Chickens behaving badly

Dear God, give me patience, an ability to think outside the box, be faster than the birds, and help me not be overprotective towards the least ‘uns, whoever they may be. Amen

 

The normal cycle of maternal behaviour in chickens ends with the mama chicken, responding to changing hormone levels, disassociating herself from her chicks and beginning to lay eggs again. This typically happens around the 4 – 8 week mark and may include quite aggressive behaviour towards the chicks. Cinnamon is laying again. Her  eggs are gorgeous.

She has been a lovely mama. But before she went broody, Cinnamon was a bully hen, and in the course of 48 hours she completely reverted to her former nasty self AND developed an alliance with Hutch. This has created havoc, or perhaps a new normal.

Not only was she picking on Chickpea and Titch (the other three are fast enough to get out of her way), when working in cahoots with Hutch, the two of them were blocking the  the chicks’ access to food, water, and shelter. It was more than I could stand.

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Cinnamon and Hutch in the pokey.

 

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Chickpea and Titch taking a break from Bully Mama and her Accomplice

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After two days of bad behaviour I bought some anti-pecking spray at the recommendation of someone who knows. Basically this stuff, sprayed onto the bullied birds’ feathers, makes them taste so bitter the other birds decide not to touch them.

I have only sprayed the chicks, Clover and Ginger once, except for Titch who was sprayed a couple of days later for a second time. I did this after watching Cinnamon land a peck on her.

The spray seems to have worked well enough and things have settled. The adults are now leaving the chicks alone, mostly. But the chicks are still nervous of the adults and are doing their best to stay well away. To make sure everyone has easy access food, water, and shelter I have put three of everything in different parts of the chickenarium, and am letting the adults spend a good portion of the day out in the garden. Hopefully everyone will settle soon, accept their various places in the pecking order, and I will be able to relax.

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Hutch and Clover under the apple tree

One of the things that I have wondered about regarding this dramatic change in bird dynamics is the chickens’ two week holiday in September (Yes, they did!). Over the years, we have boarded our chickens at a nearby poultry ‘farm’ that sells chickens, ducks, quail, and the like. They also board birds. It is a blessing to have such safe and experienced hands to look after our birds when we go away (OK, yes, it was us who went on hols, but the chickens got to travel as well).

Because of the age of the chicks, the staff wanted to keep mama and babies in a central location in a more-secure-than-normal pen. This was great, but it did mean that the chicks were with Cinnamon only for their 6th to 8th weeks of life, and the five of them were completely separated from the other four who were somewhere else in a pen with a great view of the Devonshire scenery.

But it seems their return home coincided with Cinnamon’s last nerve as a mama and it has created a two-flock dynamic that I hadn’t anticipated. As things currently stand the five chicks are one flock and the five adults are another.

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Thyme, posing for the camera. Starsky is in the background

To complicate matters even more, Starsky went lame whilst on holiday. [Now that I think about it, he was moving more slowly before we left, but it didn’t occur to me that this was something to be concerned about]. One day the staff noticed he was limping quite badly. The vet was called and he was examined. As there was nothing broken or bleeding, it was assumed he suffered a soft tissue injury (maybe a spat with Hutch?) which may (or may not) heal with time. He is able to get around, but he is incredibly clumsy. I carry him out to the big grassy garden, but he moves about the chickenarium on his own. He is eating and drinking ( I do give him his own dish in the morning and evening to make sure he gets what he needs without fuss) and he still crows when the weather is fab. But he is not top bird. Hutch is. I don’t even have a proper photo of him right now because he has asked me to respect his privacy as he comes to terms with his lower rank.

 

Now, I put the ten birds into the coop the first night. Since then, however, separate sleeping accommodations have been arranged. This is because of the bullying, Starsky’s disability, and the two-flock mentality.

Starsky is unable to get up and down the ramp into the coop and is sleeping (at his request) in a cat carrier in the run. I have put plenty of straw in the carrier and covered it with a piece of carpet to make sure he stays warm. Initially one or more of the hens joined him for the night, but this led to the chicks, who are sleeping upstairs in the coop, having to run the gantlet of  beaks each morning. Now it is just Starsky they have to get past, and as he can’t move too fast, they are able to do this pretty well.

Hutch has reverted to the shed, and he gets Cinnamon, Clover, and Ginger by default. Ginger seems to be the lowest ranking adult right now. She is quiet and subdued. Clover, on the other hand, has actually been going after the chicks. I am kind of pleased for her. She deserves a little status.

I think I will have to do another sneaky-in-the-dark manoeuvre before it begins to get cold. Once all the birds are asleep, we will need to move them in the dark into one sleeping space. Hopefully when they wake in the morning they will forget all the aggro they have caused and live happily together for evermore.

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Parsley who ranks number one amongst the chicks
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Sage who is competing with Thyme for second in command

In the mean time, Cinnamon, Ginger and Clover are hanging together again as they did before Cinnamon went broody. Hutch is with them. And Starsky is keeping an eye on the chicks.

Parsley and Sage are gorgeous, and Chickpea is a beautiful brown and white bird who just can’t seem to get rid of all her head fuzz. Thyme is stunning, Titch is beautiful and tiny. They are all beautiful. And I don’t even think they look odd with tiny combs.

 

 

As Thyme goes on

Holy God,                                                                                                                                       Thank you for work that comes in many forms.                                                                            May my hands and mind keep busy; may my heart remain pure.                                                 In all I do, may I serve only you.                                                                                                        And, when  the work is through, may I rest in you.                                                                      Amen.

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Parsley (perched on the arm), Sage, Thyme (sitting), Chickpea enjoying a different elevation.

A new Connexional year has begun for the Methodist Church. That means I have been retired for a full year. Wow.

I have enjoyed allowing my body to set my schedule, giving in to the need to rest as and when. I have enjoyed spending lots of time outside, watching our garden grow, and doing volunteer work for the RSPCA and, to a lesser extend, Exmoor National Park.

I do not really need the money I was making before, but planning holidays on a serious budget has made me glad that the one-year restriction on earning has come to an end. I am now able to sell eggs (though we are currently only getting one egg per day), and honey next year, and perhaps take the odd funeral if it comes my way.

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Cinnamon, Titch, Thyme (on top), and Sage

So, the chicks are growing well. Mama Cinnamon is just as dedicated to them as ever, aggressively protecting them from Clover and Ginger and Kelpie when they get too close.

The flock seems to have divided itself into two. Hutch, Ginger and Clover are one group; Starsky, Cinnamon and the babies are the other. The two groups mingle, but when left to themselves, Starsky stays  near the chicks and Cinnamon, and Hutch follows Clover and Ginger.

When they are allowed to go into the garden, the threesome quickly make their way there, but Starsky hangs back with the babies for a bit. If Hutch starts crowing Starsky gets agitated and wants to join the threesome in the garden. I think he wants to make sure Hutch knows that Starsky is still number one. img_20190907_095959

 

Parsley is developing, as they all are, into an awkward-looking adolescent. The fluff is almost all gone.  All the body feathers are in place, but the the black head feathers are still coming in. She has lovely grey legs, and a nicely developing comb (and wattles – just a pink line under the base of her beak). I need to keep an eye on the colour development as early pinkness may be a sign that this bird is a cockerel. Temperament-wise, this is an independent bird, often on her own or perching on something above the others.

 

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Sage’s  development is a little behind Parsley’s, feather-wise. Size-wise, they are identical. They are both big, sturdy birds. Sage has a pale comb and wattles, as hens do at this age. Her ear is clearly visible in this photo. It is behind her eye, round and pale and flat. Her ears will become bright white as she develops. Ear colour is indicative of egg shell colour. I don’t know why.

This one also keeps to herself and enjoys flying and perching. I am afraid she will be the ‘middle child’ who doesn’t get much attention unless she acts out.

 

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Titch is growing, but still the smallest. His/her feathers are coming in well, and s/he is alert and eats and drinks well. The ear is also visible, behind and below the eye. S/He is calmer now when I pick him up: no shivering, and just today, s/he took the time to have a good look around before struggling to get loose.

One concern: Titch has been sneezing for over a week. Chickens are prone to respiratory illnesses and for a couple of days s/he clearly did not feel well – dozing and hunched, keeping to himself, and he felt warm when I picked him up.  S/He never stopped eating and drinking, and the sneeze has been dry. I added a multi-vitamin to their water,  hoping that might help, and s/he does seem to have gotten through the worst of it.

But, as none of the others have developed a sneeze, or looked anything other than healthy, I have wondered if it may be more of an allergy, or if s/he – being a runt – will just be more prone to illness than the others, or have some kind of an underlying problem like a respiratory malformation.  I will have to wait and watch.

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Thyme is the most beautiful and outgoing girl. She has a lovely personality and bright eyes, always taking in what is going on around her. Neither she nor Titch have the same development of comb and wattles, but I am sure this is normal for their breed. She is definitely fluffier than all the others and developing the curved breast that is a feature of the Pekin. Her colouration, and that of Titch, is called Millie Fleur. She makes me smile.

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Last, but not least: Chickpea. She is definitely turning into a mini-me of Cinnamon, Ginger, and Clover – check out those reddish-brown breast feathers.  She still has white feathers on her wings, so she will be a mottled brown, I guess.  It was the mottling and colour variation in the first 4 that allowed me to tell them apart – Cinnamon had the richest, glossiest feathers; Nutmeg was similarly dark but not glossy; Ginger was paler with some white feathers peeking through; and Clover was dark with a paler patch on her saddle. Chickpea has little comb or wattle development and no tail feathers.  She doesn’t like to picked up, but she is happy to perch on my shoulder. This was something she was taught at the RSPCA.

 

One thing that has kept Phil and I busy is trying to contain all of these birds. The chicks are small enough to fit through the holes in the fence wire, so we have – at least for now – managed to block the gaps that they were going through to get into field.

The cockerels, on the other hand, are just clever. And a bad influence on the hens. It has taken us some sneaky observation to figure out how they were getting out, but I think we have fixed this, too.

We weren’t sure if they were hopping over the short panels in the chicken pen, which had random bits of chicken wire over the top, so we covered the whole area with green agricultural fabric. This has kept them all in, and it protects the chicks from overhead predators. It also frustrates the ground-based nuisances, who are hard-wired to round sheep!

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Safe space for the little ones

Next week is a big one for all the birds: they are going for holidays at a hen-ery – a hen boarding farm. We have used this place several times in the past, but it will be the first time for this group. I am sure they will be well looked after.

Thyme flies!

Thank you, God, for this opportunity to watch (and assist) as young life develops into old. May what I see in these creatures remind me not only of the commonalities we have,              and your wondrous love that gives us life,                                                                                    but also for the responsibility you have given us to care for that life in all its forms.            Amen.

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left to right: Kelpie (dog), Titch, Chickpea, Cinnamon, Sage, Thyme, and Parsley

 

So, the chicks are developing FAST. Yes, they are growing, too, but it seems skills are outrunning size. At only two weeks of age they are finding and eating their own insects, dust bathing, and flying.

Parsley continues to be the most physically developed. She has more and longer feathers than any of the others. Her comb is now just visible (see the bright yellow stripe between her eyes). She looks a bit like a Klingon, but in a cute way. She is leggy and gaining weight and does not like to be handled.

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Chickpea and Parsley with Mama, Sage against the tree
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Sage pretending to be a leaf (centre right)

Sage is developmentally behind Parsley, but not by much. Her feathers are not as long, but she does have a tiny comb. She, too, has long grey legs. While Parsley’s feathers are coming in a single shade of reddish-brown, Sage’s are variegated – dark stripes down the centre of some of them. They will both be stunning birds when they are mature.

Rosemary has been renamed Titch. This is due mostly to size – Titch is the smallest by far – but also because I have a sneaking suspicion that she may be a cockerel. It is hard to tell such things in a bird so young, but one clue is the development of their flight feathers. Hens develop these in two rows while Cocks only have one.

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photo from dominant.cz-cz

I have looked for information about the size ratio of make and female Pekins, wondering if Titch’s size is also a clue to sex but I can find nothing on this, so cannot draw any conclusions. I have read than hen’s feathers develop faster than cockerels and this seems to be the case in the photo below: Titch is definitely less developed, feather-wise, compared to Thyme who is of the same breed. Titch is very quick and doing well with finding bugs, but he still quakes when I hold him.

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Thyme and Titch (Pekins) in the foreground, one of the Velociraptors – I mean Vorwerks – behind

Thyme is the most outgoing of the chicks. She has the brightest of eyes and clearly focuses on my face and my movements when I am around. She is often looking up – at the top of the walls or the run, and looks as if she is planning an escape. She is quick to fly or hop to the highest perch available and was the first to dust bathe just like Mommy. She is becoming quite fluffy, with well developed leg and foot feathers (as well as wing). Neither She nor Titch have visible combs yet.

 

And then there were five!

I received an email about six days ago from the RSPCA branch I volunteer with. They had received a single fluffy chick, approximately five days old, and as they knew I had successfully adopted Starsky and Hutch, and was expecting babies, wondered if I was in a position to foster their little Chickpea. Being all alone is not ok for any flock animal, and it is especially bad for one so young. Time was of the essence.

Just as a broody hen can be fooled into accepting other chicks as her own, they also can be fooled into taking on more chicks within the first couple of weeks. They don’t seem to notice if another chick or two are added to their brood.

I said I was willing to try, but needed to borrow a heat lamp in case Cinnamon said no. I would then need to brood her myself while deciding what was the best course of action for her.

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Chickpea in the front (notice her white wing feathers), Thyme and Titch behind, Cinnamon demonstrating the proper technique for scratching, and Sage doing her own thing next to the fence. Dunno where Parsley is, probably behind Mama

We brought her home Sunday afternoon and left her in a plastic storage tub with food and water and a hot water bottle and Radio Three while we went to a previous commitment. When we returned I took her in her plastic tub up to the chickenarium and placed it inside the outdoor run (to which the little ones had graduated!) with Mama and babies. There was much mingled cheeping of all the chicks and no response from Cinnamon. But when I picked up Chickpea her cheeping became shrill and louder and that got Cinnamon’s attention. She looked at the little one in my hands with an expression like ‘how’d she get over there,? Put her down at once!’ So I set the newbie down amongst the others… and all was fine. The other chicks did each give her a quick peck (except for Titch) but that was all. If there had been a problem at this point, I would have pulled Cp out and tried to introduce a bit later her in the dark, like I did with the others.

Though the ages of the five chicks are very similar, Chickpea had not a clue about the social side of chicken life. She didn’t know about scratching in the dirt, or watching Mama, or the language the family was speaking. She did pay attention to Titch, however, and peeked over his shoulder to watch him and then try out whatever he was doing for herself.

Come bedtime, Chickpea had no idea about following the others into the coop so I had to lift her up there. Once in the coop, she just stood on her own in the middle of the floor instead of cuddling up with Mama like the others. I had  a piece of Plexiglas that just happened fit over the opening of the nest box. I scooted Cp into the nest box and blocked her in with the others, and closed up the coop. Then I went round and opened the nest box from above, pulled out Cinnamon’s wing and tucked Cp underneath. I held the wing in place with one hand and blocked the exits Cp was trying to escape through with the other.

Cinnamon didn’t seem to mind my presence or manipulation. Rather, I got the impression she was grateful that I got little not-listening-to-mama to where she belonged. In just a few seconds all was settled. I left the Plexiglas in place while I went and ate dinner then came back for check. As I couldn’t see Chickpea, I decided she must be in the right place and I removed the Plexiglas so they could get to their food and water in the morning.

It has only been three days, but Chickpea is acting like one of the group now except for the occasional delay as she stands in one place while everyone else moves on. Then something kicks in and off she goes flapping at full speed.

The staff did not know her breed, but after scouring the internet for info and photos, I think she is a commercial breed like Cinnamon, Clover, and Ginger called a Hyline. She, however, appears to be a white version rather than brown-ish. I am guessing she will lay very pale eggs, perhaps even white.

One condition of my fostering her is that I will check her weight each day. She was only 68 grams at ‘discharge’ and that was a worry for the vet. I weighed her on Tuesday with our not-so-accurate kitchen scale and got about 82 grams. I will weigh her a bit later today, but as I have noticed that she is spending alot of time at the feeder, as well as scratching about and eating bugs I think she will be catching up with the others very soon. This fast catch up may be the result of actually observing the others eating. Obviously the humans at the RSPCA made sure she had food and water, but without a proper demo of eating by another chicken she was responding to instinct drives to eat, but without any guidance. Now she is proficient.

It is a fascinating mix of nature v nurture with these tiny things. Clearly they are hard wired to eat, drink, poo, walk, flap, and cheep, but they also have the ability to learn by watching and listening to Mama.

 

Today they all got onto the grass for the first time. We have added some additional fencing next to the chickenarium to give them a safe and grassy place much closer to coop, and have put a few upside-down plastic boxes around to make hiding places in the event of an emergency. I will not leave Cinnamon alone with them when they are out and about for a few weeks. They are still so small.

Soon enough, it will be time to introduce them all to the roos and other hens, and shortly after that I hope the whole flock will be back in the one coop.

Until next time!

 

Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, and Thyme

Thank you God for this week, its challenges and blessings, its sorrows and joys. May I never doubt that you are with me, no matter what. Amen.

 

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Our first hour together inside with a hot water bottle and some food and water. Waiting for the sun to go down.

We’ve made it through week one with the new chicks. In keeping with my previous theme of naming the birds after spices, these four are officially’Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, and Thyme.

Parsley and Sage are of the Vorwerk breed. They are the darker ones at the bottom of the photo above. I have seen photos of baby Vorwerks where they look like tiny penguins. They will be flighty girls, friendly but not cuddly, of average size, and they will  lay beautiful white eggs.

Rosemary and Thyme, the two towards the top of the photo, are  La Fluer Pekins, a bantam breed who love cuddles and lay small eggs. They will match size with Starsky and Hutch, who are Dutch bantams.

Parsley seems to be the oldest – or at least the biggest and best developed. S/he already flew across the coop floor, just today. S/he also has little tiny tail feathers poking through the fluff.

Sage is getting flight feathers but is not quite as far along developmentally. Both of these are quite wiggly when held, and Parsley loudly makes known her/his desire to be put down.

Rosemary is the smallest of the chicks and the youngest I am sure. She was no bigger than a cotton ball. When I first got them home and gave them a bit of food and water Rosemary seemed quite unfamiliar with pecking, swallowing, and drinking. She was also a bit clumsy on her feet. She still shivers when held, like she is really scared. I give her kisses. Maybe she thinks I am trying to eat her.

Thyme is the most beautiful of the bunch. S/he is golden coloured with brown stripes down the back – someone suggested s/he looks like a chipmunk. Thyme is bigger than Rosemary and also further along developmentally, but does not have the feathering of the Vorwerks yet. Rosemary just has tiny little feathers on her titchy wing tips. These two will have feathered legs and feet. Currently they have fuzzy legs and feet.

They eat ‘chick crumb’ which is specially sized for their little mouths and blended for their baby digestive tracts. Cinnamon is eating this as well, though I can tell she is longing for grown-up food. I am still taking her a handful of corn each day, and a few greens from the garden – dandelion leaves, grass stalks with seed heads – and she is eating these while the chicks watch and copy her.

She transitioned from sitting on eggs to mothering with no problems. We did wait until after dark to take the chicks to her. They had just eaten and fallen asleep, so they made very little noise as Phil and I carried them into the garden and placed them under mum. Cinnamon was quiet, but pecked at my hand a bit as I placed each ball of fluff under her wings. Only one chick, the third one, made any noise – guessing that was Parsley. That bit of noise got Cinnamon’s attention and she clucked only a couple of times. By the time the fourth one was under her wing there was only silence. I read that I should stay as long as needed to make sure they all settled down, so I was prepared to sit in the dark for half an hour or so. But it was clear they were fine. By the time I shut and fastened the lid – less than a minute – there was peace. Hurray!

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Vorwerks in front, Thyme standing on Rosemary behind. Cinnamon being a good mom.

 

For the next two days Cinnamon didn’t really move around but the chicks came and went from under her. I moved her out of the cat carrier she’d been in for a month, and she seemed pleased to be on straw. On the third day she moved to the other end of the coop, closer to the food and water, and she stayed there for a day or so. Now she is wandering around in the coop, pecking scratching, clucking, and the babies use her as a grounding spot from which to make forays from to the farthest reaches of the coop.

She has scratched all the straw against one end (perhaps I need to change this straw?) so the chicks have a mountain to scale. I have added a couple of sticks, a chunk of sod/turf, a folded-up wine rack, and a couple of bricks. The chicks are making use of all of these enrichment pieces. They are very light and springy.

I decided it was easier to move the other four chickens into the shed than to move Cinnamon and the babies in there. I have closed off the doorway into the coop with a spare shelf from the oven, and I have kept the door that leads into the run (and up to the coop) closed so the other chickens can’t disturb Cinnamon by gawping at the babies.

By next week I think I need to let them have access to the run –  Cinnamon seems to want to move about more than she is able in the coop. I think the chicks will have any problems with the ramp, but the gaps in the mesh under the run are big enough for Rosemary to fall through. The gaps are also caused by rat tunnels. If one of the chicks falls through it will be a goner. So, we may put some lino (linoleum), or something similar, over the mesh for added security. They will have access to the run in the day time, and sleep in the coop as they do now.

Being in the run will also allow the others to see the chicks and Cinnamon, but not touch them. This is an important part of preparing to put them all together in one place when the time is right. The sooner this is done, hopefully the less fighting there will be when all the doors and gates are opened.

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Top left: Rosemary Stripey back: Thyme; Next to Thyme: can’t tell for certain, but maybe Sage; and can’t tell for certain, but maybe Parsley. 

 

‘Don’t count your chickens ’til they’re hatched’

Holy Giver and Taker of Life,                                                                                                        Help me understand your ways, or at least not be troubled when I don’t understand. Help me to celebrate the life that is, that was, and that will be. Amen.

There is nothing like a little hands-on experience to help one understand just how fragile life is. Though I have understood in my head that birds, insects, reptiles, fish, amphibians, plants, and to a lesser extent, mammals all produce LOTS of offspring because the chances of any one of those offspring living to maturity is slim, I now understand in my heart.

All five of the eggs Cinnamon was sitting on died.

I realised within the first 10 days or so that two of the eggs had stopped developing. I could tell this by shining my phone light through the bottom of the egg and seeing how large the darkened area inside the egg – the developing chick – was. I disposed of these two eggs by leaving them out, away from the house, for any critters that might need a meal.

 

Image result for egg candling chart

 

I was responsible for the demise of the next egg – I accidentally cracked it wide open. The weather has been unseasonably hot here, and in an attempt to get a bit of airflow into the coop I decided to prop the lid open by sticking an old spade handle between the lid and the nest box. In trying to figure out how to best place it, the handle fell into the nest and landed on one egg.

The bit that came out  of the shell was quite liquidy – a mix of blood and egg white – and it quickly spread across the bottom of the nest. I tossed it before anything else appeared. Then I had to take the other eggs out, wipe them down, wipe down the plastic box, and put in fresh straw: bacteria will grow very quickly in such a rich mess. I replaced the remaining eggs, got Cinnamon back on the nest, went inside, and had a good blub. As a nurse, and a midwifery nurse at that, I am hardwired to work for the perfect birth. This was an amateur’s mistake. I cannot help but wonder if it would’ve otherwise survived.

When we got to day 20 in our count to 21 I noticed a bit of a smell in the nest. It was not overwhelmingly bad, but it reminded me of the smell of a labouring or postpartum mama. I thought perhaps it was a normal smell, as several blog sites I looked at did mention the odour of hatching eggs…

Day 21 and no hatching or peeping from the eggs. Peeping ususally starts about 24 hours before they hatch. Cinnamon was still sitting tight with no signs of stopping. Sometimes it takes as many as 24 days for the eggs to hatch so, though I was anxious, I was willing to wait.

Day 22 the smell was worse and upon inspection one of the eggs was oozing brown fluid. The smell was from this fluid and it was a sign that the chick in the egg was dead. The egg next to that one had fluid from the rotten egg on it. I wiped it off, and smelled the egg and decided it was probably also housing a dead chick. The third egg smelled OK, but there was no peeping. As the fluid from one rotten egg can spoil the whole nest, I disposed of the two but kept the third.

Day 23 left me with one egg. I candled it and it was fully dark inside – full sized chick. It was still not peeping. I put in it a bowl of warm water as suggested by some sites to check viability (the ‘float test’). Fertilised eggs float, and eggs with live chicks bobble about in the water. I put the fertilised egg in and it floated and rotated and moved across the surface of the water, but not with great vigour.  I put it back under Cinnamon, along with a plastic dummy egg and had a think.

Day 24 showed no sign of peeping, so I decided to dispose of that egg, too.

Cinnamon had already acquired 2 new eggs from Clover and Ginger. I left her on those and the dummy egg and did a bit of research, refreshing what I already knew a bit about: ‘breaking’ a broody vs. letting her try to adopt some very young chicks.

Breaking a broody cycle requires bringing the mama bird’s body temperature down to normal [they heat up when brooding]. This breaks the cycle of hormone production that makes them go broody in the first place. To reduce their temperature you have to get air flowing all around them. You start with simply removing them from the nest in the hopes that a stroll in the fresh air will make them forget about sitting. But if this doesn’t work, there are several other things a keeper can try. Locking the hen out of the nest is one, putting a frozen water bottle into the nest is another. If still there is still no luck then the hen is put in solitary confinement with no nesting material and left above ground level. Some suggest pointing a fan at the cage helps too.

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from countryliving.com  This is the final step in breaking a broody hen. It is affectionately referred to as ‘jail.’ The bird is allowed out of the cage once a day. If she tries to go back to the nest box she is returned to jail. When she doesn’t try to return to the nest box the broody cycle is over and she can roam free again!

 

And all I could think was, after sitting so well for almost a month, the poor girl deserves some chicks. Now, to leave her on a fresh batch of eggs for another 21 days puts her health at serious risk. And, not knowing what caused the eggs to die, I could not bear to risk her health only to repeat what had already happened.

Today is day 31. She is still sitting, very well, as a matter of fact, on a plastic dummy egg. I have removed all of the ‘real’ eggs that she acquired from the other hens. I told her that tomorrow will be a very special day. And tonight, once she had gone to sleep, something – hopefully wonderful – will be delivered to her. img_20190731_204204

Fingers crossed!

 

 

T minus 8 and Counting

God of all knowledge,                                                                                                                        Help me learn what I need to know and use that knowledge to do the work you have called me to do. Amen. 

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Cinnamon working very hard to keep her eggs safe

Cinnamon is doing a great job brooding her five eggs.

I have taken to removing her from the nest each morning to ensure she is eating and drinking. This is necessary for some broodies who are so focused on sitting that they don’t seem to come off the nest at all. I was worried about doing it the first couple of times, but she doesn’t fight or bite, and seems to enjoy a bit of a chat before I set her down.

To make this time off the nest worth her while, I have been feeding her mixed corn and chick crumb. Mixed corn (every chicken’s favourite) gives her the calories she needs, and chick crumb which is high in protein helps her maintain some muscle mass while she is otherwise not eating or moving much. As she is not laying right now, Cinnamon doesn’t need the layer pellets she normally eats – these have extra calcium to ensure strong shells.

She needs to be happy eating the chick crumb, anyway, because that is what she will be eating until she starts laying again. It is important to keep chicks off layer pellets as the extra calcium causes problems with their reproductive system. They should not eat the layer pellets until they are laying. They need the protein to help them grow.  So mum and babies get chick crumb.

Sometimes I mix the crumbs with a bit of water – this makes them easier for Cinnamon to eat (they are basically the texture of course powder) and also ensures she is getting some water. Once the chicks are here the crumb will need to be served dry.

While she eats I clean the coop, then I leave her to finish eating, dust bathe, drink and go back to sitting on the eggs. All of this takes her maybe fifteen minutes, maybe less, and except for a quick peek at bedtime, it is the only time I see her.

Before I bring her out, I escort the other four birds into the garden so they can free range. In this way Cinnamon gets the chickenarium to herself, so she can eat without feeling the need to defend her food. I tried having her out when they were all together, but the dynamics are all wrong right now. She postures and chases the boys and pecks at the girls if they get too close. She doesn’t like having the dog or cats around either, prefers me to keep my distance, and makes a big fuss if there is a loud noise. Tetchy mama!

 

Though I know to check the nest for broken or rotten eggs, no one said anything about checking for shell-less eggs. That is what I found a few days ago. Though hens do lay eggs with malformed shells, I have never seen one totally shell-free. This was a mystery. The mystery deepened when, while I was in the shed getting supplies to clear up the eggy mess, Cinnamon made a loud noise and starting flapping. I came out of the shed to find an empty broken shell on the ground next to her. It was not there moments before.

I was so confused by this that it bothered me for several days, but a thought came to me today: Cinnamon must’ve broken the egg while sitting on it, and some of the drying egg white must’ve glued the shell to her underside. It wasn’t until she had moved about on her two legs that the shell came loose and surprised us both!

I will say that I am still pulling new eggs from under Cinnamon each day – the broken one was a new one.  However, for the last few days there has only been one new egg each day. I wonder if one of the other two is going a bit broody. I hope not!

I am noticing changes in Cinnamon’s body conditioning. This is normal. Her comb is going from red to pink, and her legs seem a bit weaker. The first morning that I pulled her out and set her on the ground she tipped over….her toes were still curled up. Maybe her legs had fallen asleep? Now I hold her for a minute and make sure her toes are straight before I set her down.

Today I noticed one of her legs splayed out to the side while she was sitting. I have tried to create a ‘proper’ straw nest for her to sit on, but she always pushes the straw to the sides so that she and the eggs are sitting on the plastic of the cat carrier. This cannot be good for her legs – nothing for her to grasp – but I don’t know what to do about it.

Another thing I have noticed when I pick her up is that the eggs are kept in a U shape around her body, against her breast then curling around either side under her wings. And rather than tucking her wings against her body, she is holding them out, creating an umbrella of sorts. So, the eggs aren’t actually under her, just tucked up close under the blanket of her chest feathers and wings. She is quite warm to the touch, and her breast is moist when I pick her up, but this is just right. The eggs need the humidity as well as the heat to develop.

While Cinnamon has been unwilling to leave her nest box, the other four have decided now is the time to break free from captivity. We have put up all kinds of fencing to allow the chickens as much freedom as possible while protecting our plants, but Hutch, being a whopping 1000 grams, has figured out how to crawl under, wedge through, and fly over everything we have put in his way. We are thinking of renaming him Houdini. All four birds have been on three unexpected outings – he has led them astray – in the last two days, one ending with Hutch in the road crowing for all he is worth. He was collected and returned to the chicknarium without any trouble, but if we had been even a few seconds later in spotting the birds near the front gate all of them would’ve been in the road.  There is not much traffic here, but neither is there a way to trap them against a fence or wall. we would’ve looked like egits.

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Escape artists on the move. Hutch is, of course, in front.

I have created a maternity ward for Cinnamon and will move her there when/if the eggs hatch, in about a week. I have cleaned out the shed and put the dog kennel in place with a stand-in nest box and feeders. Once the eggs hatch Mama will stick to them wherever they are, so I can move them together into the new place without worry of her abandoning them.

They can spend the first week or so in there, with a mesh gate across the doorway. This will allow the chicks a safe place to move about, plenty of room for Cinnamon too, plus light and ventilation. They will also be able to see and be seen by the rest of the flock. This will make face-to-face introductions easier when the time comes. Once the chicks are a bit bigger, and Cinnamon seems interested in coming out of the shed, I will let them mix with the other chickens during the day and give them access to a bit of grass. Nights will be spent in the shed until they are able to safely climb up and down the ramp to the coop.

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The Maternity Ward: the kennel and carrier will make for safe overnight accommodation while the shed floor will provide a safe place for little ones to explore. The  doorway will have a mesh screen across the lower portion so they can’t get out but can see the other birds.

 

I did try candling the eggs last week – that is shining a light into them to determine if they are fertile and developing. I was pretty sure I saw dark blobs in each of the five eggs, but after watching some You Tube videos on candling today, I feel I need to try again – maybe tonight or maybe when Cinnamon is off the nest tomorrow – to make sure there are no unfertilised eggs under her.  As these have a tendency to go rotten and explode, making a bacteria-filled mess of mum and the remaining eggs, it is very important to remove them before they get the chance.

One chicken blog I have read says that broody hens’ eggs tend to hatch a day earlier than than the prescribed 21-day incubation period (which seems to go along with use of an electric incubator). So I will need to keep a close eye beginning the 24th/25th.

Hopefully I will have photos of chicks with my next blog!

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Gratuitous photo of the field behind us

Impending stork visit?

Thank you God for abundant life, new life, full life, life that never ends. Amen.

 

I had a lovely visit home to see my American family members. Phil did a superb job of looking after the chickens while I was away…maybe too superb:

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Cinnamon in the broody position

Cinnamon, the bully hen, has gone broody. She wants to be a mama. And, having nothing else pressing on me time-wise, I have decided to let her try.

Broodiness occurs in cycles, typically in spring and summer. A typical broody bird will begin to direct all of her energy on creating a clutch of eggs, then sitting on them until they hatch, then raising any little chicks that appear.

I have had to do some quick studying to find out about ‘broodies’ and babies. Because of the breeding of wild game fowl into commercial egg layers, these chicken are not good a brooding. As broody hens stop laying while they sit and raise chicks – a total of  2 months or more with no eggs – the drive to brood has been bred out of them and they are typically culled for meat before Nature has a chance to kick in. Some hens may never feel the biological urge to sit on eggs, while others may feel the urge but not have the staying power to sit for the full 21 days  (maybe longer), and others still may sit through to hatching only to cannibalise the newly hatched chicks. Joy.

So, this is all a bit of an experiment.

Now, we have three hens that lay eggs, and we have two roosters who I have seen trying to mount the hens, but I do not know if the roos have been successful. This is in part due to the difference in size between my little roos and my regular hens. It is also because I have been away for a couple of weeks: I don’t know what they’ve been up to. Whether these eggs are fertile will become clear in due time, but for right now I am assuming at least one egg is and tending to Cinnamon, accordingly.

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Five eggs. I don’t know who laid them, but a broody hen will typically sit on any eggs offered to her.

For the last four days she has been sitting on a nest of five eggs and doing very little else. This is normal. A broody hen leaves the nest only once a day to eat, drink, and poo. She may also have a quick dust bath but her time off the nest typically lasts only an hour or so. During the final days of sitting she may not leave the nest at all.

A Chicken Keeper’s job at this point is to make sure the broody hen is undisturbed, and eating and drinking. Some keepers will move their broody hen into a maternity ward – away from the other chickens who may bother them – in order to ensure the best start for all, but as my flock is so small, and the others don’t seem to be bothering her, my plan is to leave Cinnamon as she is in the communal coop, with one change. I’ve put the nest in a movable box.

The nest box area, which is not subdivided, is big enough for two or three hens to sit side-by-side, and all three hens have been laying in the one area. (Cinnamon will stop laying while she is sitting). When she went out a couple of days ago I moved the eggs in the bottom half of  a cat carrier, added some straw, and put the cat carrier in the nest box area. This has given her a bit more privacy and will make it much easier to move her and the eggs if/when the need arises. But it has not stopped Ginger and Clover from laying in there.

A hen can comfortably brood about 12 eggs. Typically, if she were on her own, she would lay one a day until she got a good sized clutch, but she would not really start sitting until the last egg is laid. In this way the first eggs don’t begin developing until the last egg is laid; this ensures they all hatch within 24-36 hours of each other.

As I don’t know if these eggs are fertile, or if Cinnamon will stay the course, I have decided 5 eggs, which are a mixture from the three hens, are enough for this experiment. I have marked the five eggs with a pencil so I know which eggs are to stay in the nest. Each morning when she comes off the nest to eat I remove the new unmarked ones. If I were to leave new eggs at this point, as she is already 4 or 5 days into her 21, she would abandon them when the first ones hatch, and they would die. Not ideal.

I have noticed quite a difference in Cinnamon’s posture and behaviour. She is all puffed up all of the time, clucking to herself, and more wary of everyone. Mama hormones do that. I have told the cats and the dog to steer clear of her, and find it is best if I give her plenty of space, too.

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The other four waiting to go out for the day. Cinnamon will stay on the nest, only coming off once each day to eat and drink. I did pull her off the nest today because she wasn’t for moving. She ate well, pooped, and went right back to the nest.

She has lunged at the other hens if they get too close when she is eating – she is obviously trying to get as much food as possible in the shortest time, so this makes sense to me and I won’t try to stop her.

I have read that a hen’s food and water intake decrease by 80% while they are brooding, so if they will take food from your hand, it is good to let them have it. And when she has come off the nest when the others are free ranging I have given her a bit extra corn just to make sure she is getting calorie-rich food.

The biggest worry is water intake. Dehydration will end her life. I have not seen her drink anything, but her poop isn’t too dry.  This is a good sign.

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Broody poo near food dish. Regular poo near the top of the photo.

Non-broody hens poop all the time. Broody hens hold all their poop until they come off the nest. These once a day poops are huge and stinky. These are know as ‘broody poops’ and are to be expected.

 

In a few more days I will attempt to check the eggs for embryonic development. This is done by shining a bright light through the egg and looking for veins and embryos. Known as ‘candling,’ folk use flashlights these days.

Candling is best done at night as the hens go all dopey in the dark and don’t mind you poking round under them quite so much. However, it doesn’t get dark until 10pm and that is way past my bedtime. I will try to sneak the eggs into a dark room while she is off the nest. With the light behind the egg and shining through it, I will look to see if I can see veins under the shell.  If there are veins that means the egg is fertilised and there will be a growing embryo. If there are no veins, the egg is not fertilised and needs to be removed as it is at risk of going off.

About a week later I will candle the eggs a second time, checking for developing chicks. If at this point any of the eggs seem to have stopped developing they will need to be discarded.  Additionally, if any of the eggs develop cracks, rotten egg smells, and/or oozing fluid I will remove those, too.

Maybe I should’ve let her have more than 5.

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And there she sits!

It takes 21 days for an egg to hatch.  26 July is the due date. Fingers crossed!