Sep 15, 2017

The Little Chicken Who Couldn't

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Our Internet line was down for five days, so I'm playing a lot of catch up! (Not only do I work exclusively online, but my children were doing online school, too. Oy.) And while I was disconnected from the world, a lot of things happened at the homestead - including the hatching of our hens' eggs.

X marks the incubating eggs.
Mama hen had been sitting on 10 eggs for 21 days. When she first started sitting, I carefully marked each egg with a penciled X, so I'd know exactly which eggs were being incubated. Then I left Mama to it.

I knew the general advice is to separate the mama hen from the rest of the flock, but I had no way to do this, and I wanted to see what happened if I did things the old fashioned way - letting Mama do all the work.

Well, Mama was an excellent broody hen. She sat diligently every day, only getting up rarely to drink, relieve herself, and eat a wee bit of food. She growled at us when we checked on her (yes, hens can growl!), though she never pecked when I peeked under her. (I'm telling you, Australorps are the sweetest chickens ever!)

One day when I went to collect the other hens' eggs, I laughed because I found two eggs immediately in front of Mama's nest. I assumed (ahem) the other hens wanted to lay in her nest - because hens are like that; you can give them each a nesting box, but they'll all lay in the same one. Then, I thought, they couldn't hold their eggs any longer and out they popped in front of Mama's nest.

Mama, sitting diligently.
Well, a few days later when I went to cook with those eggs, I got a surprise. I was making a huge batch of pancakes to freeze for my children's breakfasts, and when I cracked one egg, the contents were bloody. Upon closer inspection, there was an embryo in that egg. Gross. That huge batch of pancake batter had to go in the trash, but the kids were fascinated to see a real embryo up close and personal.

I knew then that the egg had originally been under Mama, and somehow got booted from the nest. And over the course of the next several days, I found a few other partially incubated eggs with embryos in them. (Needless to say, I started cracking eggs in a separate bowl before adding them to whatever I was cooking.) Embryos only develop in fertilized eggs if those eggs have been incubated (i.e. warmed up by a sitting hen or an electric incubator). So either Mama booted those eggs accidentally, or other hens snuck into her nest when she got up for a quick break and they booted them, or Mama rejected the eggs, thinking they were bad.

None of those embryo-filled eggs had pencil marks on them, by the way. Note to self: Use a pen next time.





In the end, though she had six eggs under her at the end of 21 days, only one egg hatched. In other words, only one egg had been under her for a full 21 days.

Some people asked why I removed all the unhatched eggs after that time. Why not just leave them under Mama and let them hatch when they were ready? I had two good reasons not to do that. The first is that most hens will abandon their chick before they abandon the eggs in their nest - which means the chick has pretty much zero chance of survival. In fact, this scenario played out on our homestead.

video

I heard peeping on a Monday afternoon. By Tuesday afternoon, I could still hear peeping, but couldn't see any chicks. I didn't want to disturb Mama too much, so I didn't peek under her. I assumed (see how my assumptions lead to bad things?) she had chicks still hatching.

That night, however, when my husband locked up the chickens in the hen house, he looked inside with a flashlight. There, in a spot underneath the slightly raised nesting box, was the chick, peeping for Mama to help him. Somehow, he or she had fallen out of the nest. But Mama would not abandon her eggs. (Hubby says broody hens are a lot like Daleks from Doctor Who, but instead of having a one-track mind that says "Exterminate!", they have a one track mind that says "Incubate!") Fortunately, this happened during a heat wave, so the chick didn't die of cold, and my husband tucked the chick back under Mama, who seemed grateful.

Mama and her chick.
The second reason I needed to dispose of the additional eggs is that in 21 days, Mama had hardly eaten or had anything to drink. By the time chicks hatch, the hen is much thinner and really requires a break from sitting in order to be healthy.

So, the other eggs were gone and Mama was focused on her single, cute little fluff butt. The chick seemed bright and alert and curious, and Mama had her work cut out for her.

By the third day, she took the chick out of the nesting box and let it wander around the hen house. She showed it the water and the chick feed and taught it to eat, and she remained highly protective, even fiercely pecking my husband once. (Normal for the average hen, but really aggressive for this one.)
Mama love!
Then she must have taken the chick outside to teach it to scratch. That evening, my husband found the chick dead in the chicken run, its eyes pecked out.

We'll never know exactly what happened. Maybe the chick took a turn for the worse, it died suddenly, and the rest of the flock did what chickens do to dead things. Maybe the chick showed signs of illness, which chickens greet with cannibalistic fervor. Maybe the chick fell of the ramp to the hen house and was injured or died. Or maybe Mama simply didn't do a good job protecting the chick from the rest of the flock, who, not knowing what it was, assumed it was food.

Sigh.

It's never easy when animals die on the homestead, but at least I know we gave the chick every chance and that nature took its natural course.

My husband says he wants to use an electric incubator next time. Personally, I'd like to give Mama another chance, but this time put her (and her chicks) in a smaller run of her own, safe from the rest of the flock. We'll see.


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