BRENTON, YARMOUTH COUNTY - The polar vortex that clutched the province in its icy grip through the holidays and early January was the exact opposite of Raven’s clutch.
Toasty warm beneath their mother’s feathery body, the embryos inside her eggs grew from single cells to downy chicks.
Hobby farmer Becky Cottreau noticed her young Australorp hen had disappeared from the flock in December. She saw her sporadically but couldn’t find her hiding place. Shortly before Christmas Raven disappeared altogether and was feared lost.
But then, during the snowstorm between Christmas and New Year's Day, Cottreau was outside and heard a noise. She turned to find Raven beside her.
“I was really happy to see her and carried her to the comfort of the hen house. The next time I looked for her, she was gone again.”
It never occurred to her that the hen, which hatched last summer, could possibly be nesting, due to the time of the year and the bitter weather.
On Jan. 5, Cottreau followed a set of tracks in a dusting of fresh snow leading away from the hen house. At the end of the trail she discovered her setting hens’ secret location in a small cave beneath a snow-draped boulder. The temperature was -12 C with a -30 wind chill.
Since Cottreau had no idea how long Raven had been setting (it takes 21 days to hatch chicks) and the hen seemed quite comfortable, she decided to leave her there.
She made a windbreak for the opening and brought the hen food and water.
Two days later tiny peeps and a proud mama greeted her. The little family, including unhatched eggs, was moved to the safety and comfort of a heated brooder pen in the barn.
In addition to her Australorp flock, Cottreau has Auracanas, guinea hens and Seramas. She works as a computer business consultant and owns Song of the Paddle, a kayaking excursion business, but her love for her flocks has earned her the nickname of Mother Clucker from her friends.
“I’ve always loved birds,” she laughed.
During her late teens she raised ornamental pheasants of various breeds, some of which originated in the Himalayas, and peacocks.
Last summer she ordered Serama eggs from Quebec and hatched them in an incubator. Known as the smallest breed in the world, Seramas are sometimes described as a small brave chicken with the persona of a fearless warrior or toy soldier.
“Everyone loves miniatures and I’ve always had bantam hens,” said Cottreau.
Two of her Serama hens have already laid a clutch and are sharing rearing duties, an unusual occurrence. Three other little hens are setting on separate nests in the same pen.
Keeping chickens healthy and safe requires a lot of work. A huge part of that is making sure they’re in a varmint-proof chicken house at night.
“I’ve invested a lot of time and energy and a little bit of money into them, I don’t want to see them get eaten by a fox, weasel, mink, raccoon or somebody else’s dog,” said Cottreau.
“Everything loves chicken as much as we do.”
In the morning she makes sure they have fresh water and food and, in the summer, she lets them out during the day.
There’s always the danger of a wayward chicken that doesn’t want to return.
Her guinea hens like to roost in trees and will go as high as 35 feet. On a full moon in December a silvery gray guinea hen that Cottreau called Pearl wouldn’t come down from the limbs.
“I went out the next morning and the only thing left was a wing on top of a chicken pen and a bunch of feathers. I think a Great Horned Owl took her.”
Cottreau enjoys making special treats for her flocks that include hot oatmeal with bananas, cinnamon and occasionally black strap molasses. She also has a windowsill garden of parsley and thyme for hen clippings.
“It’s fun actually,” she said.
The hens deserve it after providing her with eggs each day. And Raven, well she deserves the most treats of all.