Posted on 22 May 2013.
by Allison Krug, science/medical writer and Bainbridge Island chicken farmer
Thank you to our Coop Scoop sponsor Bay Hay & Feed.
“Hey, Alli, got a chick emergency here. They fell into their water and they’re going to die of hypothermia. Do you have a heat lamp I can borrow?”
I love getting a call like this from a friend. Even though I don’t have the six acres I had as a kid, nor the horses, when I can help a farmer friend I feel the same bonds of community, and I drop everything. The heat lamp dried them right out, and we found that putting the water up higher kept them from toppling in (better yet, you can use a hamster waterer to avoid accidents and save space). What a great ending! Now all I need is a chick-shaped twirling light and peeping siren for my yellow truck.
There are three ways to get baby chicks: have your hen(s) hatch them; incubate them yourself; or buy them.
Letting Mother Hen Do Her Thing
Jersey with her brood
If you have a rooster or access to a randy one (which means any rooster), letting your hens sit on their fertilized eggs and raise their chicks is wonderful to watch, great for the mother-chick natural bonding and teaching process, and easy.
In the middle of setting up to host an all-boy water gun war on the last day of school (I got a super-soaker shot straight up my nose!), one of my dear friends called with a frantic question about her hen’s strange behavior: “Alli! Alli! Alice is acting so weird! She disappears for days and then comes back and eats like crazy. She fans out her tail feathers like a peacock and is just a bit savage. Is she okay? What is she doing?!”
Having just seen our hen Jersey act similarly, I knew Alice was likely broody. I suggested that my friend follow her hen into the woods, and sure enough she found a huge clutch of eggs. Poor hen, she’d be sitting there a long time because those eggs were not fertile. We sneaked four of my fertilized eggs under the hen, and three weeks later there were chicks!
Gordon as a chick. He still likes to cuddle.
We had a lot of fun watching our girl Jersey, who went broody on Mother’s Day, tend to her eggs, too. It was touching to see instinct consume her so completely. On the rare occasions when she left for food or water, other hens would hop on the clutch to keep it warm. One hen even bunked in the same nesting box with Jersey every night. Our rooster Merlin was a bit confused but very protective. He kept peering down from his roost to check on Jersey. Several times he stuffed himself into a neighboring nesting box to to try figure out what was so interesting that she wouldn’t leave. He whistled to himself, sat down for a minute, and decided it just wasn’t that interesting after all.
Then one morning I heard peeping and found that a little chick had escaped Jersey’s “apartment” brooder in the coop and was hopping around in the run. The little rascal was only hours old but already vigorous. Soon more little chicks emerged. It was so easy to let Jersey manage it all. . . . Whew!
You can sex most breeds by checking wing-feather length within the first three days of life. If the primary and covert wing feathers are the same length it’s a cockerel; if the wing feathers are different lengths it’s a pullet.
While I don’t really need any more chicken drama this spring, I am still hopeful someone goes broody. Then I’ll need to prepare for quick and quiet dispatch of roosters before they grow up and get named. Last year we ended up having an 80% rooster hatch rate⎯4 of 5 chicks were male. We kept one, Gordon, and took the extras up to the Wildlife Shelter to feed the eagles, but it was very hard on our boys, who had supervised the chicks during “recess” on the lawn and checked them for pasty butt. Next hatch I’ll trust my feather sexing a bit more and take care of the rooster situation right away, or buy some land for the Rooster Refuge our older son suggested. . . .
Doing Mother Nature’s job isn’t for the faint of heart, or the busy and distracted. For 21-25 days you need to monitor humidity and temperature frequently, because even a degree can make a difference in embryogenesis, speeding things up or slowing them down. You have to turn the eggs three times a day to ensure they “cook” evenly. And on hatch day you must resist temptation to intervene if things seem to stall.
I timed the hatch of our incubated eggs for our four year old’s birthday. My family had incubated eggs when I was a kid, and I thought it would be fun for chicks to burst out of their little shells on my son’s big day.
You can check on incubation progress with a “candler”⎯a light to illuminate the inside of the egg. You can buy a candler or make one at home. You’ll need a dark room, a cardboard box, and a flashlight. Cut out a hole in the box and then stick the flashlight in and tape it in place. Then rest the egg on top of the box to cover the hole where the bulb of the flashlight will shine. Make sure light only goes into the egg and doesn’t scatter in the room. Contrast helps show the faint shapes emerging in the egg. Between days 5 and 7 candling the egg reveals the spider-like shape of the embryo forming inside the shell. For a neat series of photos, see http://www.backyardchickens.com/a/candling-pics-progression-through-incubation-of-chicken-eggs.
Birthday boy with new chick
We were very excited on hatch day to see lots of pips—tiny triangle-shaped holes in the shells. Chicks spend a day or more pipping the circumference of the shell, pecking at one of the inner membranes. This membrane is vascularized, and pipping at it triggers the release of clotting factors to keep the chick from bleeding out when the membrane is finally broken during hatch. The chick is also absorbing the rest of the yolk for nourishment during this time. Waiting for at least 24 hours after you see a pip and hear cheeping is essential to give the baby chick time to rest, learn to breathe air, absorb the yolk, and close down the blood vessels. If you start “unzipping” the egg for the chick prematurely you can lose an otherwise healthy bird. When you see this process begin and hear peeping, resist the urge to open the incubator and help the chicks.
The third option, buying chicks, means you can request that they be vaccinated against diseases, which have taken several of our birds right at the point of lay, just as they’d become productive.
Photos by Allison Krug.