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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