Bessie

In Brief

last updated 3.10.09

Hatched: March 2005 (estimated)

Weight: 2.89 kg

Breed: Barred Plymouth Rock

Current Status: laying

Total number of eggs: 408
Biggest egg: 66 g
Smallest egg: 45 g
Average weight: 58.3 g

Clutches Raised: 5 Dorking (“The Peeps”) Sept/Oct 2007

In the Beginning …

Bessie came to us from the lovely people at Riverlea Stud. We’d been desperately emailing local breeders to find someone with a hen they would sell us to be a companion for Delilah, and they said Yes. All we knew about her was that she was a two-year-old Barred Plymouth Rock hen, who had been in lay but was moulting, and was a reasonably friendly chook. They were willing to let us have her for the bargain price of $15, including delivery to our doorstep. So, five days after we’d brought Delilah home, Bessie arrived.

Dear Boo. She wouldn’t ever win any beauty contests – wrinkled face, wide backside and a seriously impressive line in bitching. She’d been living in an orchard, and was the first chicken I’d ever heard fart. No, seriously. We’re talking loud and squelchy. Very disconcerting. Fortunately her digestion settled down quite quickly.

We’d been a bit worried about how Delilah would react to a new hen, but it was a complete non-event. Bessie was put into the tractor; walked over to the pellets and had a couple of mouthfuls; then got straight down to doing what she does best – scritching. There was straw and dirt flying everywhere! It took Delilah a few minutes to get over the shock, but otherwise they both behaved as though they’d been together all their lives.

The other thing we discovered about Bessie was that she loves fruit (which shouldn’t have surprised us in light of the farting). The tractor was under out triple-grafted pear tree, so Bessie had a wonderful time scoffing any fallen pears that we gave her. Eventually I worked out a system for suspending fruit from an eye-bolt in the ceiling of the tractor. Bessie attacks it like a woman with a grudge.

Laying …

We’d hoped Bessie would start laying again fairly quickly. Of course nothing was going to happen until she’d finished her moult, and even then we might be a bit hampered by the shortening daylength. March rolled into April; April into May, and we resigned ourselves to not having our own eggs until spring. And then on June 1st I came home and Bessie was missing …

Yep, she was in the process of laying our first egg! From discovering her on the nest to egg ready for collection took about 45 minutes (I kept taking quick peeks). It was 53g, pale apricot colour and teardrop-shaped. Next morning was Saturday, so we celebrated by turning the egg into a seriously yummy omelette.

The breed average for Plymouth Rocks is supposed to be around 3 eggs per week. Given that hens lay fewer eggs every season after their pullet year (and she was over two years old when we got her), we weren’t expecting Bessie to overwhelm us with eggs. But she has proven everyone wrong, and averaged 5 eggs per week since she started. And let me remind you: she began laying on the first day of winter!

Broody Boo

Around the time when she’d laid her sixtieth egg, we noticed that she was spending quite a lot of time in the nestbox. She would hop out if you pushed her, but seemed to be getting more and more inclined to stay there. Then one day, towards the end of August, she refused to be kept out. We had fake eggs in the nestboxes, to encourage the pullets to stop laying their eggs on the floor (long story). One nestbox had two fakes, and the other only one. And Bessie was trying to return to the box with two eggs in it, even though it was the (usually) less-favoured position. Curious, when I next turfed her off, I took the two eggs out completely. Yep, Bessie was back in, but to the other nestbox this time. Whichever nestbox had the greater number of eggs was the one she went to, so I played ‘musical eggs’ with her for a while. When I took them out completely she sat in the doorway and bitched for about five minutes, before climbing in to her favourite box anyway, still bitching.

This sort of thing continued on and off for another few weeks. She was still laying, and wasn’t sleeping in the nestbox, so she wasn’t fixed on broodiness. Until the day we tried to clean out the house …

We’d waited until she laid her egg for the day, then turfed her outside and shut the pop-hole so we could clean everything out properly. The noise was ridiculous. Initially she’d toddled away for a scritch, but as soon as she realised that she’d been shut out, she went bananas. Pacing backwards and forwards, carrying on as though we’d sewn her bum closed and fed her prunes. As soon as we opened the pop-hole, she was in to the house and into the nestbox. And she refused to leave.

Oh yes, Madame Bessie Boo was broody.

Fertile Eggs

We had planned to get a Silkie hen in early spring, so that we could raise some chicks for eating. Attempts to do so had been thwarted by the fact that everyone else was after Silkie hens at that time of year. We discussed it for a few days, and decided that, in the circumstances, we’d be stupid to ignore Bessie’s broodiness. Ok, so she’d never raised bubs before. Plymouth Rocks as a breed are supposed to be good mothers. Worth a try, and easier than trying to break her broodiness. So now we just needed to make her a broody coop, and get some eggs for her to hatch.

There were so many options! TradeMe had five or six people selling fertile eggs from various breeds. We ended up sourcing some Dorking eggs from Liselle Wood in Dunedin, and some White Rock and Gold Laced Wyandotte from Precious Poultry in Thames. Both sets of eggs were couriered to us on the same day, but only the Dorking arrived safely. The other eggs were “lost” somewhere – they had been recorded as being collected, but there was no record of their existence after that. They turned up four days later, after I’d given up and set the Dorking eggs under Bessie. We set the intact ones under her, but they didn’t survive.

Bessie, it turns out, was the perfect broody hen. She sat tight on the eggs (which is where the phrase comes from) and had to be forcibly evicted from the nest once a day to eat, drink, stretch and do the most enormous, stinky poo. (“Broody poo” is legendary. And trust me – if you ever stand downwind from one, you’ll know why.) We made her a dustbath as well, which was the only thing that ever threatened her devotion to the task. She obviously had a very good mental clock too – she was only ever off the nest for 10 to 30 minutes. (Interestingly, the colder the day, the less time before she would head back inside to her eggs. Amazing!)

Twenty days after we’d set the eggs under her, they hatched. When the chick “pips” – breaks into the airsack, and prepares to chip its way out of the shell – it starts making little peeping noises. The hen hears them, and makes her own high-pitched peeping noises back. That morning, when I brought Bessie and the other girls some breakfast, I could hear one of the eggs peeping. When I checked, a couple of hours later, we had our first chick:

If you look closely, you’ll see the next two eggs starting to pip (both L: top, and third down).

By the next morning, five had hatched and the sixth was working at it. (In the end this sixth chick had to be assisted, but died the next morning. The seventh egg hadn’t hatched by the time Bessie left the nest with the other bubs.)

Bessie was a wonderful mum. The Peeps all grew like weeds, and were utterly fearless. They appeared fully feathered by four and a half weeks (usually takes six weeks), and were more than happy to leap onto hay bales and explore the wider world. We’d started building the next home for them (and the Sammies) – The Summer Palace – and had just started wondering how you went about weaning them from their mother, and how you knew when the time to do so had come.

Madame Boo Returns

Bessie worked that out for herself. Two days short of their fifth week, she started getting grumpy with them. Insisting they stay back if she wanted to eat or scritch, and loudly scolding them when they wanted to follow her into the dustbath. They seemed a bit surprised, but not too worried. Wary, but not upset. The next day, Bessie started making her “I’m pissed off, and it’s the egg’s fault” bitching noise, and pacing backwards and forwards. We didn’t really know what to make of it. After a few hours we gave up, and opened the door of the Broody Coop. She marched straight out, and over to where the Tractor had been when she was taken off to the Broody. She seemed a bit puzzled, and paced a bit, but then hard one of the other girls and headed straight to the orchard gate. We let her in, then in to the Tractor. She didn’t even look back at her bubs. Just marched straight on in, past the other girls, in to the nestbox. Half an hour later she’d laid an egg – 57g.

In the words of Mick Jagger, The Bitch was Back.

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