Chickens can't read calendars, but their internal clocks are pretty darned good. Two nights ago I discovered Mahogany lurking in one of the second-tier nest boxes.
Mahogany is a bantam Partridge Cochin just coming up on her third birthday this summer. She is one of our smallest hens, and our most fervent brooder. Experience has proven that Mahogany will not, in fact, give up on brooding once that little timer in her head has gone "Ding!" Every March I find myself facing her down in a nest box atop a pile of adopted eggs, her orange eyes glaring and russet feathers a-poof. And she doesn't believe in waiting until the weather warms up; she goes broody early and beats the rush.
Two years ago she went broody for the first time, in early March. We were having a bitterly cold spring, and I fought with her for nearly six weeks. Every night I would take her eggs, and the next night she would be back, glowering, beak set with determination. I lectured her on the subject of inappropriate climates for raising chicks. I pleaded with her to just wait another month, maybe two. I pointed out that the flock was plenty big enough already, and we frankly didn't need new chicks. The barn lacked a broody chamber. And so on.
Mahogany wasn't having any of it. She tried changing boxes several times, which let her in for some serious grief when a bigger hen decided she wanted the box Mahogany was in. She tried using the little box off to the side that only one other hen ever wanted. Although she preferred to adopt the biggest clutch she could find, she did make a brief try at boxes that only contained two or three eggs, but when that didn't work she went back to the big clutches. She eventually tried defending her nest from me, but she's a very gentle soul and her heart clearly wasn't in it. At last came the night that I reached in to take her eggs, and Mahogany made no move to protect them, only uttered a heartbroken little clucking cry.
It shattered me. All of my resolve fell away like a sand castle under a big wave. I let her keep her eggs that night, marking them with a pencil in case she accumulated more from the other hens. And that weekend we built the nursery, a 5'X3' fully-enclosed chamber in the most sheltered corner of the barn.
Mahogany raised up three beautiful chicks that season, and was as happy as a clam. The next spring I moved her into the nursery after only five nights of argument, whereupon she sat her clutch of three and adopted three other eggs "orphaned" by a hen who started setting, then abandoned her clutch. In the fullness of time she presented us with a merry mixed bunch of chicks: one Belgian Bearded, one bantam Cochin, Ag, and his golden-laced sister Aurie. Once again, she was the most contented bird in the flock. Other broody hens get anxious, or irritable (the Beardies in particular will take your hand off); Mahogany gets super mellow. She's a dedicated mother, and I have to say that her chicks tend to have good personalities, however much "nature versus nurture" applies to chickens.
So, two nights ago, and there was Mahogany in her box--same one she chose last year. When approached, she put up her hackles and uttered a peremptory "Keeeerrk!", then shuffled herself even lower in the box. I put my hand underneath her and found that she had settled onto two eggs and the egg-shaped rock that has served us so well in the past as a decoy. I sighed . . . and shrugged, and moved her and her rock into the nursery. I know when I'm beaten.
Last night I gave her a quartet of "test" eggs: I've been saving eggs from one hen in particular in case someone went broody, and these eggs were a little too old (at 10-16 days) to be viable. So far she has been sitting tight, and soon I'll be giving her a clutch "for real." And Mahogany will, once again, be doing what she loves.