The nature of the hen seems to broaden with the duties of maternity, but I think myself that we presume a little upon her amiability and natural motherliness. It is one thing to desire a family of one’s own, to lay eggs with that idea in view, to sit upon them three long weeks and hatch out and bring up a nice brood of chicks. It must be quite another to have one’s eggs abstracted day by day and eaten by a callous public, the nest filled with deceitful substitutes, and at the end of a dull and weary period of hatching to bring into the world another person’s children—children, too, of the wrong size, the wrong kind of bills and feet, and, still more subtle grievance, the wrong kind of instincts, leading them to a dangerous aquatic career, one which the mother may not enter to guide, guard, and teach; one on the brink of which she must ever stand, uttering dryshod warnings which are never heeded. They grow used to this strange order of things after a bit, it is true, and are less anxious and excited. When the duck-brood returns safely again and again from what the hen-mother thinks will prove a watery grave, she becomes accustomed to the situation, I suppose. I find that at night she stands by the pond for what she considers a decent, self-respecting length of time, calling the ducklings out of the water; then, if they refuse to come, the mother goes off to bed and leaves them to Providence, or Phoebe.
The brown hen that we have named Cornelia is the best mother, the one who waits longest and most patiently for the web-footed Gracchi to finish their swim.
When a chick is taken out of the incubytor (as Phoebe calls it) and refused by all the other hens, Cornelia generally accepts it, though she had twelve of her own when we began using her as an orphan asylum. “Wings are made to stretch,” she seems to say cheerfully, and with a kind glance of her round eye she welcomes the wanderer and the outcast. She even tended for a time the offspring of an absent-minded, light-headed pheasant who flew over a four-foot wall and left her young behind her to starve; it was not a New Pheasant, either; for the most conservative and old-fashioned of her tribe occasionally commits domestic solecisms of this sort.
There is no telling when, where, or how the maternal instinct will assert itself. Among our Thornycroft cats is a certain Mrs. Greyskin. She had not been seen for many days, and Mrs. Heaven concluded that she had hidden herself somewhere with a family of kittens; but as the supply of that article with us more than equals the demand, we had not searched for her with especial zeal.