Chicken husbandry 101
And then...one went broody.
For those of you who don't know, broody is the term for a hen who wants to sit on eggs and incubate them. She refuses to leave the nest, except once or twice a day to eat, drink, and poop. She will sit on any eggs she can find. She can get really aggressive about it too, pecking anyone who comes near her. She doesn't make her normal clucking noises; rather she makes broody hen noises and puffs up her feathers anytime someone comes near her.
The broody hen will normally take the favourite nest box and set herself up there, which disrupts the other hens when they want to go lay in the favourite box. Broody hens also don't lay eggs while they're broody. So someone with a backyard flock who just wants the chickens for the eggs, this can be kind of a pain in the neck.
So as I said, one of ours went broody (our Birchen Orpington). I wasn't sure if I wanted to break her broodiness, or let her sit on some fertile eggs (since we don't have a rooster, none of ours would ever hatch into anything except a smelly mess). After thinking about it for a few days, and asking what the kids thought (mainly Chuckie since he has the most to do with the chickens), I decided to get some fertile eggs and let her hatch them. I figured even if most of them ended up being roosters, I could probably still sell them since the eggs were a mixed set of heritage breeds (translation: purebred).
Okay. So I've got the broody chicken, I've got the fertile eggs, I've got a second small chicken coop that I can use as a brooder. No worries, right?
Hahahahaha. How naive I was.
I set up the other coop with a nice nest box, food, water, a perch for later on, and I put the eggs in the nest box. Then I grabbed the broody hen (Flame) and put her in there. She was NOT impressed. She kept clucking the alarm noise as if she was in danger. She wouldn't sit on the eggs in the nest. She just wanted out. So after about an hour, I gave up and let her out. I put an X on each of the fertile eggs, put them back in the normal coop, and let her go back to them.
I think my mistake with this was doing it in the middle of the day. I should have done it after dark, when the chickens are asleep and almost totally out of it. I might have succeeded if I'd moved her at night.
But anyway. Two weeks go by, and apart from having to look at each of the eggs every day to work out if it's a new one or a fertile one, things go fairly smoothly. Although Chuckie and I did each crack one by snooping too much. Flame did kick a few out of the nest, whether by accident or because she knew they were no good, I don't know. I candled them around day 17 and whatever wasn't developed enough, I buried in my garden.
So we were down to about half the eggs we started with, and then Buffy, our buff Orpington, went broody. So she and Flame were both trying to sit on the eggs, and I think either Flame gave up on trying to take them back from Buffy, or Flame's broody cycle was over anyway, and Buffy continued sitting on the eggs.
So. Once again, I decided it would probably be better for the mum and her chicks to have their own space. This is what almost every chicken book, expert, and website will tell you. "If you don't keep the mum and chicks separate from the other chickens, they might kill the chicks." So that's what I decided to do. Only this time, I decided I'd move them at night and avoid all the stress of the first time.
After dark one night (and I'm pretty sure this was before day 17, for any chicken keepers about to tell me off for moving them after day 17), I moved Buffy and the remaining eggs into the other coop. I set her on the nest, and assumed that she'd just sit on them all night without issue.
Hahahahaha. How naive I was.
(Aside: that's the second time I've typed that line, and both times I tried to spell 'naive' with an extra E. Go figure.)
When I went out in the morning, Buffy was clucking the alarm. She was off the nest. I checked the eggs and they felt cold. Oh crap.
I decided to put the eggs back in the original nest box, and let her go back to them there. I didn't have high hopes of them hatching after having gotten so cold, and it wasn't a warm night (this was in October when it was still pretty cold). But I thought we'd give them a chance and see what happened. Maybe some of them were still ok.
This was while Chuckie was away at camp for a few days, so I had to tell him when he got home what had happened and that we might not get any chicks. But this is the reason they say "don't count your chickens before they're hatched." Lots of things can happen. And even after they've hatched, something can still go wrong that's totally out of your control.
The rest of the incubation period proceeded without drama. Monday morning on the 17th of October, I checked on them when I let the chickens out for the day, and I saw a little yellow head.
I picked up Buffy to see if anything else was happening under her, and there was another darker chick with the yellow one.
There were still two more eggs at this point that hadn't hatched. Later when I cleaned out the nest box, after Buffy took the chicks out in the run, I found evidence of a third egg that may have hatched and the chick died. Or an egg with a dead chick inside it that had cracked. Not sure, but hey, at least we got two chicks! The unhatched eggs went in my tomato bed. The chicks are 12 weeks old as of yesterday, and we're fairly sure the darker one (turned out to be a silver laced Wyandotte) is a boy, and the yellow one (another buff Orpington) is a girl.
And that whole caution against having chicks in with the adult chickens? At least in our experience, if they're with the mum, the other chickens don't mess with the babies. They know better. We never had any issues. In fact, I saw Buffy peck the chicks more than I saw the other chickens peck them!
But wait! There's more!
Because we don't just have two hens. We have eight. You've only heard about the first two going broody.
I can't remember when, or in what order, but we've also had our Sussex (Eggwene, named after Egwene in the Wheel of Time series - not the pathetic excuse for a TV show, but the actual books) and our Plymouth Rock (Marty) go broody. I put them each in broody jail - in a coop with food, water, perch, no nest - to break their broodiness. Marty took two days. Eggwene took a few more, but I don't remember how many total. Things were ok for a while, and I hoped we were over the broodiness.
And then...yeah, if you've kept chickens, you know what happened next.
All three of the hens who had gone broody before, and not hatched eggs, went broody again. AT THE SAME TIME.
By this time I'd built a new chicken coop with three nest boxes, so quite often all three would be filled up with broody chickens AND other hens trying to lay eggs. And the chicks were still trying to nest some nights, though we were trying to get them to perch by this time.
So we just let them do their thing for a little while, but eggs were getting broken, and the first lot of chicks were grown up enough to be perching, so why not have another go at hatching chicks?
Glutton for punishment.
I bought a dozen fertile eggs from my friend, and moved two of my three broodies into the original coop, because it's not a bad setup to be a brooder. The nest box is nice and dark and quiet, there's enough perches for a mum and several babies, and room for food and water as well. And the other chickens can see them through the chicken wire so they're not total newcomers when they come out into the run with everyone else.
Things went ok for the first two weeks. And then it was starting to look like Marty had gone off her broodiness. So I let her out, and moved Eggwene in. This would prove to be a fatal mistake.
Eggwene is probably the top of our flock's pecking order. So when she appeared on the scene, she decided to take over the eggs that Flame had been sitting on for two weeks. And one day when we went to the run, we saw 6 eggs just sitting on the ground out in the middle of the run. No idea how long they'd been there. But what had happened is that part of the bottom of the nest box had fallen out, and the eggs had fallen out as well. But we had more than 6 eggs...I think I'd had to get rid of two after I candled them, so we should have found 4 more. But there was no trace of them, or any broken shells, or anything. It wasn't a really hot day either, so I don't think a snake took them. They were just...gone.
One of the remaining 6 was cracked, so I put that one in the garden. The last 5 I left in the nest box. And they continued to fight over them. This was when I finally realised that their fighting over the eggs was causing problems. Why didn't I do anything then? Complicated. I could have put one in broody jail and left the other to sit on the eggs, but I only have two feeders and three coops. I'm also cheap and didn't want to go buy a third feeder just to break a broody hen. And it was close enough to the end of the incubation period that I thought it probably wasn't worth doing anything just then anyway.
But I probably should have. Because a few days later, the rest of the eggs got cracked when the bottom fell out of the nest box again, and that was that. I had Chuckie bury the eggs in the garden, and later that day I found a dead baby chick in the run.
Flame got over her broodiness in all the stress over fighting with Eggwene. Eggwene is still broody and in broody jail now. I will not be trying to hatch any more chicks this summer. And if I do next year, Flame won't get to be mummy. Twice now she's given up her eggs to another hen and it's caused issues.
And I need to fix that nest box in the brooder. The bottom is meant to come out in two parts for cleaning, but after having 8 chickens in that coop for several months, it's falling apart. I'll at least need to reinforce it before I let a big hen in there again to raise babies.