Monday, May 30, 2011

And Then There Were Six--Trial and Error with a Clumsy Mama Hen

Video of Mama and Babies
I almost hesitate to post this as the number may change again by tomorrow.  Since I last posted, I found another mortally wounded chick in Gypsy's nest, we had a very touching little funeral (mostly because the kids were with me when I found the dying chick), and I took the chicks AGAIN, for good.  Then I spent an hour or so breaking down the broody area and setting up the big terrarium inside for the remaining six chicks.  It's a chore--finding the right light to get the temp right meant going to the store to buy a bulb, since we really only have the new cool compact bulbs in the house nowadays, and I had to spend some time cat-proofing the brooder as it was going to be in the studio. No more chicks in the house, I've decided. 

Then I had to just accept the fact that I was raising chicks, AGAIN, and that was really a buzzkill.  But it seemed inhumane to hand helpless babies to a completely incompetent mother for whom negligent homicide was second nature.  Right?

I was pretty frustrated with Gypsy and had a very hard heart as I took the chicks and broke down her brooding area.  It was easy to ignore her thoughts on the matter.  But she was still digging in the coop's deep shavings 6 hours later when I put the birds up for the night, and I dreamed about her looking in the woods for them.  When I went out the next morning and let the flock out, she (normally a pretty standoffish bird) immediately came right up to my face as if to ask where they were.  Then she followed me around.  The insistent clucking--the noise a mother makes to get her chicks to come to her side was heartbreaking.  She hopped into the other coop and started digging it up.  Her babies, she was convince, were lost somewhere, and she wasn't giving up on them.  That, I understood.  My own heart, focused on mothering so keenly, couldn't ignore her.

I took some time to set up a new space for her, a separate pen from the rest of the flock, and got the babies from their isolette.  I took them to the pen in a pet carrier and opened the door..  The look on her face as she found them in her next clucking, scouting circle was priceless.

Video #2 of Mama and Baby Chicks
It was a hard decision.  But they are her babies, not mine.  I remember hearing my grandmother saying "I didn't take them to raise!" as a child when recounting a story of someone needing more help than she thought she should give.  It's a pretty powerful maxim.  I have three chicks of my own; baby, girlchild, and demi-man, and I have my hands full with them.  I take on all the stress of keeping them alive because they are mine, at least for a time, and they depend on me alone.  These chicks have a mother.  She may not be great, I thought, and she might even kill them accidentally, but she deserves a chance to raise them.  To be a mother.

I worried I would find one less chick this morning.  Or worse.  I worry that I'll find another dead or broken and dying chick tomorrow morning.  But it's her business, and I'm committed to letting go of the process.  I can't save everything. Knowing what and who I "took to raise" is wisdom I need to take to heart.

Video #3--Good night  Please, everyone be alive at dawn, ok?
As you've no doubt gathered from the pics and videos in this post, mama and babies were all fine this morning. This last video shows my last minutes with them yesterday evening, just as mama went in to the carrier for the night and I went in to the house crossing my fingers she was committed to taking them to raise.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Success! 7 Healthy Chicks Peeping Under Broody Mama

Beware:  the cute in this video is intense.
Well, that was a hair-raising adventure.  After removing one chick from the nest whose egg was crushed as it hatched, so it could finish hatching in the incubator inside, and then finding the first, beautiful chick dead in the nest on the morning after it was born, I was very worried Gypsy might be a great broody, but lack mothering skills.  What's the point of having a hen hatch eggs, worrying about her getting on and off the eggs and keeping other birds away from her, providing separate food and water as needed, only to have to hand raise the chicks?  That would have been the worst of both worlds and the most time intensive choice imaginable in hatching babies. 

So it is with great happiness and relief that I report that I was able to transfer 3 chicks, the oldest 3 surviving, all Olive Eggers, to Gypsy yesterday, holding my breath that I would find them in a non-mashed state at dawn.  I hoped by that time that the newly hatched Black Javas in the incubator would be ready to transfer, if all went well.

 This short clip shows Gypsy's response when I put a very fiesty day old under her (the aforementioned chick of Esmerelda Weatherwax, my very favorite hen, who was a strong as a small horse after being allowed to hatch and recuperate in the incubator).

Here is what I found this morning when I went out.

Gypsy has the hang of mothering.  I put the other four under her and she seems as happy as can be, clucking and settling around them.  There should be an idiom for happiness and contentment that refers to a mother hen when her chicks have hatched and are safely tucked beneath her, peeping and peeking out at the world.  Sigh.  I may have found my spirit animal.

Enjoy the pics.  I'll post more when she decides to bring them out to meet the rest of the flock.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Sad News for Gypsy's First Babe, and an Intervention

The chick I removed from Gypsy's nest yesterday, an adorable white or silver baby, has been in the incubator for 12 hours.  It has kicked the rest of its shell off, and is FINALLY trying to stand. I am still not sure about the viability of this chick, as it seems very very weak.

That's at least somewhat hopeful.  I hate to report that the beautiful Black Java chick that was healthy and strong last night was dead in the nest this morning.  I guess it was crushed by Gypsy.

With 0/2 chicks healthy and strong,I made the decision to take Gypsy's remaining pipped eggs and put them in the bator with the weak chick.   There are three Black Javas and two from a truly elegant silver (blue) bird named Nanny Ogg, a prolific light blue egg layer. 

I plan to give Gypsy's chicks back once all the eggs in her nest are hatched...or I may give these to her once they hatch, and take the unhatched eggs from her at that point and try to hatch them inside and then give her a second helping of babies tonight or tomorrownight, depending how the timeline goes.

I have no way of knowing what happened.  But my gut tells me that the weak chick got stepped on or mashed a bit as it was hatching, and the Black Java was flat over an egg.  I think Gypsy may be having trouble with the combination of eggs and chicks at the same time.

Update later.  Sad morning.

Update, 9:30 am
Esme's chick is spending more and more time on her feet.  She has been joined in the incubator by a new hatchling, Nanny Ogg's baby.  Looks to be silver but she isn't dry enough yet to really tell.  Both these girls should lay Olive Eggs.  Two more Black Java eggs have sizable pips.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Gypsy's Hatch--Tale of a First Time Broody

I am so proud of my girl!  It's been a bumpy road, and we've lost a few eggs, but Gypsy is sitting pretty on a clutch of peeping eggs and one cute, wet Black Java chick.

Gypsy has been a dedicated broody.  I've taken her off the nest daily as she just wasn't interested in meeting her own daily needs--a sure sign of a hard-core broody instinct.  I'm sure she would have hit her own wall at some point and left the nest to take care of her business and fed and watered, but she never willingly hopped up and off the eggs when I was around, and I didn't want to just leave her nest area open to the world while I was gone for long periods, so I dutifully put her down on the ground every morning and late afternoon.

The three times I left her out (and her nest box accessible to her should she want to get back to setting before I returned) to run around a bit while I attended to other matters around the house or garden, I came back to find a cracked egg.  I was down to 12 eggs by day 17/18 (remember, I set eggs over the course of two days), when the worst happened.

I let Gypsy out that the morning and then put her back in and locked her door, thinking she was safe in her 4 ft high circle of hardware cloth that bounded her nest area, along with her food and water and some bathroom space should she need it (a good idea for a broody's area--if she doesn't have enough space to go and she ever really has to, it can get on the eggs and create a huge smelly mess that has to be cleaned up, increasing your chance of bad eggs and of disturbing the broody away from her work).

But I left the lower front door to the coop open--the one that the other hens use to get in to lay eggs.  They were still separated from Gypsy by the Wall of Broody hardware cloth, so I wasn't concerned about it.  Mistake #1.

I left for work around 10 am and didn't return until almost 6 pm.  I found Gypsy out with the rest of the flock and her door locked as I had left it.  In her nest was a broken egg with a fully formed and perfect baby Black Java inside. The rest were cold, cold, cold.  I deduced that another hen had come into the coop, flown up onto a roost (very odd behavior during the day) and over her fenced in area and tried to lay in her nest or take her eggs for her own.  A struggle ensued (at least in my imagined re-enactment) and a baby was killed.  Gypsy was "spooked off her nest" as broodies sometimes are by this kind of entanglement, and flew up and over the hardware cloth (though I've never seen her fly up four feet and she's pretty weak, it had to happen like that, or she wouldn't have been out) and then couldn't figure how to get back over and in. Regardless of what really happened, her eggs were cold and, I felt sure, dead.

I went to bed heartsick, after putting Gypsy back on her eggs (and she immediately went back to brooding like nothing had happened).  The next day I candled the eggs and to my surprise, 2 of the random 4 I picked out were definitely alive.

And today two hatched!  It's day 19/20.  One, a healthy Black Java, is under mama's wing right now, and I saw a pip in a second BJ tonight. One, an Olive Egger from my beautiful (and favorite) hen Esmerelda Weatherwax, hatched but is not thriving.  I put it into an incubator inside to see if it can perk up--details soon.

I expect several more chicks to hatch in the next two days.  I hope the extended untended period hasn't created any weakness in the chicks....

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Gypsy Goes Broody!

Just on the heels of a very successful hatch, and the decision to bring the Montessori chicks home to raise until they can live on the schoolyard there, our good French Coppered Black Marans hen, Gypsy, who lays the most fabulous dark brown speckled egg, went broody.

Broody means a hen has stopped laying and does nothing but sit on her eggs and keep then warm--if you let her, and if she is a 'good' broody. Many folks don't let a hen express this normal part of their life (and most hens don't ever go broody...more on that below) because they don't want her to stop laying eggs, or because they don't have fertile eggs for her to hatch and don't want to buy them, or they don't want chicks. (If this is your experience, you can get good suggestions by searching for "breaking a broody". But most folks are delighted when a hen goes broody.)

Black Java Minerva & adopted FCBM day old chicks, including Gypsy.
I like seeing nature win out over humans' efforts at modern selective breeding. Most breeds have been systematically "broken" of broodiness on the population level by factory production of eggs. Broody hens are not profitable if it's eggs, and lots of them, that you want. (After all, a broody stops laying for 21 days to incubate her clutch, and then has several weeks, while rearing her chicks, of rest from egg laying.) So broodiness has bred out of most modern breeds. Most heritage breeds, like Black Javas, still go broody. And FCBMs, which were only recently imported from France, where factory production of eggs (and selection against broodiness) is not the norm, go broody often.

Gypsy, my FCBM, was herself raised by a "good broody"-- a Black Java named Minerva. I sometimes wonder if being reared by a broody has a cueing process for broodiness as an adult, but that's an open question--nurture and nature often work together, after all, to form adult behaviors.

Broody "stinkeye". If looks could kill...
What constitutes a "good" broody? I mean one who is fully committed for the long haul. Broodiness can be incomplete in a hen (another consequence of the selection of non-broodiness in chickens in factory production). A hen may start the brooding process but give up. The risk of this can be minimized by creating optimal conditions for her. Read on to make sure you help create those conditions for your would-be broody.

A broody wants to be left alone. She is still and focused, and only wants to come off her nest a couple times each day, when she eats, drinks, uses the bathroom, and sometimes sunbathes briefly. Generally she will return to her clutch within about 30 minutes, though some broodies take much shorter breaks and rarely one will not get off the nest at all. In this case one should take her off and make sure she gets the sustenance she needs at least twice each day.

Minerva's broody box. I replaced her eggs w/ day old chicks.
A broody, like any new mother, needs her own space. Other hens wanting to lay in the nestbox will stress the broody and will confuse you, as you may not be sure which eggs have been incubated for several days and which were just layed, for example. And keeping her close to her eggs increases the likelihood that she will stick with the broody process rather than slacking after a few days and leaving you frustrated and with ruined eggs. A pet carrier or box that is large enough for her to sit and move around, but that keeps other hens out, is ideal. I like to have the space for a broody be about three-four times the total size of her nest. In my case we have a large coop with enough room to encircle the hen in her chosen nesting area with a ring of four foot hardware cloth (wire). I like this method because it doesn't involve moving a broody and her eggs into a new space, which can often lead to her abandoning her eggs. Esme was climbing into the nestbox with Gypsy to lay, so
I redid her area and created a separate nest box (actually two) for the disgruntled hens who don't understand why Gypsy gets the "best" box (a broken down Rubbermaid tote that they LOVE despite a nice looking rustic wooden box being available).  I gave them the damn plastic box (held together by priority mail tape, sue me) and made a depression in the shavings so Gypsy had more space to hunker you'll see in the last video.

Once your broody has shown she wants to sit on eggs, give her a few you don't care about. Mark them so you know they are not to eat. Let her set on them a day or two, and watch her patterns. Does she act like Gypsy, above, when you approach her clutch? Does she stay on the nest all day (and night, instead of going up to roost with the other birds?) Then test her commitment to setting by arranging her broody box or space, and moving her and the test eggs to it, preferably at night when she is more likely to be calm and complicit. If she doesn't abandon the eggs and continues to act very broody after a day or so, give her eggs you want to hatch. The 3-4 days you have been observing her to measure her commitment is the perfect time to gather the eggs you wish to hatch from your hens.

If you want to hatch eggs that need to be shipped to you, do so as soon as is reasonable, making sure they ship via priority mail from as close to you as possible. Then place the gathered or shipped eggs under her, at night if you have any concerns. If you prefer to place chicks under your broody, make sure she sets at least ten days or so to get her hormones set for mothering (unless this is an experienced broody and you know she is reliable). You must get the youngest chicks olds are best. These can be shipped directly to you from any hatchery. If you buy chicks from a breeder or especially from the feed store, make sure they are no more than a couple days old. Worst case scenario? The broody will reject them and either refuse to mother then or outright attack them. In either case, you just be alert, observant, and ready to hand rear the chicks if need be. In the best case scenario, she'll do all the work and you have chicks integrated in your flock in a few weeks.

I gave Gypsy 15 eggs.--4 FCBMs, 5 Olive Eggers, and 6 Black Javas. I hope she can cover them all!  After losing a few to imperfect hatching conditions and a first-time broody, and then culling roos, I'll likely have about 5 hens to keep.

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Big News--Chicks As They Grow

The chicks have been moved from the Montessori classroom to the Charmed Life Chickens farmstead. This was due to one child being allergic to feathers and one parent being prohibited by his job from being near chickens. The last thing I wanted was for the chickens to be a burden on anyone. So they are here with me, where I will care for them and update via this blog as they grow, and they will cone back to the Montessori school once they are big enough to live outside in a coop. They'll need all their feathers before that can happen! So they'll be here a few more weeks. Here are some adorable shots of children in the classroom on the last day with the chicks.

These pics show how the chicks have grown in the past two weeks. On the day the left the school, they were still cute little puffballs. They really did not have their feathers coming in yet.

Now, they are starting to lose some of the fluff and beginning to grow feathers to keep them warm. They are enjoying being outside on warm days for short periods in the sun.

Yesterday they were getting a little noisy and stinky, and I decided to put them in the big coop outside, but they still have to be kept warm, around 80 degrees day and night, so I created a safe, snug, warm portion of the coop by running electricity to their area. I also had to make sure to put up an impermeable barrier between the chicks and the adult chickens. Chicks without mothers are often pecked badly or even killed. They need extra protection while they are little!

I am sad to note that one of the chicks had a malformed beak that could not be fixed, and died yesterday.

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