Mardi Jo Link: What Raising Hens Taught Me About Life

Mardi Jo Link’s memoir, Bootstrapper: From Broke to Badass on a Northern Michigan Farm, was released today. 

On my little six-acre farm in northern Michigan, I’ve pastured horses, raised pigs, rescued baby birds, trained herding dogs and out-smarted gophers. But there is no animal more fascinating to me than the common barnyard hen. I came to think of my own flock of Aracana laying hens as “the girls” and spent many hours just watching them. My sons enjoyed caring for them, too. Here are four things they taught me about womanhood and life.

1. Get a good look at your food before you eat it, and always take small bites.
Before pecking a grain of corn or a small beetle or a berry, a hen will lift her head so that she can see exactly what she’s about to gobble. She fixes the position in her mind, aims and pecks. For the most part, her decision about what to eat isn’t made lightly, either. A hen usually only chooses to eat morsels of the proper size. She has a natural sense of how large a grain, bug or worm should be, and is pretty good about sticking to it. Although, like her human counterparts, sometimes she slips up. Curiosity, hunger or a bad example set by another hen in her flock can get the best of her sometimes, and she’ll peck at something too big. When this happens, you can see the regret in her too-full eyes. Inside, she’s promising never to do it again.

2. A refreshing beverage at happy hour is good for you.
A hen’s normal body temperature is between 103 and 110, and often fluctuates during the day depending upon stress, the weather and how well the baby chicks behaved after their nap. At 4 p.m., a hen’s temperature rises to its highest level of the day.  This is when she will spend time near the water trough, dipping her beak in deep, tossing back her head and slaking her thirst. She’ll drink and drink, letting the excess liquid just run down her neck. She knows that happy hour is for cooling down your carotid artery, so you can relax and start to think about getting dinner ready.

3. Always pay attention to your women’s intuition. It’s telling you something important.
A hen can feel the slightest change in wind, weather and mood. She uses her ears and her eyes to detect these changes, just like we do, but hens also can feel vibrations in their legs, feet and even their skin. Unlike us, she never second-guesses these feelings out of a misguided sense of politeness. She always pays attention to them. For example, if a man approaching the coop looks creepy, smarmy or gives off a weird vibe, she cackles to warn her sisters and then takes evasive action. If there’s a rooster around, her cackling may alert him to danger, and he pays attention to her intuition too, and sounds the alarm. If she is part of a hen-only flock, she either hightails it away from the threat or takes cover in a nesting box. But she never just ignores the feeling and tries to be nice.

4. Mothering is an ancient and spiritual calling.
Hens communicate with their chicks even before they are hatched. If you put your ear close to an egg that is within a few days of hatching, you can often hear cheep, cheep, cheeping sounds from inside the shell. The mother hen hears these sounds too, and responds. She knows what the sounds mean, and will move the eggs around in the nesting box until the cheeping goes from a distressed-sounding call to a content-sounding one. Once the chicks hatch, if they are mixed in with chicks from eggs laid by other hens, each hen can recognize the sounds of her own chicks. She’ll flock to them, sweep them under her wings for warmth and protection, and then will make soothing clucks. She has no favorites in her mothering behavior, but bestows her protection, kindness and care to all her chicks equally.

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'Bootstrapper: From Broke to Badass on a Northern Michigan Farm' by Mardi Jo Link
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