Monday, July 8, 2013

Tragedy and miracles

     If you've read some of my past posts, tragedies seem to follow chickens.  I don't know if we just have bad luck with chickens or if their lives are fraught with misfortune.  But we turned an unfortunate accident into the happy miracle of life.  In the past, I've posted about our beautiful rooster, Blobby, who was a Blue Laced Red Wyandotte. He was a very friendly, tame bird and a favorite of our children. Late one Sunday afternoon this spring, Blobby met his untimely end when a roost in the coop fell on him and broke his neck.  Yes, the roost killed the rooster.  Truly, only at our house could such an ironic tragedy occur!  My husband was outside working on our new expanded run when he saw a hen hop on the roost branch causing it to fall on poor Blobby.  The end was quick for him, but then we faced having to tell our children that their favorite bird was gone.

   The kids were very sad until our oldest perked up and said, "We have to hatch these eggs- they're fertilized!  It's the only way we can have Blobby live on." Our oldest does not know the facts of life yet, so I was curious what "fertilized" meant to him.  Apparently in our son's world, the chickens stand near each other and shake their tail feathers at each other which "fertilizes" the egg.  "Yep, that's exactly how it happens!" I said.  Well, why not hatch some chicks, we thought.  We had two broody hens just waiting to sit on some eggs.  We had fertilized eggs. And with our rooster now dead, the worry of having another rooster develop no longer mattered.  Plus, we were down to 9 chickens from our previous high of 24 chickens.

     I read online that eggs are fertilized for up to 10 days, but you want to time "hatch day" within a day or two.  So we collected 4 eggs two days in a row and placed them under our broody hen, Oreo, who is a black Ameraucana.  Oreo is actually our last remaining chicken from the batch of chicks our son's kindergarten class hatched.  How did I know Oreo was broody?
1.  Broody chickens rip out their breast feathers so her skin will keep eggs warm.  Check.
2.  Broodies refuse to get out of the nesting box despite repeated tries of tossing her in the run.  Yep, runs right back to the nesting box.
3.  They start squawking if a person gets near, hunker down in the box, and will peck if you try to remove them.  Ouch! Definitely, a broody chicken.

     Broody chickens are great if you want to hatch chicks, but they are a pain if you don't.  They hog the nesting box and make it difficult for other chickens to lay.  Egg production goes down when you have a broody chicken.  When you have 3 broody chickens, you might as well give up on eggs for a while.  Oreo was quickly joined in her nesting adventure by Snitch, our Splash Blue Laced Red Wyandotte.  We marked the eggs with a C (our son's idea- for Chick, natch) so we could keep them separate from the fresh eggs we collected each day.  The last thing you want to do is crack open a partially developed egg by accident...

     Oreo and Snitch sat on the eggs diligently for days. On the evening of the 20th day, an egg had cracks around it.  I reached in to pick it up -and it chirped!  The chirping egg was an amazing, beautiful experience about the miracle of life- and it meant chicks were coming!!  The next morning, we all gathered around the broody hens but saw no chicks.  We picked the hens up and found a precious, little chick hiding under her mommy!

     That afternoon (on the 21st day), two more eggs were cracked and the chicks followed the next morning.  The rest of the eggs never hatched.  Had I remembered to candle them (hold them in front of a light at night), I would have seen that they weren't fertilized.  But our 3 new chicks were exciting to see and hold! 

     I like to say that our chicks come from a very modern family.  The eggs were from two of our Ameraucana chickens and our Dominique/Rhode Island Red mix.  So they were hatched by two mommies who adopted each of them.  Seeing how nature works in taking care of young was an amazing and humbling lesson.  We never did anything to help the moms other than provide them a safe space (a huge dog crate) for them to raise the chicks for a few days away from the rest of the flock.  The mommies never let another chicken get anywhere near their babies.  They kept them warm, clucked for them to learn to eat and drink, and taught them to hunt and peck.  The chicks are now almost full-grown -we aren't sure if one is a rooster yet... but maybe an egg will surprise us soon!