Category Archives: Chickens

Late April: Harvesting, Planting, Working on– by Julia Frisbie

by Julia Frisbie

posted April 26, 2022

We just had a glorious sunny weekend, and I spent almost all of it in the garden. There’s always a lot going on in late April. Rather than doing a deep dive on any particular subject, today I’ll share a birds-eye view of what I’ve been harvesting, planting, and working on.


HARVESTING: Eggs, asparagus, rhubarb, kale florets, dandelion, raspberry leaves

Every bird in the garden is now laying eggs like crazy, inspired by increasing day-length to amass clutches in creative hidey-holes where they might be able to brood. The result is that every day in April, we get to go on an Easter Egg hunt in the chicken and duck yard. We feast on egg-heavy recipes– frittata, custard, egg salad– and give thanks.

Fresh, raw asparagus is so sumptuous that I never seem to amass enough of it for cooking. Whatever makes it into the kitchen usually gets sliced thinly and added to a salad. It’s unbelievably sweet!

As for rhubarb, the early growth is the tenderest of the year. I harvest just one or two early stalks from each of my rhubarb plants anytime after they’re longer than a foot and thicker than my thumb. It’s not enough for pie at this point, so I make rhubarb scones.


Our red russian kale feeds us year-round, and this is the season for each individual plant’s final offerings before going to seed. In April, the kale mamas get ready to flower, and I cut some of the flower stalks before the buds open and prepare them like broccoli (usually by roasting them in a 400 degree oven for just a few minutes until bright green). As long as the individual plant seems healthy and strong, I cut the central flower stalk in order to encourage lateral branching from the base of the plant, which creates both a longer harvest of florets and a larger eventual harvest of seed. This is also the time of year when I completely remove any less vigorous individuals from my backyard kale population so that their pollen doesn’t get added to the mix and influence the next generation.

Dandelions! I don’t grow them on purpose, but here they are, and I’m not sorry. The humans in the household have yet to develop a taste for them. (Please share your recipes in the comment section; I am always game to try again!) I leave lots for the bees as a source of early pollen, but each day in the spring I try to pull at least one dandelion plant up, rip it into small pieces, float it in clean water, and offer it to my ducks. This “dandelion soup” is extremely nutritious, and as we round the bend into the later half of their mating and egg laying season, their bodies are hungry for it. It’s the equivalent of a daily multivitamin, and they relish it.

My raspberry plants have now sent up hundreds of babies in all the wrong places. With help from friends, I’ve sent dozens off to new homes, but I still have a surplus. I harvest some for greenery in spring bouquets with daffodils and tulips, and cut the rest for red raspberry leaf tea. (If you’ve seen me in person recently, you might have some idea why it’s my new beverage of choice!)


PLANTING: Tender annuals under cover, Peas, leafy greens, and the first dahlias

Two weeks ago at the farmer’s market we did a soil blocking demonstration, and I started a tray of corn, a tray of cucumbers, a tray of tomatoes, a tray of herbs, and a tray of tender annual flowers. They’re on my heated propagation table right now, and almost everyone has germinated! Only my cucumbers failed to show up to the party, probably because the seed was packed in 2017, so after five years under mediocre storage conditions, it must have come to the end of its viable life. No problem; there’s still plenty of time. This weekend I started another tray of cucumbers with fresh seed to make up for it.

As regular readers will know, so far I’ve only direct-sown peas and leafy greens. (I did put in a row of Olympia spinach according to the instructions that Anna Torgeson left as a comment on the post about planting salad– thank you, Anna!) If you haven’t done yours yet, it’s not too late. At this point I’m hand watering lots of pea and salad seedlings because I haven’t gotten the drip irrigation set up for the year yet.

I planted the first dahlia tubers this past weekend. Most spots are still too cold for this, but if you’re working with raised beds in a favorable microclimate, it might be time. The batch of tubers I did this weekend went into a fluffy, newly-prepared bed against the southern eaves of my neighbor’s house. I told her not to worry about watering them until they emerge from the soil line; otherwise, they might get too damp and rot underground. I’ll probably begin to plant my own dahlia tubers into raised mounds of soil next weekend.


WORKING ON: soil prep, paths, irrigation, trellises, pest control

The major task in April is bed prep. Any energy you can invest into good infrastructure in your garden at this stage will pay you back with compound interest later in the season.

The first thing, of course, is weeding. Although I often allow them to flourish in perennial beds, deep rooted perennial or biennial weeds have to be dug out of annual beds, because they’ve got so much energy stored in their roots that they will outcompete seedlings. For example, I’ve been digging out dozens and dozens of dock plants. They’re here to help with excess magnesium, potassium, and phosphorus in my soil, and help loosen compacted subsoil. I thank them as I dig them out of my annual beds. Every root I remove leaves behind a deep and narrow hole that will allow water to drain and air to penetrate the soil. I soothe my aching back by telling myself that the dock removal project serves the same purpose as broadforking and is probably almost as effective.

Once a bed is free of deep-rooted weeds, it’s time to deal with all the little tiny seedlings of annual weeds. Getting around to this in April rather than May means that most can be eliminated just by surface disturbance. As I rake the soil into low mounds according to Peter Heffelfinger’s instructions, I create enough disturbance to wipe out weeds that are at the baby-leaf stage. (Once this year’s beds are fully formed, I won’t rake anymore, so I’ll have to rely on timely flame weeding or untimely manual removal. I’ll do that until the soil is warm enough that I feel like I can add a layer of weed-suppressing arborist wood chip mulch without slowing down the tender annuals’ progress, and then I let my plants fend for themselves for the rest of the season.)

A lot of what I’m doing when I form my garden beds is simply moving topsoil from the areas where I plan to have paths into the areas where I plan to have annual garden beds. In other words, I’m digging out the paths in order to build up the beds. But I don’t want to leave bare subsoil in the paths, because that’s an invitation to more weeds, and it also gets compacted by foot traffic and won’t drain well… in other words, not very cozy. So I add a two- to four-inch layer of arborist mulch into the paths I’ve dug out between garden beds. The channels of mulch act like mini-swales which soak up rainwater like sponges and then slowly release it to the beds adjacent.

Above: the bed is on the right, and the woodchipped path through the perennials is to the left.

After I’ve got beds (and paths) formed, it’s a good time for me to double check my drip irrigation lines, because I’ve just uncovered them with all that weeding and raking. I can fine-tune the system later (usually during Mother’s Day weekend when I’ve requested the gift of unpaid garden labor from my family), so at this stage I just want to make sure that I can see the lines and they’re in the right neighborhood.

Once beds are formed and irrigation lines are visible, we drive in t-posts at each end of any bed that will need a trellis this season. You can use loads of different stuff to make trellises, and different plants have different preferences. For climbing peas and beans, I use hortonova netting because their little tendrils seem to appreciate having thin stuff to grab. For tomatoes and cucumbers, I string some wire between two t-posts and then wind individual vines up to the wire on lengths of twine using a string trellis method.

A few years ago, April and May were months when I hunted slugs and snails at dawn and dusk, collecting and dispatching about a pint of them per day, because otherwise they would eat up all my seedlings. Now, all I do is throw a rogue one or two to the ducks when I come across it. Good job, ducks. Thank you for taking this disgusting chore off my to-do list.

That’s a snapshot of late April in my garden. Leave a comment and tell me what you’re harvesting, planting, and working on in your garden right now! I’m eager to know!

Meat Birds in the Easement — by Julia Frisbie

By Julia Frisbie

posted March 22, 2022

Our family is omnivorous, but we have serious concerns about both the ethics and the carbon footprint of conventionally raised meat. The more time we spend with our animals, the harder it is to imagine that they don’t have feelings, and the harder it is to eat meat raised on factory farms. I’ll never forget being passed by a flatbed semi on I-5, and glancing up to try and figure out why there was all this white fluff hitting my windshield… before realizing that the truck was stacked high with cages full of live chickens. After my initial bout of nausea, I wondered: why are we trucking chickens around on I-5, when they’re small enough to raise in any backyard?!

That was when I got motivated to raise my own meat chickens someday. I read books about the process. I took a weeklong class from Joel Salatin, a famous permaculturist who raises pastured poultry this way in Virginia. I learned that birds bred for meat production are basically defenseless against predators, and don’t fatten up if they get too much exercise. Rather than giving them a large area to roam, people who raise them on pasture do it in small pens which they move to fresh grass every day. This has the added benefit of stimulating extra carbon sequestration, just like any other rotational grazing plan but in miniature.

I even cleared it with the city planning department; they told me that as long as I didn’t erect any permanent structures, we could do whatever we wanted in the easement next to our house, including raising meat birds in a moveable pen. I asked, what about briefly exceeding the number of chickens allowed in the city code? Was that a problem? As long as it was temporary, and the adjacent neighbors didn’t complain, they weren’t too worried.

The only problem is, to raise chickens this way, you have to be at home every day for several consecutive months in order to move them daily so that they have access to fresh pasture. As two young professionals, we sometimes traveled for business, and we also visited family in Oregon several times a year. We couldn’t figure out how to make all that work with meat chickens, so we tabled the idea.

COVID-19 gave us the opening we needed. In March of 2020, as soon as it became clear that we’d be staying home for eleventy-bajillion days, we brought home 25 day-old “Freedom Ranger” chicks from the feed store. We set them up in a traditional brooder (okay, it was just a big cardboard box) with bedding, food, water, and a heat lamp. Usually we delegate the raising of chicks to a broody mama hen, but 25 is too many, even for a very good mama. This time, the raising would be up to us.


The very next day, we moved them and their food, water, and heat lamp into what we called our “outdoor brooder”: the bottom rung of an empty stacking compost barrel that was windproof and easy to clip the heat lamp to. Even tiny chicks can tolerate cold temperatures–  and quite enjoy the fresh air and sunshine– as long as they’ve got access to a 90-degree heat zone where they can warm up intermittently.


We moved this simple setup every day so that they had constant access to fresh grass. For two weeks, they commuted between their daytime outdoor brooder and their nighttime indoor brooder via bushel basket. Helping move the chicks was a favorite activity for our preschooler! They all looked the same, so he named them all Marshmallow.


Construction of a “chicken tractor” began. We built a three foot wide, ten foot long, two foot tall box with a slide-open door on each end. We attached steel roofing panels to one of the long sides and two thirds of the top so they’d get a nice balance of sunshine and shelter. Where we didn’t put roofing panels, we put hardware cloth. We left the bottom open. It was heavy enough not to blow away or get knocked over by a curious predator, but light enough that two adults could easily lift it a few inches off the ground and move it to a new spot.

On April 7, we put the chicken tractor in the easement, loaded all the chicks into a wheelbarrow (because they didn’t fit in the bushel basket anymore) and moved them into their new home. They immediately started running around, scratching, and sunbathing. They would still need a heat lamp on at night for a few weeks until they were fully feathered, but after watching their happy behavior, we had no doubt: the chicken tractor was a good habitat. They quickly learned to move along the ground inside their new home each day when we carefully lifted it to fresh grass.


The chicks in the easement turned out to be a great conversation starter. Of course, everyone who lives on our block is used to our antics by now, and they didn’t bat an eye. But kids, exercisers, and dog-walkers from the larger neighborhood often stopped to look at the chicks and chat. People wanted to know how they got there, why they were in a different place every day, and what we were going to do with that many chickens. Responses upon learning that we planned to eat them ranged from polite to enthusiastic. Helpful neighbors alerted us when a teenage chicken tunneled out between two big tufts of grass, and when coyotes were seen and heard nearby. Several people volunteered to help move the tractor, visit on butcher day to learn how it was done, or even buy meat from us!

We didn’t grow enough chickens to sell, but I certainly understood the appeal. That spring, amid supply chain uncertainty and slaughterhouse shutdowns, the factory farming poultry company Tyson made headlines by “depopulating” millions of birds. That meant pumping toxic white foam into warehouses full of caged chickens until every bird asphyxiated. People were justifiably horrified… and scared about food security. Getting to watch meat being raised a different way in their own neighborhood was exciting.


Only one person reacted negatively. She knocked on our door to accuse us of animal cruelty because the cage was too small. I tried to explain that if meat birds have too much space, they don’t reach slaughter weight before they start to crow. She was unmoved. I told her they have access to fresh pasture daily when we moved the tractor. She was unimpressed. I asked her if she ate chicken, and she said yes, but she only ate organic chicken. She couldn’t tell me where her chicken came from, but she was 100% sure it was “running around outside.”

That’s not actually what the “organic” label means. Organic meat chickens in the USA have to be able to “access the outdoors,” but usually a covered screened-in porch is all they get. There is no requirement for square feet of space per bird, or access to pasture, sunlight, or soil. The USDA’s “free range” label also doesn’t guarantee a minimum amount of space… or even full-body access to the outdoors. On balance, I think a life with sunlight and fresh grass in a moveable tractor is preferable; one of the main reasons we embarked on this whole project was to avoid animal cruelty.

But, it was true, the chicken tractor was getting a bit crowded.


In honor of the organic chicken lady’s discomfort, I slaughtered the birds who were obviously boys so that there would be no crowing and everyone else would have more elbow room. This was not the solution she had in mind. She called the cops on us. We got an apologetic visit from a young officer who said, “They’re meat birds? And you’re slaughtering the rest soon? Umm, okay, I’m just going to write a note in the report that says they look healthy and they have everything they need.”


And that was that. A few weeks later, our calendar read “CHICKENMAGEDDON.” One by one I lured them out of the tractor with handfuls of treats, held them in my arms, thanked them for their lives and the nourishment they would provide to our family… and then chopped their heads off. I’m not going to lie: it was a hard day. We scalded, plucked, and eviscerated them (Harvey Ussery’s book The Small Scale Poultry Flock was a huge help). We packaged, labeled, and froze them. We gave one to each of the adjacent neighbors to thank them for not complaining to the city, and packed the rest into the chest freezer. 

We ate homegrown chicken, and drank homegrown chickenfoot broth, for more than a year. Meanwhile, the easement changed colors. Monoculture gave way to polyculture. The chickens’ grazing pressure created intermittent disturbance, their manure added fertility, and their spilled grain seeded oats, wheat, peas, mustards, and who knows what else out there. From a person’s perspective, it’s a bit untidy. For deer, bunnies, and birds, it looks like a complete meal. From a bug’s eye view it must be a jungle. Carbon was sequestered, just as surely as our freezer was filled. 

Would we do it again? We didn’t last year, and won’t this year. The cost-benefit analysis of our time and effort didn’t pencil out; we might as well buy expensive free range chicken at the farmer’s market. If our family had more free time and less disposable income, that calculation might work out differently. Or if we could do it cooperatively and on a slightly larger scale– for example, with one other family to share the labor, and 50 chickens instead of 25– that might tip the scales in favor of homegrown chicken. But I’m glad we did it once. It helped us imagine and experiment with a different relationship to meat. 

What if neighbors teamed up to raise chickens in easements? Or herd goats along the alleyways to keep the blackberries down? Or keep rabbit hutches along the shady edges of the forest? What if backyard hens became neighborhood hens, and each street had a dairy cow rotating through its front lawns? I know I’m every HOA’s worst nightmare, but… how much food could we raise right here? How would it change the way we eat, the way we landscape, and the way we interact with each other? 

The only way to know is to get creative, try it out, and see what happens. 

Comparisons of Small Livestock

by Julia Frisbie

posted May 13, 2021

True polyculture includes many types of animals in addition to plants. We’ve created forage and shelter for wild critters around our yard, and also introduced several species of small livestock. Since the pandemic is a great time to get more animals (where else you gonna go, what else you gonna do?!) I’m providing a comparison chart of animal co-workers in our garden that you might consider adding to yours. Different species are better at different jobs: 

Light Tillage Yes No No
Food scrap composting STAR PERFORMERS (we feed them everything, including meat, bones, and eggshells) Very little (they have trouble breaking big pieces into small ones) Very little (they’re choosy vegans)
Fertilization Yes, but their poop is “hot” and needs to age before planting Yes, and their poop is dilute enough to apply directly (plants especially love being ‘fertigated’ by dirty duck water) Yes, and their poop comes in convenient pellets that are “cool” and can be sprinkled directly in the garden
Bug control Yes Yes No
Slug and snail control A little  STAR PERFORMERS, this is their #1 mission No
Eggs Yes Yes (depending on breed) No
Meat Yes, but… old hens are tough, and roosters are illegal within city limits. We raised fast-growing meat birds in a movable pen last year and they were much better.  Yes, but… they’re so hard to pluck STAR PERFORMERS, they’re by far the easiest to butcher, skin, and eviscerate
Self Perpetuation Some broody hens can do a better job raising feed store chicks than you could in a brooder Ducks go broody less often, but it’s legal to have both sexes within the city limits, so if you have an incubator…  STAR PERFORMERS
Fur No No Theoretically, but it’s a pain to process
Down Feathers No Theoretically, but it’s a pain to process No
Ability to rotate/move Yes, but only with major effort to contain them Yes, with little effort. You can herd them like sheep. No

You’ll notice that cuddliness is not on this list. It’s actually a SUPER important consideration for us, because two out of three humans in our family regularly hug the livestock. But we’ve found that cuddliness depends more on each individual’s early and ongoing experience with people (frequent handling makes a calmer critter) and breed (some are more curious and outgoing, while others are more anxious) than it does on the species. If cuddles matter to you, get a friendly breed and handle it a lot. 

Your final consideration is housing. Of course they all make an easy meal for a predator and need secure nighttime housing… but what about letting them out in the day? How easy it is to keep them in one place, and how much damage do they cause if they escape? 

Rabbits are nearly impossible to contain. They dig. The only way to prevent them from destroying the garden is to set aside a permanent warren and bury fencing several feet into the ground all the way around it (not feasible in our rotational system) or keep them in small wire cages. I don’t have the stomach for cages, so we gave our rabbits away. If meat is your priority and you either have space for a warren or determination to cage them, then rabbits might work better for you than they did for us. 

Chickens are a bit easier to contain than rabbits, but they like to squirm under the bottom edge of fences, and if they get really excited they may fly over the top. They can be rotated in different areas as long as you’re willing to drag around and stake wire fencing that’s at least four feet tall… and even then, you may have escapees. When they get out, they scratch the soil up looking for bugs, leaving craters in the mulch and uprooting tender seedlings. These search-and-destroy missions can cost entire crops. We still keep hens, even though they’re naughty, because their ability to compost food scraps is unmatched. 

Ducks like having their bills stroked in cold weather, and they’re the easiest to contain by far. A three-foot fence will do it, and they don’t push out under the bottom. If they do run amok, they tend to do less damage than either rabbits or chickens. The worst they’ll do is trample young plants or take a nibble here or there. They’re also easier to redirect– you can herd them around like sheep. I often release the ducks temporarily so that they can work alongside me in the garden. I pull weeds, and they forage for slugs and snails. The downside of ducks is that they’re the most hydro-intensive, needing a fresh wash tub basin of water daily for the purposes of drinking, frolicking, and making mud. 

Any animal you share your life with will make you laugh. Just wait until you see rabbit binkies, chicken dust baths, or duck yoga. It makes all the fencing worth it. 

What about bees, quail, geese, red wiggler worms, et cetera? We haven’t tried them, but please leave a comment with your experience! What about goats? They’re still illegal to keep within city limits, but it’s high time to change that code (this is actually part of Transition Fidalgo’s Vision 2030). 

Julia Frisbie has been gardening in Coast Salish territory for six growing seasons, and is thankful to learn from plants, animals, and people who have been here much longer. She’s grateful to her mom, Anne Kayser, for cultivating her curiosity, and also to Robin Wall Kimmerer for writing the book Braiding Sweetgrass, which transformed her relationship with the more-than-human world. Follow Julia’s micro-farm on Facebook, Instagram, and/or TikTok.

Giving Chicks to a Brooding Hen

by Julia Frisbie

posted March 25, 2021

Here’s how it happens to most chicken people: you go to the feed store for a 40lb bag of layer pellets. You forget that it’s March. You walk in the door and hear CHEEPING. Oh. My. God. You decide to peek at the day-old-chicks just for fun. An hour later you find yourself back home hauling the brooder out of the garage, rigging it up in your guest room, and wondering how to tell your spouse that you bought more chicks. Within two days, the guest room smells like a barn. Back out to the garage you go with the brooder. Within a week you are sick of fiddling with that ridiculous tiny waterer and scooping up that nasty bedding, but now you’re committed. You have one to two more months of twice-daily care to perform for an increasingly disgruntled and cramped group of teenage mutant ninja chickens.

There is an easier way: giving day-old chicks to a broody hen. All you provide is water, a little food, and a safe outdoor foraging area. The hen provides warmth, comfort, protection, sanitation, and an education. The chicks develop healthier immune systems and communication, and have lots of fun bouncing through the garden.












If you want to try this, do not go into the feed store this month or next. DON’T DO IT. Get curbside pickup. It’s still too cold outside for babies, and your hens know it: they’re not broody yet. Bide your time. Wait for a hen to go broody.

You’ll know she’s serious when:

  1. She sits on the nest instead of roosting at night.
  2. She doubles in volume and makes scary dinosaur noises every time you look at her.
  3. She poops only once a day, and it’s ENORMOUS and EXTRA STINKY.

Broodiness can be encouraged by lackadaisical egg collection on your part. There’s nothing more tempting than a nice pile of eggs. However, if you keep only the modern egg-laying breeds, the mothering instinct may have been selected against for so many generations that it doesn’t happen anymore. Never fear. If nobody in your coop has gone broody by late June, check Craigslist. Ask around. Some people get fed up with their broody hens and practically give them away. Other people– like me!– see a broody hen as a gift not to be wasted, and will gladly loan one out and help you through the process.

If you’ve got a choice between several broody hens, put chicks under the friendliest one who’s closest to the top of the pecking order. A friendly mother hen will teach her chicks to literally eat out of your hand, and they’ll grow into friendly adults. A dominant mother hen will beat up any flock mate who looks at her babies the wrong way, so the chicks will feel safe and grow up to be confident. On the other hand, chicks raised by a hen at the bottom of the pecking order will get picked on more, so they’re more likely to grow up flighty and nervous.

Once you have a broody hen, count forward twenty-one days, and then start calling feed stores. Ask them when they’ll get their next batch of day-old chicks. If breed matters to you, ask about that, too. What you’re looking for is a delivery of day-old chicks that’s due somewhere around your hen’s twenty-first day of sitting (she can’t count, so you can fudge up to a week in either direction).

In the meantime, set up your nursery. I use a big dog crate filled with straw and nestled under the thornless blackberry vines. This area is adjacent to, but outside of, my normal chicken run. You can use anything that might feel cozy to a chicken. Put the chick waterer and feeder nearby. Then one night after dark, traipse outside and carry your broody hen from the coop to the nursery. Put as many eggs back under her as you plan to purchase chicks. (I’ve never done more than five, but I’ve heard that a standard size hen can take up to twelve.) She may protest, but chickens are out-of-it at night, so she won’t be able to put up much of a fight. If in the morning she’s still sitting on the new nest, you’re in the clear.

Around day 21, you can finally go buy chicks. You want them as young as possible– that’s why you call ahead and plan to arrive right after they’re delivered to the store by the post office. You want them 24-36 hours old. I’ve been known to drive as far south as Seattle to get chicks the right age for a broody hen! If you have a long drive home, you’ll need to either crank up the heat in the car, or stick them under your shirt to keep them warm. There’s no cozier way to travel.

Once you’re home, make sure every chick eats and drinks, and then enjoy them! They’re so soft at first, aren’t they? Let them climb all over you, watch them sleep, keep them in a cardboard box in the kitchen, et cetera. You only get them until nightfall.

After dark, you’ll give them to your hen while she is drowsy and only partially aware, creating a new family via minor deception. You’ll fill your coat pockets with those sweet little baby chicks and traipse back out to the nursery. Put the palm of your hand against one chick’s back and gently close your fingers so it can’t squirm away. Slide that closed hand under your broody hen among the eggs. Open your fingers. The chick will scramble out. Now close your fingers around an egg, slide it out from under the hen, and put it in your pocket.

Wait and listen. Fierce dinosaur noises are a bad sign. Silence or very soft clucking is a good sign. In the worst case scenario, if a hen attacks the chicks, you may have to raise them inside after all… but this has never happened to me. By doing the switch at night, and using very young chicks, you’re stacking the odds in favor of a successful adoption. If after a few minutes there are no signs of violence, repeat the process with the other chicks, until your pockets are full of eggs and all the chicks are under the broody hen. The chicks and the hen will talk softly with each other in their sleep, and begin to learn each other’s voices, before they’re even fully aware that they’ve become a family.

In the morning, your hen will be holding quite still. If you sit quietly and watch, tiny faces will begin to appear and disappear from between her feathers. Chicks will emerge, eat and drink, explore, climb all over the hen, and burrow back under her when they get chilly. They’re ready for action! But her hormones are telling her to sit tight, because not all eggs hatch at the same time. She’ll wait about 24 more hours before leaving the nest. And it’s a good thing, because those 24 hours come right at the end of the chicks’ brief window for imprinting. While she’s sitting, they’re learning: “this creature is big and warm and doesn’t hurt me. She must be my mom.”

On the second day, she’ll be ready to stretch her legs, and she’ll start parading the chicks around the yard. If they’ve imprinted successfully, they’ll follow. She’ll show them how to scratch up bugs, pointing them out with her beak and saying, “took took took!” That’s chicken lingo for “good stuff over here!” Every few minutes she’ll squat down and warm them up. She won’t let you near the chicks, but she will appreciate it if you remark on their health and vigor, and on the impressive number of them she has managed to hatch.
















A hen’s mothering ability depends both on her breed and her individual personality. I’ve had Welsummers and Dominiques play at broodiness, but the only ones in my flock who’ve been serious enough about it to raise chicks have been Speckled Sussex. Of those, the worst mother lost half her chicks in the backyard just from not keeping them close enough. The best one was so protective that she fought off an owl who tried to raid the nest one night! By the time I got out there in my bathrobe, she literally had it cornered and was making every attempt to kill it, despite being unable to see in the dark. She didn’t lose a single chick.

The more a hen proves herself as a reliable mother, the more you can bend the rules by giving her older chicks, daytime switcheroos, or even different species. Once my hen Blue got so broody that she stole her sister’s three-week-old chicks out from under her and raised them as her own! I now switch Blue’s eggs for chicks in broad daylight; deceiving her seems unnecessary and disrespectful, since I trust that she’ll accept them. As soon as I bring chicks home from the feed store, I say, “Look, Blue, it’s your babies!” and stick them under her, and she’s satisfied. Maybe she thinks this is how all babies are born… or maybe she understands that, in the absence of a rooster, this is the best either of us can do.

Another time, I brought home three adolescent ducklings and told Blue, “listen, I know it’s not what you’ve been hoping for, but these little things need a mom. Can you help?” She gave me a serious side-eye, but rose to the occasion. That brood always had communication issues. The ducklings never figured out what “took took took” meant, and Blue was alarmed every time they went into the water. They were too old to totally imprint on her, but they still learned to rely on her for warmth and protection.

Once the new family is established, there’s little to do but sit back and appreciate the miracle. Think about it: your mama hen was probably hatched in an incubator, shipped in a box, unpacked under fluorescent lights in a feed store, and then raised under a heat lamp. She didn’t have a mother. She didn’t hear “took took took.” But she still knows how to say it. She knows how to squat down and fluff her feathers to make it easier for babies to warm themselves under her. She knows how to get into that bizarre protective posture with her wings hovering over the chicks, her tail fanned, and her neck feathers puffed out. She carries the intergenerational trauma of an extractive system that treated her ancestors like commodities; but she also carries the genetic memory for how to build a family. Next time she poops on the porch or scratches up a freshly-sown raised bed, remember all that.

Julia Frisbie has been gardening in Coast Salish territory for six growing seasons, and is thankful to learn from plants, animals, and people who have been here much longer. She’s grateful to her mom, Anne Kayser, for cultivating her curiosity, and also to Robin Wall Kimmerer for writing the book Braiding Sweetgrass, which transformed her relationship with the more-than-human world. Follow Julia’s micro-farm on Facebook, Instagram, and/or TikTok.