Edible Berkshires

THE LAST BITE: Chick Magnet

Mothering Comes Naturally to a Hen—and a Rare Cat

Silhouette by writer’s mother, Ingrid S. Buchinger 1907–1996.

By Christiane Marks

In the ’50s, when I was a child, we had lots of animals: rabbits, chickens, cats. We often had a hen sitting on eggs, too, which is rare today.

How well I remember the ritual of taking the disgruntled hen off the eggs once a day—very carefully loosening her wings first, to dislodge the eggs that might be under them; putting her down in front of a dish of grain and a dish of water and making sure that she ate and drank; and then she had to make einen grossen Klecks (we were German) so she wouldn’t later soil the nest and the eggs. Not until then would she be allowed back on her nest.

One early spring we took the chicks that hatched first away from the mother hen because we wanted to make sure she didn’t start leading them around and abandon the unhatched eggs to the cold. We nestled the chicks into a soft towel in a bushel basket and placed them under the high-legged oven, part of the old-fashioned stove.

We children got to feed them. We would pour a little water into a saucer that had a flower pattern on it; the chicks would peck at the dark spot, thinking it was food and so discover by accident that it was water. Then instinct would take over and they would drink. Their first food was chickweed and hard-boiled eggs, finely chopped.

But one particular time, before we had a chance to do this, our cat, Muschi, who had just had kittens, hearing the cheeping noises, came up to the bushel basket looking quite concerned, and jumped in. We watched, mesmerized and little fearful as she picked up one cheeping chick after another, very gently in her mouth, and carried it to her own basket to mother along with her kittens. Not as predator, but as 100% mother!

Too bad we didn’t have a camera to capture the chicks cuddling into her warm fur along with the kittens. Muschi looked very proud for having added to her family! But of course the chicks could not take the nourishment she so generously offered, so the heartwarming idyll was short-lived.

Here’s a suggestion to chicken owners, particularly those with children or child friends: Let one of your hens hatch eggs and allow her to mother and lead and teach her chicks. Children are so often shown incubators in which chicks come out of eggs—but then they are all alone without warm feathers to cuddle into, no gentle clucking, no one to teach them anything! That’s not very reassuring to children, and not what nature intended. My mother always said her hen-raised chickens were far more intelligent and resourceful than incubatorraised ones. And I’m sure they had a happier childhood!

Christiane Marks spent the first few of her 75 years in World War II Germany, where having chickens, rabbits and a garden and foraging for wild edibles and firewood were matters of survival. Her mother, Ingrid S. Buchinger, was one of the first-generation Biodynamic gardeners and they continued the tradition in the American Midwest. One of her summertime pleasures is to harvest fruit from neglected trees, vines and shrubs.