Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Chicken Life Ain't Easy

Buff Orpington and baby chicks
Sometimes I'm not so sure I'm cut out for the life of a chicken owner.

My goal in all of this was to have a sustainable flock; raise a breed that would raise its own chicks and we could take some of those chicks and sell them, keep them for laying hens, or ideally raise them up to put in the freezer.

In theory this works very well, and it is what humans have done for thousands of years. In my own  backyard it seems to be a different story.

I was ecstatic to see one of my Dorking hens sitting on eggs a month ago. She stayed in the nest box all day and didn't come out, I knew this meant she was broody and would sit on those eggs until they hatched. After the hatch she would then, in theory, raise the babies with no help what so ever from me.

I was even more excited when a week later my Buff Orpington went broody. I carefully tucked the eggs I wanted to hatch under each hen and tried to leave them alone the best I could to do their mama hen thing.

Chicken eggs take exactly 21 days to hatch, on the 19th day I thought it would be best to move my mama Dorking into a safer, more ground level coop to hatch and raise her young. I carried out this operation late one night assuming she would be less likely to freak out since they cannot see well in the dark. I put a hand towel over her head, carefully handed her to my husband, and slid out her entire nest from the nest box. I quickly and carefully arranged her nest in the other coop and my husband gently set her on the nest. She freaked out. She ran around the coop and ended up perched in the corner of the coop completely away from her eggs. I rushed around and got a light ready for the coop thinking she simply couldn't see her nest and was confused. The light helped; she came down from the perch, ate some food and then sat on her eggs. The mission was a success. I checked again in the morning before I went to work and she was still on the nest keeping her eggs warm. After work I ran out to check on her one more time and of course, she was perched in the corner of the coop, her eggs were cold and she seemed to want nothing to do with them. As a last resort I moved her nest back to the original nest box she was sitting in and she went to them immediately. I was relieved, but it was short lived. She gave up on the eggs by the next morning and the entire batch of 12 eggs she sat on for 19 straight days was ruined. I felt terrible.

I kept my hope with hen #2. I did not move her, I did not touch her, I stayed as far away as possible and let her do her thing. I learned my lesson with the first hen. I was surprised when I saw a baby chick at the 17 day mark. And another arrived on day 18. By day 20 I saw 4 baby chicks. I set up a little ramp with some food and water at the bottom and closed the coop area off so the other hens or rooster would not bother them.

First 2 baby chicks to hatch, still in the coop with their mama

On day 21 I rushed to the coop after work to see if she brought her babies down the ramp and I could finally get a good peak at their fuzzy little baby buns. Peering through the dusty window into the dark coop I could see and hear that she had brought them out of the nest box. I opened the drop down side to see how many eggs actually hatched; there were only 2 eggs remaining out of the 10 she was sitting on, but there was also one dead chick left in there. I assumed it had died of natural causes or maybe was suffocated and I was not too worried. Upon opening the big door to get a look at the chicks I saw another dead one on the floor and realized something was wrong. All the baby chicks were running around the coop and the mama was frantically chasing one around. And then it happened; before I realized what she was even doing she killed a third baby chick right in front of me. Flashes of my childhood overcame me and I saw the classroom pet rat eat her own baby rat with no warning signs at all and the blood splattered on the aquarium was permanently engraved in my mind.

I ran for my husband, together we got the mama out of the coop and collected the babies. I had to set up an emergency chick cage in the garage and set them up a little home with a heat light. The poor things chirped and chirped looking for their mama and the mama wandered around the yard obviously lost and disoriented. The whole situation broke my heart. We had to bury 2 unhatched eggs and 3 dead baby chicks.

I'm grateful to have 5 great looking baby chicks safe in their new garage home and I'm trying not to worry about the future if another mama hen goes broody. I haven't decided if it takes a certain kind of person to live this life, or if you become that person after the experiences you go through.

Baby chicks huddling to keep warm

Are you my mother?


Elizabeth said...

Aww, pretty babies! Do you know what kind they are yet? Nothing ever goes "as planned". I have a sick hen right now and feel completely helpless that I may have to watch it die after raising it for the past year, but so is farm life, right??

James Grayston said...

I am writing to let you know that I have just created my own very detailed guide on broody hens which you can read here.


It is over 6000 words long and answers 61 of the most commonly asked questions about broody hens. It covers topics such as;
* how long a hen stays broody for
*the best and worst breeds for broodiness
* how to gently break a broody hen
*what to do when things go wrong
*whether to separate broody hens
*and much more.

I have split it into different sections and tried to make it as readable as possible.

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