Friday, July 29, 2011

Broody Mamas

It just happens out of nowhere. There aren't any warning signs or disaster signals that I can tell. One day you'll go out to the coop to collect eggs and encounter a hen hunkered down in a nesting box. I say "hunkered down" because that's exactly what you'll see: a hen sitting low and fat in the nesting box. She's not trying to lay an egg. I've caught hens a few times getting ready to lay or who'd just laid eggs and they'll high tail it out of there pretty much as soon as you open the egg door. If she sits there and looks back at you over her shoulder like you're crazy for intruding on her privacy, then she's not laying an egg; she's trying to hatch some.

My first tactic to break my Brahma's sudden broodiness was to kick her off her "clutch" (Our chickens generally like to lay their eggs in the same one of the three nesting boxes in our coop). I'd nudge her out of the nesting box by lifting her big fluffy butt to take the eggs she was hoarding and then I'd push her out of the box into the coop and say, "Go on. Get out." She'd make some mean clucking noises at me that I assume where not fit for a lady and then go on out into the run. We performed this ritual for several days with the same results (Isn't that the definition of insanity?). That is, until she started getting mean. After three or four days of the nudging tactic, she started fighting back by pecking at my hand and wrist. It didn't hurt, but it was a bit terrifying. As my husband and I debated our next move, The Chicken Man offered up some fertile eggs and some sage advice: let her hatch some eggs and she'll become a happy mama. We decided to go for it.

One afternoon I went out to the coop after work, checked that she wasn't sitting on any of our hens' eggs, and placed seven little white eggs next to her in the nesting box. I'd read somewhere during my hours of internet research about hatching eggs with broody hens that this was the best way to go. I checked on her in an hour and she was sitting on her eggs, hunkered down fat and happy.

Collecting the infertile eggs everyday was easy from then on. She'd look at you when you opened the egg door, but she didn't much mind that we were in there. Most days we weren't bothering her or her unborn brood. However, I'll warn you that if you get fertile eggs that are the same color as your hens' eggs, mark the fertile eggs with a Sharpie. We had it easy because our eggs were a different color. All of our hens lay brown eggs. Some days we'd open the door to collect eggs and Mama would be sitting on the brown eggs, leaving an empty nest full of white eggs. She's cute, but she's not the brightest. Chickens can't tell color or count, so when she'd come back into the coop after her daily excursion outside for food, water, and a good dust bath, she'd get right on the first nesting box of eggs she saw. At least four times, she got on the brown eggs. I referred back to the nudge tactic. I'd lift her butt, take the brown eggs, and close the egg door. She'd get up and go over to the right nesting box. A few times, to be nice, we'd put the white eggs in the new nesting box with her and she'd situate them all underneath herself. Since we were new to this hatching venture, we could have easily prevented the egg switching by moving her to a separate area earlier than we did, but we weren't prepared and it worked out fine in the end.

With all the egg confusion, you'd think we wouldn't have any eggs hatch, but I realized that chickens have been hatching eggs for hundreds of years. They know better than we do on this one. In about twenty days, Mama hatched out five beautiful Japanese-Old English Game crossed bantam chicks. They were the cutest and tiniest things I'd ever seen. And, she did a beautiful job hatching them.

Half of those twenty days I was busy trying to research what I needed to do to help her and take care of those eggs, but then I stumbled onto a great site This site is an amazing five part tutorial on hatching eggs with hens rather than incubators. And, it taught me what I said above: chickens know how to hatch eggs. It's that simple. You don't have to do anything except provide food, water, and a safe place to hatch her chicks. She will do nearly everything else, which includes constantly turning the eggs with her feet or beak every few minutes! It's nothing short of miraculous.

I will say that The Chicken Man was right. She hatched those chicks and she's one happy mama (more on that part later).

You may be thinking the same thing I am: a hen can't tell which eggs she's been sitting on for two weeks, but she knows exactly what to do to keep them alive and then mother them? Sure does.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Dynamics of our Flock

My small, backyard flock consists of four adult hens: the leader of the pecking order, Bossy, a big beautiful Plymouth Rock (a.k.a. Barred Rock); Erickson, a fat and juicy-looking buff Brahma who is working on keeping her status as next in the pecking order; Pouncey, an Ameraucana mutt who disappointingly lays plain brown eggs when I was hoping for the green or blue eggs that Ameraucauna/Aracauna/Easter Eggers are supposed to lay (though she is still my favorite of the girls); and, Ochocinco, an Iowa Blue and the lowest member of the pecking order.

We added to the flock when Erickson the Brahma decided to go broody on us, which means she desperately wanted to hatch some eggs. Our eggs are obviously not fertile and will not hatch seeing as we don't have a rooster, so every day we would go out to collect the eggs and have to fight her off whatever eggs she managed to be sitting on that day. Let me just say that this was not the funnest of tasks. She started getting pretty mean. I'd be pissed too if someone came into my house, stuck her hand under me, and stole the potential babies right out from under my butt every day. She made the meanest clucking sounds you can imagine coming from a chicken and then there was the pecking. I was not a fan of the pecking. It didn't hurt to be honest with you, but it was scary to stick my hand in the nesting box and have her turn her head around at me and peck at my hand and wrist. She meant business. A friend who I call The Chicken Man suggested getting her some eggs to hatch so she'd stop being so mean and he rounded up seven fertile eggs. To make a long story short, she sat on those eggs for three weeks and hatched out five beautiful little Japanese-Old English Game Bantams. They're turning six-weeks old this week.

We started our farming adventure in October of last year, except our orginial bunch consisted of only three chickens: two buff Brahmas and an Ameraucana. They were around two to three months old. A few months in we realized one of the Brahmas was a rooster! He was the size of a turkey and clearly not at all like the other little fluffy puffy Brahma. He was a sweet guy, but we're not interested in the illegal keeping of a rooster in city limits, so off he went to live with a fellow chicken farmer in Granville County. That's when we gained the Barred Rock and the Iowa Blue.

The chicks have added an interesting twist to the dynamics of the flock. Erickson, having been separated from the flock to hatch and begin raising her chicks, is now making sure her underlings don't think they can usurp her rightful place in the pecking order, and Ochocinco wants to make sure the chicks realize that she's above them in all things that matter. Bossy just keeps on keeping on because no one is daring enough to try a coup. Pouncey is just trying not to get pummeled by Erickson. And the chicks: Leia, Han, Lando, Jengo and Bobba, try not to get trampled in the rush for treats.

They're the most fun thing to watch on a Sunday afternoon in the backyard. We spent an hour and a half sitting outside watching them in today's ninety degree heat. I wouldn't trade it for anything.