Sunday, August 7, 2011

The Maternity Ward

As the hatch date for our buff Brahma's adopted clutch drew nearer, we started work on The Maternity Ward, or what some people call the brooder. We constructed a rectangular frame, covered it in hardware cloth (better than chicken wire because the holes are smaller and pretty impossible for something to reach through), added a door large enough for our 4 year old to walk through upright and attached the entire thing to the back side of our existing coop/run structure. The Maternity Ward is shown in the picture below.

We left the hardware cloth that was attached to the existing coop to create a barrier between the "big hens" and Mama and her chicks. Then my husband built a small cube on one and a half inch legs and a mini ramp for inside The Maternity Ward to serve as the nest box. During all this building, Mama was happily inside the big coop sitting on her eggs in one of the nest boxes. Once a day she'd go out into the run for food and water, a little stretch, and a dust bath before returning to her place on the eggs.

We weren't prepared for all of this construction and moving, so we finished construction and moved Mama and her eggs the night her first egg hatched! I came home from work and went out to the coop to check on our girls. I heard tiny peeping sounds when I opened the egg door, so I looked around and saw one tiny yellow peeping chick who had probably hatched less than an hour before I'd found her as her fluff was still wet and matted. After about fifteen minutes of scrambling and hammering and stapling, The Maternity Ward was secured to the rest of the coop. My husband bravely picked up Mama while I transferred the unhatched eggs and made a second trip for the newborn chick.

It was two days from the time chick #1 hatched to the time #5 hatched; Leia, #1, hatched on Monday and Bobba Fett, #5, hatched on Wednesday. (My son is in a Star Wars phase). Mama sat tight while the rest of the chicks hatched out. I lifted her up at least once a day after the move to check the progress of the remaining eggs hidden underneath her fluff and because I'm terribly nosey and couldn't help myself. We had two eggs that I didn't think were hatchable: they were either not fertile or the embryos died early on as I had amateurishly candled the eggs with a flashlight at around seven or eight days and again around fifteen days and neither egg looked like the others. I was going by the pictures in a book I'd been using as as guide for all things chicken, Living with Chickens by Jay Rossier. 

We made the hard decision on that second night after the 5th chick had completely hatched out to dispose of the remaining two eggs because Mama will sit there as long as it takes to complete her mission of hatching egg. She won't get off the nest and start caring for her chicks if there are still unhatched eggs, so based on the fact that neither egg had a crack or any sign of hatching and on my candling, which I did one last time before we disposed of the eggs, we took them out of the nest and placed them in the trash inside a plastic bag. It was pretty evident that the last two eggs weren't going to hatch just based on how the rest of the eggs hatched. Almost a day before they hatched out, the chick would start pecking its way out. You can see the start of a crack, which gets larger over time until a hole appears and a tiny beak pokes through. It's a grueling process to watch because some of them are a little slower than others. The runt of our litter took over a day to completely hatch out of her egg. A huge chunk of egg shell was cracked off and you could see her wet yellow fluff and parts of her beak and legs, but she took her time breaking the egg apart and coming into the world. I was terrified each time I went out to check on the eggs because I didn't know how quickly they should hatch out and I kept assuming that I'd go out there to find that half hatched chick had died while trying to get out of her egg. But she didn't and she's now a cute, fast little black and white Japanese-Old English Game Bantam. And she's my favorite of the chicks.

Mama and the chicks lived happily in The Maternity Ward for six weeks. The "big hens" were just as curious about the chicks as the chicks were about them. The chicks would sit and peep at the big hens and the big hens would stand and watch the little chicks peeping around. Before we took down the barrier inside the run, we started letting the big hens and Mama and the babies out into the yard at the same time. There were a few altercations between Mama and the other "big hens" when the hens would get too close for comfort around the chicks, but after a few weeks, the pecking order started to work itself back out and the other hens learned to keep a little distance from Mama and the babies. Size was part of our deciding factor for when we took down the barrier. The chicks were getting big and in need of more space and it was getting close to the time when Mama would decide that the chicks were big enough to fend for themselves.

We took down the barrier one afternoon while all of the chickens were out and about foraging in the yard. The big hens were excited to be able to get into The Maternity Ward when they were lead back into the coop. Mama and the chicks seemed to just go with the flow. Well, that is until Mama had to work out her pecking order issues. Since she'd been away from the flock for over a month, she had to establish her place in the order, which is now #2 behind Bossy, the Barred Rock. Pouncey, the Americauna, got the brunt of Mama's attacks because Pouncey had taken up residency as #2 during all this mothering time. It was a little scary how mean Mama would get. I'm talking ruthless. She'd jump on Pouncey's back and grab ahold of feathers with her beak and peck and claw at her. We'd break them up if we were outside because it was too much for me to handle. While Mama was trying to regain her place as #2, Ochocinco, our Iowa Blue, was trying to hold on to her place at the bottom of the pack as #4. She was (and is) determined not to let any of the chicks get higher than her in the pecking order. She has spent a lot of her time pecking at and chasing the chicks away from her. It seems mean and scary that all of this fighting is going on, but it's an important part of a chicken community that you can't help.

If you watch them closely, you can see the dynamics. You can see that it's the same chickens fighting it out and that most of the time they're not doing much harm. Ochocinco doesn't hurt the chicks. She pecks at them, but for the most part she doesn't actually touch them. Erickson has pulled out a few feathers from Pouncey's back, but they have since worked things out. If Pouncey gets too close for comfort, Erickson puffs up and makes some mean clucking sounds and Pouncey crouches down until Erickson moves on. The chicks have figured out which of the big chickens are friendly and which ones to keep an eye on. They're a flock now. And a pretty nice one if I do say so myself.

No comments:

Post a Comment