Thursday, March 15, 2012

It's broody time...

Well, it's spring and the chickens are starting to think about families.  So far we've had two try to go broody, but only one was serious.  This is Junior, a Turken X, and proven setter.  Last spring she hatched several chicks and a couple ducklings.  I think that it's fun to have broody hens, and the chicks are a blessing too (even if ours are nearly all roosters!)  Since this is the time of year when they start setting (at least, down here in FL) I thought I'd jot down a few quick notes about broody hens, and also the signs that one is setting.

First, I'll define a few terms:

Broody:  When a hen decides to set on her egg(s) and hatch them, instead of just laying it and leaving.
Setting:  The act of sitting on the eggs to keep them warm and hatch them.

We have approximately 25 mature chickens.  Chickens were the first farm animals we got. We've raised them different ways at different times, but they are now penned up most of the day, and let out to range for a couple hours in the afteroon.. We do keep broody hens and chicks confined, as well as any other baby poultry, or those that happen to be on the sick- list. 
     It is so much fun growing up chickens from the egg on. It's amazing to see how that dead looking egg can turn into a super fluffy, hungry, cheeping little chick, and then how that chick can grow into a hen which in turn lays more eggs, and the cycle goes on.  The Lord's design is amazing.
     Sometimes Savana will come running in saying that "there's a hen going broody, she's clucking and all fluffed out!" What she means by this, is that one of the hens is displaying typical broodiness behavior: clucking differently- a regulated "cluck, cluck, cluck, cluck, cluck..." (once you've heard it, you can tell what it is), running about with wings held slightly away from her body and feathers ruffled. She is also more easily irratated or startled.  Or if one stays on the nest at night, and will come back to it even when pushed off. I don't usually trust that she's really broody till she does that, but then, if I want her to hatch eggs I'll "fill her up". This is where I stuff as many eggs under her as she can cover without any of them showing from beneath her feathers. After she starts setting in earnest, it will be three weeks until the eggs hatch. During this time the hen eats little, and can go for several days if necessary without food or water- especially at the beginning. This is because she absorbs the eggs which were in the making inside of her, and thus receives her nutrition from them.
When a hen goes broody she usually pulls out most of the feathers on her breast. This is normal, and creates a patch of nice warm skin which will be in direct contact with the eggs, and later chicks, and so impart extra warmth to them. The eggs have to be turned every day at least twice a quarter or half turn to one side. The hen knows this by instinct, and not only turns the eggs, but also rotates them in the nest so that they all "take turns" in the warmer and cooler portions. For this reason it is important that no eggs are visible when you "fill her up", except during the warm summer months. You see, if an egg is poking out of the nest, that means that every egg will eventually be in that position, and if the weather is chilly all the eggs will be killed by the cold when they are put there.

     The humidity in the nest is another factor which some people try to control. Personally, I've never messed with it, figuring that the hen will probably do best if she's left comparatively alone, but in an incubator it is important. The way I've maintained humidity in the past in my incubator is to keep the little built- in dish in the bottom of the tray filled, but my new homemade incubator doesn't have this, so I'll either set a small bowl of water in there, or use another method of maintaining humidity- namely to soak a towel or sponge in water and place it in the bottom. The humidity is supposed to be raised the last three days before hatch, but although I've done this in the incubator (by placing a water- soaked sponge in the tray) I've never bothered with it with my hens and they've done great.

At some point during the incubation I like to candle the eggs. This is done by holding the egg (big end up) in front of a bright light in a dark room. I like to use a powerful flashlight, and put my fingers or a cloth around the edges of the egg so that the light has to shine through it. There is such a thing as an egg candler, but it's probably not worthwhile to buy one unless you'll be doing a lot of eggs.
The reason for candling is so that you can see what's going on inside the egg. The bright light shining through it will show substances inside as darker patches, lines, etc. Thus you can see veins and developing body of the chick.

You can see whether the egg is developing after about three days. Within a week, the embryo will be visible as a dark center with a network of veins radiating out from it. When it's ready to hatch the entire shell will be dark except for the air pocket at the large end.

Finally though, it's time for the chick to hatch. When a chick first starts working on pecking its way out of the shell, somewhere between the 19th and 21st day of incubation, it first breaks into the air pocket at the large end of the egg. When it gets into this you can sometimes hear it cheeping even though it hasn't yet "pipped" (broken the shell). You can hear it most easily if you hold the egg up to your ear and gently tap it with you finger. Be careful though, the chick takes calcium from the shell to make it's bones, so the shell will be thin. Sometimes the chick doesn't cheep, but you can hear it moving, or even feel it. Eventually, usually around twelve hours after breaking into the air pocket, the chick "pips", that is, breaks the shell. That first pip was hard work for the little chick, so it now sits and rests for about 12 to 24 hours. This is because the chick has to absorb the yolk, and it also swallows the "albumen" or white of the egg. The yolk is food for the biddy for up to three days, during which time it can survive without food or water. This is why hatcheries are able to ship baby poultry to locations nationwide, or even out of the country.
     Sometimes a chick can't get past the pip stage, but this is rare, so don't get in a hurry and pick the shell off unless it has been over 24 hours, and even then it could be risky. This is because the chick may not have absorbed all the yolk yet, and when the shell is peeled off before the chick is ready to hatch it is a messy business which usually ends in the death of the chick.

      After the first pip, which looks like a small pyramid of broken shell, and the rest stage, the chick starts working on breaking the rest of its way out. It uses the egg tooth on the end of its beak to hit the shell and break it as it rotates its body so that it forms a crack which wraps around two thirds or three quarters of the shell. Then it begins to push the two pieces of shell apart with its feet, and finally tumbles out into the nest.

      When it hatches it is wet and miserable looking. Sometimes the shell remains attached to it. Don't worry, it usually falls of pretty quickly, but if it doesn't, you can gently separate it from the chick. If there is a gel- like substance hanging from the chicks rear this is also normal- about 50% of the chicks I've hatched have had it. I think this is the umbilical. I can't really call it a cord, though sometimes there will be a cord- type thing in it, but it is usually sort of like brownish nasty looking jelly. You can gently pull it off, but it will usually fall of by itself. The chick will get fluffy very quickly under a hen, but takes much longer in the incubator though it will dry out pretty fast, depending on your humidity. The reason they fluff out so much more quickly under their mama is because they are rubbing against her so as soon as the chick is fairly dry the feathers are fluffed out.

      I like raising chicks under hens because it is so much easier, at least, in most respects. A good hen teaches the chicks how to eat and drink, what foods are best, how to escape a hawk by hiding in the grass, how to dust bathe, and more. Plus, you don't have to pay for electricity to run a brooder lamp- the hen takes care of that.

"Junior" teaching one of her chicks to dust bathe.

The chick is catching on... (and yes, that is really a duckling in the background, this hen raised two of them quite well this spring).

A hen can cover more chicks than eggs. The reason for this is that she has to literally sit on the eggs, while she actually stands and hovers over chicks, fluffing out her feathers to keep them warm. So when there's lots of chicks, she just fluffs out more. So, a hen who can cover a dozen eggs in the summer time, could probably cover 20 chicks. And of course, if it's really warm or you put a heat source in the pen, she could probably care for more chicks. This means that if you have an incubator you can start it at the same time the hen starts to set, and then give her the chicks to care for. Now of course, you usually don't know the day that the hen will begin setting, but eggs can be stored for up to two weeks before being incubated, though the hatch rate is considerably lower the second week. Sometimes a hen will attack chicks which she thinks aren't hers, but usually if they're the same age they don't even notice. Really the main thing to be careful of when adding chicks is to make sure that you don't add chicks of a very different color after she's had her own a few days. For example, when we got our last flock of layers, we had a little banty (Empress) who had chicks at the time. I gave her the 11 Buff Orpingtons, and then a few days later decided that since she was doing fine with them, I'd give her the 11 Astraulorps too. Buff Orpingtons are yellow, Astraulorps are black. Empress immediately noticed the difference and began pecking the black chicks. I had to remove them.

Empress with her Buff Orpington chicks.  This picture was taken shortly before we removed her from the pen, as the pullets no longer needed her.  (You can see that they are actually as large, or larger than she is.  This made for some interesting positions at night, when they all tried to snuggle under her!)
       Some hens can also hatch and care for ducklings quite well.  A hen sitting on duck eggs is slightly more work than one on chickens eggs, because the duck eggs need a higher humidity level and have to be sprayed or dipped in luke-warm water.

     Well, that ended up being longer than I'd wanted it to be.  Maybe later on I'll post something about housing for broody hens.  Hope that this is helpful, and have fun with your chickens!