Our 9 ½ year old rooster passed away. One of our rescued roosters succumbed to coccidiosis. Things were down at the coops. As any good chicken keeper we knew what to do to raise “spirits”- figuratively and literally.
After a few days of consideration our Silkie hen, Jasmine, helped push along the deciding process. “Buk buk buk,” she scuffed along alerting everyone to her impending disappearance to her nest in the shavings bag.
I bred my young blue splash Silkie, Henri, to a …Leghorn.
When breeding Silkies to standard fowl, the fertilization percentage is patchy at best. In this case, we had three things going for us (check out the breeds at eFowl). Henri is large for a silkie, he had just risen in status with the loss the patriarch and the Leghorn, Mercedes, is sturdy but petite. The allure of blending cute genes with those from a Type-A egg-layer loomed to appealing to turn down.
Henri agreed. Go time.
It takes 21 days to see the fluffy results. Ensure the hen is in a warm, clean and quiet place to do her setting. She will need food and water available – I always supply separate food and water bowls for the brooder. Make sure she gets up at least once a day to eat and do her toilette. Also, check that her nest is set up and angled so that all the eggs will roll INTO the nest’s center. Otherwise an occasional egg, and hatching chick, can get lost outside the nest. This can lead to disaster. Do not expect the hen to find all of these roll-away eggs. She won’t. This situation is even more critical in cold weather. Our chick, Mireille, hatched on December 3rd. Brrrr.
Resist any desire to assist the chick during the hatch. You may very gently peel away some of the area around the pip hole (the hole the chick makes with it’s egg tooth). Otherwise, let the chick do his or her thing. Remember, they are the professionals.
I prefer hatching eggs under the professional. As poultryman, Harvey Ussery attests, the chicks you hatch under a hen are vigorous and exhibit stronger immune systems. This is a great article on using a broody hen: http://www.backyardpoultrymag.com/working_with_broody_hens/. However, if you do not have a hen interested in developing a family, you can use an incubator. A broody hen is much simpler as she takes care of most of the raising. You supply the clean housing and the food and she does the mothering and instruction. Efowl has several to choose from. I hatched “Henri” using the Brinsea Mini-Advance model.
Tips: Feed the new family chick starter as regular layer feeds are too high in calcium. The chick feed is fine for the hen and eFowl has all of your rearing needs. We prefer organic feeds. Be sure to use ONLY chick safe water bowls. The hen can drink from them with no issue. Provide the hen with treats for her family (dandelion, meal worms, human grade protein sources, fruits, nuts), and she will show the chicks what to eat. Experiment with various foods. Remember a variety in the diet is important since the birds will not be able to forage outdoors.
If you do not live in paradise, ie. Florida, Texas, Hawaii… or anywhere that stays reasonably warm (and 2015 is making that a difficulty), you will need to bring the hatch indoors – to your house. This is why we hatched 1 chick and have a large studio to raise the birds (mom and chick) in. Otherwise, chicken diapers or a great cleaning service will be needed. Actually, the “pooping” level with 2 birds is not that bad with hardwood flooring and throw “away” rugs.
If you are using the broody hen, she will take care of the issues that arise after hatch. But do not rely on the hen, or even the heat lamp, if temps are regularly going below 50 F (if you can’t bring the birds into a warm area wait until spring to set eggs). The chicks can’t stay under the hen continuously. Your chicks will freeze to death and will have significantly delayed growth (too much energy is spent keeping warm). If you do use heat lamps, use extreme caution (check out the variety of brooders available). Do not allow pets, children or other livestock access to the heat lamp. Be sure it is bolted, screwed, fixed and latched from a ceiling or beam. Buy the best quality of construction you can and follow manufacturer instructions concerning the use of the lamp. MANY barn fire nightmares have been started by heat lamps.
Breeding your flock
Both parents should be young and in top form. Many breeders prefer an older hen with a younger rooster (like they do in Hollywood). However, for many backyard keepers we breed for different factors – curiosity, “oops” (probably the highest factor), having descendants from pet bird lines and developing unique traits that we favor for our own flocks. Except for inbreeding and propagating weak or poor specimens, go ahead and break the rules. The main focus of backyard breeders is vigor and personal design.
• Choose your best birds. Obviously, only healthy, vigorous and “quality” birds should be bred. Consider crossing birds that have unique traits that you would like to see blended: your hefty Rhode Island Red rooster with your good-producing but too small Australorps. Breeding chickens for specific traits is a lengthy process, but we are having fun. That’s the point, so give it a go.
• Decide what you want to experiment with. Look for hens and roosters that carry the qualities you like. Are you after certain colors, production, appearance or are you interested in creating a unique line? Are there behavioral characteristics you want bred in or out? Are your Anconas too flighty? Throw in a Cochin. The worse that can happen is you get a really cute, fluffy Ancona.
• Have the Marek’s Vaccine on hand. This vaccine needs to be stored in your refrigerator and it is critical to preventing the deadly virus. Vaccinate as early as possible, but it is never too late to immunize your birds. Re-vaccinate older birds at the same time (hold a vaccination party for fellow keepers since you have a 1,000 dose vial), as it is not uncommon for previously vaccinated chickens to lose immunity and develop the disease later in life. This link to the Avian Pathology journal traces the last 40 years of Marek’s research – http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/03079457.2011.646238.
Here is a link to an article by Peter Brown on the nature of the disease process. Scroll down to the “Marek’s Disease” topic: http://www.heavensentranch.com/poultryhealth.htm
Watching a hen raise a family is a fantastic experience (for everyone) – it is both biology fieldwork in action and a graduate course in chicken culture, development and language. Learn from the feathered masters (http://www.backyardpoultrymag.com/hatch_those_eggs/).
Consider videotaping and uploading your new family’s development to youtube in order to share the process with local schools. Get the schools and teachers involved in this rich biology/bioethics lesson. Have the kids candle the eggs (http://animalscience.ucdavis.edu/Avian/pfs32.htm, and https://scratchcradle.wordpress.com/resources/candling-pictures/ ) and ready their projects on chicken culture and behavior. This is real-world science in action. It is also a great time to teach a class on social interaction and empathy as the kids learn that other animals share this world and our emotions (teaching resources for humane biology education: http://www.edgarsmission.org.au/chickenfacts.htm). Raising your chicks under a broody hen is the time to watch the birds and discover the depth of your flocks’ intellectual abilities.
Have the kids document and record the setting-to-hatch process, upload videos on the hatch and rearing as well as on behavior topics. Create a classroom blog. Plus, with our hands-on knowledge, it is better to have chicken keepers like ourselves involved in such a project teaching the kids responsibility and that raising animals is not to be taken lightly – it is a commitment. Show the students that raising animals responsibly brings confidence, self-control, discipline, curiosity and perceptive thinking strategies. Be a resource to encourage future farmers, scientists, vets and bioethicists. See…a winter hatch can change the world, one child and chick at a time!