safe and secure. At night they slept under that protective wing.
As soon as a hen came out of hiding with her brood we would catch her and the chickens. We put them in small, triangle shaped coups with slats on one side. They were then safe from the rain or night predators such as a fox or possum. Even the owls like baby chicks. The hen would be a captive for a few days until she got used to her new home before we propped the coop open to let them roam. Of course we always provided food and water. They always returned to the coup at night.
Human mothers protect their chicks with their warm arms and will fight anyone who dares to do them harm.
“Gee Grandma, I bet you’d be a great settin’ hen.”
I gave Heidi a little squeeze. “Yeah, I think maybe I would.”