Monday, March 12, 2012

Peeping and Pipping and Zipping and Hatching, Oh My!

Day 21 started at 7 pm last night, and our first chick emerged before midnight.  At this point, at 9 am on day 21, we have two healthy chicks, one zipping, and multiple pips.  Here is the little beauty that emerged.

First one out

This video shows the last couple minutes of zipping.

While I wait, I take careful notes and get the ID legbands ready.

This video shows the baby bird emerging from the egg.

I'll be updating this page with more info, pics, and videos, as we go along.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Getting Ready for the Big Hatch!

Big news, worth crowing about. What do you get when one sweet-hearted, valiant rooster and several hard-working hens love each other very much?
Jules the FBCM and Blue, a blue egg layer

Juliet the FBCM
Bijou, a blue-egg layer
Juniper the FBCM
Besides, I mean, a lovely backyard flock who get along and watch out for each other and provide more entertainment than television, and give you breakfast every morning?

You get lovely hatching eggs, and if you do your homework and get them under a broody hen or a good incubator within about seven days, you chicks! 

This is the story of our first hatch of 2012.  Today we have a...pip. 

Pull up a chair in a well-lit spot; you'll be waiting a while!

Not as exciting as a chick, I'm afraid.  But still, every chick starts as a pip and a peep inside the shell.  
Which is all I can see and hear, right now!
Bijou's egg from Day 19 looks like our first lucky hatchee.

Join us in our next post...I'll be keeping a journal of a day in the life of a backyard chicken keeper, on one of the most exciting days of the year--hatch day!  As we approach the beginning of day 21 (starts about 7 pm tonight), I will expect to see a bunch of baby chicks pipping, zipping, and hatching.  I'll share pics of the process, along with my normal chicken tending chores and delights. 

Monday, February 20, 2012

Hatching Won't Wait a Minute Longer, Or, The Peepers Made Me Do It

Really, need I say more?  If you had collected these beauties in the last four days, and the sun was shining, and you heard the peepers last night in the marshy fields, wouldn't YOU be hard pressed not to pull out the incubator?
Row 1+: Ameracauna X FCBM (OE F1s). Row 2: Olive Eggers (F2). Row 3/4: Black Javas. Row 4: FCBMs.
Pull it out I did, because there is no hatch like the first hatch of Spring.  I took the incubator top apart (ok, Latt helped) and cleaned it lovingly of all the detritus and fuzz that six hatches last year left behind.  I got the top of the viewing area as clear as plastic gets, because 90% of the fun is in being able to REALLY see all the action.  I found the hydrometer and the thermometer, I calibrated the former and tested the latter, and I set about setting eggs.

Veteran hatchers, especially those familiar with the economical wonder that is the Brinsea Eco 20, may notice that I have managed to get 25, not 24 eggs into the bator.  This is the kind of gleeful success that only people crazy enough to get delight from the fact that they have just found a way to make sure they have another creature to keep alive, in hopes that it is a hen, experience.  Still.  Woot! 25, baby!  With the success rate of this awesome incubator I wouldn't be a bit surprise if every one hatched.  (Ignore the slight worried look--the kind that people have when fighting demonic possession, but only half-heartedly--that just ran across my face).

People who keep chickens are an odd bunch.  Not as preternaturally strange as those who keep goats, mind you, but if you live with chickens, you change.  You become the sort of person who really wants to home get by dusk and not linger over a second cup of coffee in the morning.  You can't help it.  You start to think about things like the amount of sunlight your place is getting, and the price of sunflower seeds, and you find yourself standing at the counter of your local feed store saying things like "Hmm.  16% the best you got?  What do you have in game bird feed--unmedicated, I mean."

You find that ordinary things that make people happy, like hearing peepers on a mid-February night, make you think of baby chicks.  And the sight of a humble little hen sitting so plainly and so wholeheartedly on her nest, with sun streaming into the coop, makes you think of all the cathedrals ever built to memorialize humans' own desire to capture a bit of creation and beauty.

You may find yourself saying to your husband, "I bet we can move the coops to the new house.  We'll be able to save on cat carriers that way!  The chickens can just ride in the coops.  See how much sense it makes?  Surely you and six friends can load them on a trailer.  Can we borrow a trailer?  And a truck with a hitch? It's only 110 degrees."

You find that you begin to moralize and have a deep sense of judgment and even hatred for parts of the animal kingdom previously seen as "cute" or "cool", like raccoons, which I now very seriously consider the Reavers of the small-farm universe.  (For those who have not seen the series Firefly, which introduced me to this scariest of villains: picture a rabid, radioactively-insane species whose entire reason for being is to claw and maul its way into your spaceship--or chicken coop, whatever--and cause as much sadistc mayhem as possible, including decapitation and entrail eating, seemingly for fun.)

In short, if you start keeping chickens, and you do so for any length of time, and don't shake yourself out of it, you will find yourself an anachronism, talking about tending animals in a way that has all but disappeared in modern America, feeling a deep sense of engagement with the natural world, and the homey sense of self sufficiency and cosmic subversion that only filling one's tank with gas and paying with a wad of thirty-six ones, your egg money from the month, will give you. You'll find yourself wondering if Wendell Berry is too old to run for president.

So yeah.  I have 20 more days to ruminate on the simple, rustic, Americana-esque beauty of hatching birds and keeping chickens, which is pleasant philosophical work I neglect in the Fall moult and the dearth of eggs it brings, and during the Winter of short days and weatherizing coops and more work than really can be done between the time you get home and the birds needing to be put up.  The culmination of this incubation period will be three days of obsessing and watching and little sleep, and worrying about the little ones who have trouble getting themselves into this world, and the magic climax of seeing them emerge, one by one, wet and wobbly.

Then I'll have about three days of thinking about how cute baby chicks are, and three weeks of plotting to get them the hell out of my house, and five more weeks worrying about the dog or cat getting them in the garage brooder, and four months of worrying about hawks.  Then a lifetime of worrying about Reavers getting them.

And in the meantime, I'll hatch a bunch more chicks, sell a bunch more birds, and find myself talking to elderly men and women about things that never got mentioned in classes like Women's Studies or Liberation Theology or Social Movements, but, I think, are making me a better person, and a little more substantial and poetic, to boot.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Gearing Up for Spring Hatches: Breeding Pens

If you have only one rooster, you don't need to prepare at all for hatching--just collect the eggs from hens you wish to use as breed stock over no more than about seven days, keep them (ideally) at temps between 45 and 75 degrees, fill your incubator or put under your broody, and let the magic happen over the next 19-21 days.  Or, if you have more than one roo but don't care about who is who's baby daddy, again, just gather and hatch.  Ahh, for the good old days when it was that easy!

If you have multiple roos of mixed breeds, and wish to keep bloodlines pure, it's a little more difficult.  Ok, a lot.  I love my entire flock (currently: three roos and fifteen hens) being able to forage and learn to live peacefully during the Fall and Winter, after breeding season is done.  But come an itch to hatch, I have to be sure to separate them into breeding groups.  Because chickens can, as you may have heard, FLY, (as well as climb fences at times!) it isn't as easy as two pens.

 To be really sure, I have planned out a breeding pen, within, the regular pen, with netting over top.  This allows me to keep three groups separate--the Black Javas, to the left, in their own pen; a breeding group (A) in the pink area and coop, with barriers to prevent them going into the part of the coop where group B sleeps and lays eggs, and from the outer pen where group B will forage and run around (when not free ranging on our property).  The breeding pen gives the French Coppered Black Marans roo, Jules, and his FCBM hens, Ameracauna hens, and Olive Egger hens enough room to peck and scratch, but I wouldn't feel comfortable keeping them in an enclosure that small forever (though people do!)  Covered by deer mesh netting, I'll know the hens aren't flying out to get mated by the other roos, and that other roos aren't flying in to mate with them.

The coop below used to just consist of an A-frame.  Wehn we got/hatched more birds, we added on the high rise coop on the left.  Now we turn this coop back into two coops each Spring in Summer, by stapling in chicken wire to separate the two living quarters.  This lets us accomodate sequestered breeding groups, broody mamas on eggs, and a nursery area for chicks or chicks with mamas.

This shows the breeding coop's bird door.  We will cut the fence at the corner of the pen shown here, and re-attach via clips (dog leash snap-clip style, most likely) to fencing at the t-psot.  That will give us a cheap and easy "gate" so we can get in the pen in case of emergency, and allow us to open and close the door easily.  By the way I HIGHLY recommend this type of hinged door that opens UP.  Stays out of the rain if your roof overhangs a little, and keeps shavings/poo from getting in the hinge area (problem I have with another long door on this coop, on the opposite side--see below). 

This shows the left side of the breeding coop, and the boundaries of the breeding pen (t-posts).  Note the area under the "high rise"--provides some protection from rain.  Chickens generally don't mind rain unless it is really storming, but they don't go into their coops to get out of it.  They do sometimes stay in their coops for major SNOW conditions, but not rain.  They prefer to hang out under an overhang of some sort during storms. This overhang also allows me to keep their food dry.  I will likely lean tin or somesuch against the coop, in that area. to provide a windbreak and a little more dry room for them to gather.

This shows the egg door for my breeding group (on end of a-frame). You can see the handles from when we built this to be a mobile coop, and the area beneath the a-frame. that is fenced in for shelter.   The high rise, to the right of the egg door, is the secondary addition, and expanded our original coop's capacity from about 5 birds to about 15.  The egg door is important.  I plan for it to be *outside* the confines of the breeding pen, which will but up against the long handle on the right, leaving the egg door accessible.  That way I can quickly gather eggs without taking much of a chance on letting sequestered birds out.  The long door open to the left shows the coop space for Group B, which is made up of a Roo and hens I'll be sequestering for the next hatch (soon after Group A's sequestration is ended.  I want chicks to be no more than 21 days or so apart, as you can combine birds that are no more than three weeks different in age, even without a mother hen, once the youngest group is about 6-8 weeks old.)

This just shows the netting we will use to cover the breeding pen.  It is extremely cheap, at about $14 for 7'x100' at Lowe's.  It is flimsy, but it doesn't take much to keep a bird from flying out of a pen.  We may put up two layers if it seems too flimsy.

The pen should be finished tomorrow, and I put the barrier in the coop and sequester the birds.  I can start collecting eggs and be sure they are all fathered by Jules 8 days after I separate them from the rest of the flock. I can almost hear the tiny peeps of chicks nearly ready to hatch!

Monday, January 30, 2012

Itching to Hatch Chicks--Want Your Own Olive Eggers or French Coppered Black Marans??

I can't wait any is time to get things organized for our first Spring hatch.  I saw the University of Nebraska hatch cam today, and knew I had to get in gear.

My first hatch will be a "Colorful Egg Basket" mix.  By having a Dark Brown-Egg (French Coppered Black Marans) Roo in the breeding pen with blue-egg (Easter Egger) and dark brown-egg (FCBM) hens, eggs will produce babies who carry genes for either dark brown or olive egg color:  pure FCBMs, and Olive Eggers.
Soon to be Daddy, Jules, an FCBM roo

This weekend we'll get our materials together and build our first breeding pen, meant to temporarily keep desired love matches together (and away from opportunity-seeking roosters who are no respecter of genetics programs).  This will be a secure pen attached to a coop, inside their normal extremely large pen.

It will take about one week for hens system's to "clear" previously mated Roos' genetic material and to be fertilized by the desired roo.  After one week, I will begin collecting eggs, labeling them with regard to date laid, and storing them for hatching.  Ideally, eggs that you are holding to hatch will be stored in an egg carton at a temperature of about 55-60 degrees.  Unheated rooms or back porches are great for this.  Refrigeration is NOT a good idea (though to be honest, I can point out three birds in my current flock born from eggs that were put in the fridge for a few days before I "scrambled" for a clutch to put under a suddenly broody hen).  Eggs should be hatched in an incubator, or put under a broody, within 10 days maximum, though I usually try for no more than 7 when possible.

An FCBM hen--they are notable for broodiness
When I am collecting eggs in preparation for a hatch (or to ship to someone else who will be hatching them), I keep them as close to 60 degrees as possible, and I turn them a couple times each day, so that the yolk doesn't settle or get malformed.  I put the eggs in a carton, and I put a brick under one end, so that the carton's left end is on the countertop and the right end is higher, atop the brick.  Then I move the carton around accordingly: left to right ends on the brick, then I flip the (closed) carton over and do likewise, one move in the am, one in the pm, each day.  If I start this on day 1, the carton is rightside up (with right end higher) in the am, then rightside up (with left end higher) in the pm.  On day 2, I flip the carton upsidedown (a rubber band gives security here) and do the same on this day.  Day 3 sees a return to position one (rightside up, with the right end higher).

I'll be hatching FCBMs (will lay eggs like the dark brown ones here)
And Olive Eggers (will lay eggs similar to the greens here)
I should be ready to set eggs on Feb 18th, which will give us a hatch date of  March 9th-10th.  Holler if you'd like to put dibs on some chicks from this hatch, and let me know when you'd like to take them--cost begins on day of hatch at $4 each, and goes up $1 for each two weeks that I raise them.  Chicks are fully feathered and can live without a heat lamp (or warm mama) by about 8 weeks.

Interested?  Comment and let me know what you want...I'll hatch based on the interest of folks here.

Watch Some Hatching Eggs with Us!

a 2011 hatch
I am not quite ready to set and hatch eggs yet this Spring, as I like to be able to put them out asap, and they need higher temps than we are having.  In the meantime, get your hatching fix here--we are glued to the screen here at the Charmed Life home:

Eggs should be hatching today and tomorrow--I see one little guy already!

Friday, January 13, 2012

Black Javas--Doing My Part to Save an Endangered Heritage Breed

 Hard to believe I have made it this long without a post dedicated to Black Javas.  You wouldn't even know they are my first priority, judging by their meager appearance here.  They aren't the flashiest--no blue eggs here, no chocolate browns either, and certainly no olives...but they are a kind of "meat and potatoes" bird for someone who truly wants a sustainable backyard flock.  See an album of most of my Black Javas here.

Malcolm with the laying flock (non-Black Java hens are shown)
One of the first two American breeds, Black Javas were extremely popular among homesteaders and pioneers of the 1800s due to several factors still found in the birds today.  First, they are a great dual-purpose breed:  a good balance between a body size big enough to make a decent family meal, but not so large as to reduce by a great deal the egg output (the slimmest birds lay the most eggs--think Brown Leghorns--but aren't great fare for the table).

 Next, they are excellent foragers.  Allowed access to grass, leaves, and other vegetation, they will choose to forage for much of the day, rather than hanging around the feed bin, waiting to be fed.  This means that those who keep Black Javas consistently report that the breed consumes less store-bought feed than their other birds.  My Black Javas have been particularly vigilant at being the first to sound predator-alarms to the greater flock of several breeds, when hawks, foxes, or dogs are sighted during foraging, meaning I feel more comfortable letting them have wider access to free-ranging areas.

For those interested in maintaining a flock without needing to replenish with new chicks on an ongong basis, Black Javas offer a great option--hens often "go broody" (see my post on what this means), set eggs, hatch eggs effectively, and then make great mothers.  My best broody is a Black Java named Minerva, and I've posted many a video and picture of her on this blog.  She's an inspiring mother, and a credit to her breed, but other breeders report similar experiences.

Finally, Black Javas have a great personality--calm, somewhat aloof, and disinterested in conflict with other birds, as a rule.  They stick together better than any of my birds, and roosters are most often gentlemanly and protective.  I have a whole post on the merits of Malcolm, my BJ chief, in fact.  Good roosters have a near-holiness about them that is hard to explain if you've never had the pleasure of being around one, or if your thoughts about roosters were formed from a traumatic experience with a bad roo.

So, if they're so great, why are they endangered?  Would you believe that corporate food production is the answer?  A kind of chicken breed "monoculture" sprang up, with the industry focusing on just a handful of breeds to the exclusion of all others.  Yet BJs were extremely important in the development of those breeds. Wikipedia says, "The Java is a key foundation breed for the American class of chickens,[4] having contributed significantly to major modern fowl such as the Jersey Giant, Rhode Island Red and Plymouth Rock.[3] They are also likely to be the source of the yellow skin in contemporary Dominiques, which once had white skin.[4]"  

I'm proud to be maintaining  a small breeding flock, keeping records, and getting birds out to folks as often as possible.  The Black Javas are nearly gone.  

Yellow feet are required for showing BJs.
Again, from Wikipedia: "Beginning in the 1990s, breeders and conservation organizations began to make a more concerted effort to save the Java. In particular, the Garfield Farm Museum in Illinois has played a pivotal role in the preservation of Javas in the 21st century.[8] Beginning with Mottled and Black Javas, sports from the Garfield flock have revived the White variety.[9] The Garfield Farm was also been supported by the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, which hatched Java chicks as part of their exhibit on genetics.[6] The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy continues to list Javas as Critical on its watchlist, meaning fewer than 500 breeding birds from five or fewer primary breeding flocks are known (this does not take in to account the population of non-breeding flocks).[5] The breed is also listed as part of Slow Food USA's Ark of Taste, a catalog of heritage foods in danger of extinction.[10]".

If you are looking for a stable, hardy, sustainable backyard flock, consider Black Javas.  I will have hatching eggs available to ship all over the United States come Spring, and day old chicks for sale locally (only).

Black Javas foraging

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Olive Eggs, from Olive Eggers, at Long Last!

It is with IMMENSE pleasure that I show off my lovely Ophelia's first 15 eggs (in just 18 days!).  She began laying on Dec 18, almost exactly 5 months old, and has laid almost every day since.  The variety in her eggs is fascinating to me.  I have included a couple of white Leghorn eggs for comparison--they are as pure white as you can get.

It's hard to believe I am worked this long on the Olive Egger project, only to end up with just ONE actual OE hen--the others in Minerva's hatch (see last post) were boys.  But with this deep, dark, rich color, how can I complain?

Ophelia is the product of roo Jules (a French Coppered Black Maran or FCBM) and Ruth, a lovely and prodigious-layer of an Easter Egger with a nice deep blue-green egg.  (I'm sad to note that Ruth died, seemingly of heat exhaustion, not long after we moved--we had weks over over 100 degree weather, and she keeled over during the worst of it.  I am so glad I have Ophelia to carry on her legacy!) The look of these stunning eggs, and especially the responses I am getting from those who see them in person makes me excited to hatch more Olive Eggers. (they have goldish glow that doesn't translate well in pics, but this one was as close as I could get).

Tomorrow I pick up this beautiful boy.  He's a TRUE Ameracauna (meaning, he was hatched by a breeder and conforms to the breed standards, and is NOT a Easter Egger) and should impart a blue, blue egg to my breeding program.  This means I'll be able to breed him to my Easter Eggers and get bluer-egged offspring, but also that I can breed him to my FCBM chocolate-brown egg laying girls to get even greener Olive Eggs.  And bred to Ophelia, I should get pullets with an amazing deep olive green, with the gold glow I love so much.  Blue, as I think we will call him, is the product of Blue/Black/Splash breeding--bred with a black bird, he will have all black babies, but bred to a Blue (like one of my EEs), he should produce 50% black and 50% blue chicks.  I like silvery-gray birds (called blue in the trade) better than any other kind, so I'm excited about that too.  Thank you, Craigslist!

An Update on Us--Charmed Chickens on the Move

It's been a long while since I posted, and we moved to a different city in the meantime.  We suffered a terrible loss when Gypsy was eaten by the foxes' kits at the end of the Summer, and we found another home for her chicks, including the Olive Eggers we were so excited about.  It felt like a major setback.  I immediately placed  more with a luckily-timed broody,  which hatched 2 weeks before our move, and put eggs under another broody, Juliet (an FCBM hen), a few days later, set to hatch 5 days after our move.   She would be our fourth hatch of the year, and our third broody--two French Coppered Black Marans, and one Black Java.

Moving 30-ish chickens, including a mother with 2 week old chicks and a broody hen on eggs is no easy task.  We loaded the two coops, chickens inside, on this trailer, which took the better part of a morning and three adults doing heavy lifting/engineering.  We had an additional couple of pet carriers/broody boxes that were transported, with chickens inside, and I was delighted to find this when we got the birds out at the new place.  One of my two elderly Brown Leghorns, which as far as I am concerned are a breed as akin to an egg-laying machine as one can get, laid this egg on the way, in this box, on a trailer, with 5 other hens and a rooster beside her.  It seemed a good omen--everything is going to come out ok. ;)

Sure enough, the new place was amazing for the birds. Lots of lush green grass, even in the heat wave, and new leaves and humus to hunt bugs in.  Minerva, seen here with her five hatchlings, felt right at home.

Everything seemed ideal.  I had my olive egger chicks..all that remained was to enjoy our new fox-free digs and chain link backyard where the chickens could roam almost an acre without fear of predators.  It felt like home.

And that brings us up to speed.  I relaxed on the porch a lot of mornings and drank coffee watching my flock thrive here, and waited as patiently as I could for the day my ONE surviving Olive Egger, Ophelia, would lay her first egg.