Birth Lessons from a Chicken

Birth Lessons from a Chicken

by Molly Remer, MSW, ICCE, CCCE

Originally published in Midwifery Today, 2009 Spring;(89):49

“Should we just let her sit on them?” my husband asked. He had been struggling to keep a broody hen off her nest for almost two weeks.

“I always vote in favor of the mother,” I told him. So, we stopped trying to oust her. My husband gathered up six random eggs from the coop and put them under her and we let her sit.

We consulted our book on raising chickens. The chicken book had very little encouraging advice about “natural incubation.” After reading it, we learned that she was likely to let the eggs get too cold causing them to die, or perhaps just chill a part of them causing the chicks to have deformed feet. If she did manage to hatch them, they will probably get bacteria in them from the “unsanitary” nest site and get “mushy chick disease.” This is, of course, if the eggs happen to be viable at all, which is improbable. It is recommended not to let her sit and if she persists to either cull her (kill her), or to just let her sit there until she dies of starvation trying to hatch infertile eggs (and therefore culls herself). The book also informed us that if she has feathery feet (she does), she will probably knock the eggs out of the nest by accident and break them. Also, she should definitely be sitting in the spring and not the dead of winter. After studying the book, we are left with a clear sense that incubating eggs artificially is the preferred way to go and that “natural incubation” is fraught with difficulty and dangers.

However, there our chicken sat in the unheated, but well built and insulated chicken coop as the January temperatures outdoors reached -2F. We concluded that she probably had a 5% chance of actually hatching anything and I felt sad for her.

Then, one morning when my husband went to feed the chickens, he heard a funny noise. He looked at the broody hen and from beneath her, a fuzzy head appeared. Then two. Eventually, four. In this cold, cold weather at the wrong time of year with the wrong

The mama hen and two of her chicks

kind of feet and the wrong kind of eggs, she did it! We didn’t trust her, or believe in her. Our book and the experts didn’t either. However, her inherent mothering wisdom won out—it trumped us. At the risk of excessive personification, it truly seemed that she had believed in herself and trusted her instincts (or perhaps, that Nature believed in itself).

Perhaps we could have had the same result with an artificial incubator—a tray that rotates the eggs, instead of “clumsy” feathered feet; a properly temperature controlled unit instead of the heat of her own breast; a sterilized box instead of a wooden coop with an unscientific amount of possibly “germy” feathers plucked from her own body.

My husband ran to get the rest of the family and as we watched that first small fuzzy baby with its eyes bright with life, I was awash with the parallels—the book tells her that her pelvis will be too small, labor will be too painful, her skin won’t stretch, she might have GD, there might be any manner of complications, maybe she should elect to have the baby surgically. Why all the fuss about doing it “naturally” anyway?

Then, as we continued to stare in amazement, the mama hen clucked to her baby softly and fluffed her wings around it until it disappeared beneath her with the others. Isn’t this the birthright of every new baby of any species? To be snuggled immediately after birth into the warm embrace and near the breast of the female body that has given it life? The body that has cared for and nurtured it so lovingly so that its head may finally peek out into the world?

If our chicken were to write a book about hatching babies—or about giving birth—perhaps her section about natural incubation would read:

Maybe she knows what she’s doing.

Maybe you should trust her.

Maybe she can do a better job with her own body and her own babies than you can.

Maybe she can do this all by herself.

Molly Remer, MSW, ICCE, CCCE is a certified birth educator and activist. She is editor of the Friends of Missouri Midwives newsletter, a breastfeeding counselor, and the mother of two young sons and a baby girl on the way. She loves to write and blogs about birth at https://talkbirth.wordpress.com, midwifery at http://cfmidwifery.blogspot.com, and miscarriage at http://tinyfootprintsonmyheart.wordpress.com.

This is a preprint of Birth Lessons from a Chicken, an article published in Midwifery Today, 2009 Spring;(89):49. Copyright © 2009 Midwifery Today. Midwifery Today’s website is located at: http://www.midwiferytoday.com

21 thoughts on “Birth Lessons from a Chicken

  1. I love this post!!! As a doula and a Childbirth Educator, many, many times I’ve said to women that even if no one was there to help you give birth, you WILL give birth. Your body knows what to do and it WILL do it. It’s best if you can let go of any preconceived ideas of what “should” happen and of whatever “your plan” is. Be in the moment as much as you can. Live the experience as it is happening and participate in the way your body directs you to. It will tell you what to do if you can tune in and listen.

    Thank you for a great post!

  2. This is a wonderful post – and so TRUE! Isn’t it crazy that these “experts” think they know better about birthing baby chickens than the mother chicken herself! You’d think that chickens in the wild were never able to hatch anything, wouldn’t you? Just like human mothers in “the wild” probably couldn’t birth their own babies without being hacked open or injected with labour inducing drugs, or having their baby forcibly removed with big BBQ tongs…

  3. This is great. Since my first pregnancy, I have often thought of my livestock, and how they always seemed to know what to do. In the nearly 20 years before I left my family’s farm, and the many times I came back, I never had to assist one of my cattle, goats, or horses, in birthing. I would always just go out to the pasture and find that one or another had her baby. It was great. They always knew exactly what they were doing. I have never considered myself inferior to my livestock. If they can birth without fear, intervention, or complication, then why wouldn’t I be able to do it, too? As nature would have it, and not at all surprisingly, I am just as able as they are. I am not the dumbed down version, in need of intervention and artificial things to “save” my babies from the process hundreds of thousands of years of evolution refined us for.

    People look at me like I’ve lost my mind when I tell them how I generally labor alone, and don’t find it particularly painful until someone bothers me. It’s not crazy. It’s biology. Just as the chicken knew what she was doing, and every one of my wonderful animals has brought her babies into the world without a hitch, so have I. Human mothers are just as able as our animal counterparts.

  4. The doctors around here, all believe that it is better to induce and have a Cesarean procedure. The problem is, the women listen to them. It’s okay that I endanger my own body here, because being split wide open is normal and SAFER than having a natural birth. IN fact, I will take the spinal tap too, so I don’t get too uncomfortable! Oh my! They just don’t realize what dangers they are putting themselves into! Not to mention the fact they opened their bodies and have a huge wound on all levels, to heal! That their muscles and structure has been weakened by the unnecessary opening. I have asked many new and young mothers that live around me: why are you letting them cut you open? Why do you not try giving normal birth? Oh! We can’t do that! The Doctor says… ARGH
    Stupidity runs in the women folk these days, they think like the Blonde jokes you hear! There is always a real emergency situation, that I grant, but these young mothers to be are just accepting a huge invasion of their bodies, because a money greedy and lazy doctor “says so”!

  5. This is such a wonderful article. I have given birth safely at home unassisted to both of my beautiful children, and I am so blessed to have done so. I had a 7 hour, twenty minute later with my daughter and a 6 hour labor with my son, both nursed right away with no problems, and both are spectacularly healthy, smart, caring, and wonderful.
    I also have chickens who have naturally hatched their babies. I had one chicken who had two clutches — the first had a single egg, the second had a single egg also, but I “helped” her by giving another egg from her sister, and both hatched. The other two hens each hid their nests from me out in the yard, and we found that one had six of her eight eggs hatch, and the other had all eight of her eggs hatch! They also have feathered feet, and they are even bantam hens, so they are “too small” to keep all eight eggs sufficiently warm, right? So we went from four chickens to EIGHTEEN, practically overnight! I think you either see birth (of a baby or a chicken) as poorly designed, fraught with danger, in desperate need of intervention and control, or you see it as a beautiful, natural thing that needs hands off until it proves that it needs intervention. (If you break your leg, then you get it set. If you cut your hand badly, then you get stitches or a butterfly bandage or whatever is called for. If you run into trouble giving birth, THEN you get help.) The VAST majority of women and babies, the VAST majority of time would do perfectly well to birth/be born at home. Nutrition, exercise, education, and personal responsibility are the hallmarks of a successful pregnancy. Our society looks at pregnancy as either a time to just sit around and do nothing or a time to eat like a pig or a time to complain. We need to look at it properly as a normal part of our lives, one marked by good food, long walks, healthy relationships, and lots of research.
    I have been pregnant or nursing since 2004, and, although I did have some doubts early on about my ability to get pregnant, carry a baby to term, nurse, etc., I have proven that I am great at it! If you let the doubts sabotage your success, you will never know that YOU CAN DO IT! Your kids need (and deserve!) to know it, too!

  6. Having been raised on a farm and with chickens hatching their own eggs, I think you need a new chicken book.

    Or perhaps, the farm is why I believe in birth.

    We always left the hens to hatch their own brood and would sometimes slip a few other chicks in that we had purchased from the hatchery. I was always amazed at how many those hens could fit under their wings.

    Trust mom, trust birth.

    • I know, Linda! This is a classic book on raising chickens–many copies sold (hmm. Could it be that What to Expect When Your Expecting? is its human counterpart?). In fact, the editor of MT recognized which book it must be from the terms I used from it!

      Since this story was written, we’ve had quite a few more batches of hatchlings (some from the same hen, some from her two identical sisters). Some as successful as this, some less so. Invariably, it has worked better when we don’t try to improve upon it (by moving the mother somewhere “more comfortable,” etc.)

  7. This is a wonderful post! As someone who JUST hatched some chicks in an incubator (yes, I know, wrong time of year), I so appreciate your little hen doing everything just right. My husband and I had never hatched any chicks so this was our first attempt. We hatched 9 out of 12 eggs. They started hatching on Jan. 6th and completed on the 9th. I posted the process on my blog. I can’t help but wish that the little chicks had a Mommy to teach them things and spread her wings over them. We do our best but it is not the same. Yes, they are healthy and vigorous, but believe me we are going to keep our eye open for a good broody hen. Nature is far superior. Thanks again for your post. It was sweet.

  8. I second the poster who said get rid of the book. I want to point out though that many of the chicken breeds common now were bred in factories, hatched in incubators, not by hens. Hatching is a learned behavior. Also,many have been bred for our use and convinience. The parallels are obvious. We are in a long line of women who have never seen normal birth, women who have never heard of normal birth in many cases. we are also,not in our natural habitat so to speak so we have more difficulty in birth. Having said that I am a mother of 5,all born at rhome.I believe birth is normaland natural, just not the environment of birth

    • We have 25 chickens and many of them have have never showed an interest in sitting on eggs–a lot of breeds are actually advertised with that as one of their “positive” traits (“rarely broody”). The ones who do–like the one in this article–are often mixed breeds (my theory being that the less “pure” they are, the more they return to their natural chicken instincts/habits). We had three chickens that were identical (to the one pictured–we called them The Three Musketeers) and they all successfully hatched babies, where several of our other hens tried several times and failed each time. Unfortunately, when one of them actually hatched a baby that was her own offspring instead of just whomever’s eggs were in the nest, it ended up getting picked off by a hawk when it was about six weeks old 😦 Nature doesn’t always have a happy ending!

      We’ve raised Cornish Cross chickens for meat before–talk about Frankenchickens that have no normal/natural left in them 😦

  9. Molly,
    I’ve raised chickens for about 5 years now…
    You have a horrible book! LOL. Also, you should at least read a few different ones anyway. That way, you can play off one another.

    Actually, most chickens are now mixed breeds. That’s the reason why many of them get the broodiness bred out of them. It’s for maximum production. While she’s broody, she’s not laying. My best broody hens were a Silky/Brahma mix and a purebred Cochin (with feathered feet). My worst hatches ever? In an incubator. Horrible! That’s when I got malformed chicks and higher death rates.
    Also, the hen will not starve to death. That’s just idiotic for that book to suggest! If a broody hen always starved to death, and never hatched a normal chick, we wouldn’t have chickens. They’d become extinct! Chickens were not created to give us eggs every day of the year… we’ve bred some to do that.

    Playing books off one another is exactly what I’m doing with “What to Expect..”, “Spiritual Midwifery”, etc. No book I found so far has as good of a week-by-week progress than WTE, but it’s lousy for the actual main event. SM, “The Bradley Method”, and a few others are great for the main event, but rather sparse for the first 9 months. The only well-rounded book I found was from The Mayo Clinic. So far, that’s been good. However, I’m only 5 months along.

    Good luck!

  10. Great analogy!
    Growing up I was taught that if you had a rooster and a hen that you would somehow get chicks. It always seemed to work whether we wanted it to or not. Good thing our prolific free range bantams never read the book.

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