I’m the sort of guy who thinks the way to make progress is to take a giant step backwards: I want to strengthen, rather than weaken, the mothering instinct through selective breeding. Last year I started an experimental cross intended to do just that. Who knows—I could end by developing a new breed: the Boxwood Broody. (“Boxwood” is the name we’ve given our homestead.)
I have bred Old English Games for several years, making the OEG hens the foundation of my working mother sub-flock. Not only have they been 100 percent broody for me, they are attentive and protective mothers. They are small, however, and can only cover 9 or 10 eggs per hatch. It would be nice to have larger hens with the same broody skills, but who can hatch more chicks with the same management input on my part.
I have also been fortunate to have a few hens of larger breeds do mama duty for me. Last year I made the first experimental crosses using two of those hens: OEG cock onto proven Partridge Chantecler and Rose Comb Dorking broodies. I kept the best F1 cock, as well as several F1 hens, of each cross. This spring I placed the two F1 cocks and all the F1 hens together, along with the original Chantecler and Dorking, and additional larger hens who proved themselves as broodies last year: Cuckoo Marans, Welsummer, Silver Grey Dorking, and Spangled Russian Orlof. I have set about 40 eggs from these matings to produce an F2 generation. My first hatch of the season was under one of the OEG x Chantecler hens, who is doing a superb job of raising her nine F2 chicks out on the pasture.
During the growing season, my primary selection criterion for both pullets and cockerels of the experimental cross is larger body size. After each breeding season, however, the primary criterion among the hens will be demonstrated mothering skills: A medium size hen with excellent broody skills will always trump a large mediocre broody.
As my breeding project goes forward, I am applying ever stricter selection criteria. Finely honed broody skills are paramount. A broody who offers to be a mother must do so early in the season—March or April. She must accept the transition to the broody box and get down to business without hesitation. She must stay solidly on her eggs, and keep a clean nest. She must produce a high hatch rate, and perform as wise, caring, and protective mother after she brings her chicks off the nest. Hens who are late to go broody, who do so but are fussy about settling in the broody box, who are restless on the nest, who poop the nest, who smother chicks during hatch, or who are not closely attentive of their clutch after hatch—such mediocre broodies are culled from the breeding program.
Obviously as the selection program proceeds, I will gain more competent broodies than I need. But no highly skilled working broody will ever be culled to the stewpot. I know many people interested in working with natural mothers, and will pass on my smaller proven broodies to them.
One point of concern in my breeding program is that my F1 cocks are rather “feisty,” reflecting the game side of their inheritance. At some point I plan to work some cocks of large, less aggressive breeds that tend to retain the broody trait (Cochin, Brahma, Buff Orpington, Marans, Chantecler, Buckeye, Java, Wyandotte) into the mix. As long as broody skills among the hens remain high, it would be nice if the boys were a bit more mellow.