There were a couple of nights that she tried to bed down with the chicks outside, but I forced her to take the brood into the barn each time. Last summer, we lost a couple of mother hens and well over a dozen chicks to predators; I didn't want a repeat experience this year. To my relief, after a couple of "corrections," mother hen stopped even trying to stay out for the night. All these weeks, only one of the eight chicks died. We loaned one other to a friend, leaving six to roam with Henny Penny.
In the last week or so, the chicks have gotten so big that they've been unable to squeeze through chain link fences. They're fully feathered, and looking like juvenile birds rather than chicks. Because of their size, they've sometimes gotten trapped behind a gate that their mother could fly over. But, up until yesterday, the whole little family managed to reconnect and forage together after each separation.
Then, overnight, something happened. When I came out at about 6:30am, the six chicks were outside, foraging for spilled grain near the duck pens...but mother hen was nowhere in sight. I doubt a predator got her; anything that takes out a big chicken usually takes out any little ones that are with it.
I think that something inside the hen's hormonal system just "clicked," and told her it was time to rejoin the flock's general population. But she looks so much like the other barred rocks, and we have so many of them, I can't be certain.
And I can't be certain that all six of the chicks will continue to thrive. Little birds have a way of flying into water tanks and drowning. Or getting lost in high weeds. Or bedding down in the wrong place and getting picked off by a predator. But I like to think that Mother Hen knew what she was doing, and has turned them loose because her instincts confirmed that the little ones were ready.
I'll keep an eye out for them, but something tells me that they're going to do just fine. They've had the best education a chicken can get.
Update: I went out at 9:30 tonight, to make sure the chicks weren't trying to bed down outside or in some other dangerous place (yes, we've seen young chicks try to roost on the edge of a water trough). Much to my relief, all six of them were back in the general area where they'd been hatched and where their mother had spent each night. Best of all, five of the six had figured out how to roost on top of a cattle panel that separates the main goat area from the kidding pen. Number Six was down on the floor in the kidding pen, back in the corner where they'd been hatched.
Interestingly, mother hen was nowhere to be found. She's definitely taken her hands off the bike and is letting the little ones pedal away on their own. And, so far, the six of them are sticking together and doing just great.
Kudos to mother hen for a masterful job brooding these guys. Mission accomplished!