Thursday, 13 May 2010

The Maternity Unit

Apologies for not updating the blog in over a week. We're ankle deep in chicks now. I mean that literally, standing in sheds with hundreds of pheasant chicks running over your feet while topping up feeders and waters. We hatched 4,833 partridge and 3,617 pheasants on Tuesday. I haven't had a chance to take many pictures because there's no chance of stopping before the next task: picking eggs, cleaning eggs, incubating eggs, transferring eggs, hatching eggs, putting chicks in sheds. Or in my case driving 3,117 chicks to a game farm for someone else to raise them. We're already pretty tired and there's still 7 more hatches to go.

And it's not just game birds. I thought I would give you a quick update on the new chicken moms and their bundles of joy here at home:

Simon the gardener lent us his broody hen to hatch a few mixed bantams. She's a Buff Orpington which are excellent mothers but very broody. Tamar at Starving Off the Land can regale you with tales of Henzilla, her own Buff Orpington. And she's much funnier than I am.

She didn't know how right she was when she nicknamed her bird Henzilla. I've since learned that using a very big hen to hatch very small chicks results in a certain amount of carnage: she stands on her chicks and crushes them to death. As of this post, we've had one casualty. Four chicks remain. I think downtown Tokyo is safe but those chicks are taking their chances.

Here's our newest mom Gertie -

Gertie is a little Pekin hen, and a seasoned professional foster mum. 5 chicks hatched in my incubator and I tucked them under her warm and waiting bottom yesterday morning. Mom and babies are doing well, but she gets crochety when I interfere to check on the chicks. She knows best and who am I to disturb her when she's working. You can just see one of her chicks peeking out from her bosom. It's actually one of her own eggs I hatched for her. Hopefully her chick will inherit her maternal instincts.

Susan's brood is due to start hatching tomorrow -

Susan is Gertie's only daughter from last year, and she's a first-time mom. All through her sitting she's shown very defensive broodiness (we nicknamed her Henzuke a la Tamar) so hopefully she'll demonstrate the same good mothering skills her mom has shown. I'll move her to a special coop when her chicks have hatched and she's had a chance to bond with them.

This year's first hatch of chicks is doing great with the Barbu D'Uccle hen -
They'll be big enough to free range in the garden soon under mom's supervision. It's her first brood too. She's been a caring mother and so placid. Motherhood suits her. That handsome cockerel is her other half Bob. He's at a loose end in the garden as all his ladies are either sitting on eggs or tending offspring. Family life has really cut into his social life. 

There are also two hens on standby, waiting to take on the contents of two more hatchers: another Barbu D'uccle -

and a young Phoenix hen -

There will be plenty of chicks for everybody.

I started setting eggs earlier than usual this year, partly fooled by a bout of warm weather and partly because my husband nags me. Mike loves to see chicks trailing after hens in the garden. He's got stronger maternal instincts than some of our hens.

The downside of early eggs is lower fertility so only about half the eggs hatch. This wastes space in the incubators and under broody hens. As selling some of the chicks contributes to our income, it cuts into our profits too. Next year I'll leave the eggs a bit later to maximise fertility and output.

It's all a learning curve, for the hens and for me.


Harvest Kitchen Sisters said...

My incubator has been pumping as well, set to start hatching tommorow. I have 2 brooders with chicks and 45 ish teenagers peeping around and heritage turkey chicks I am babying through this little cold spell we are having.I let a broody Americauna set on eggs and when the first one hatched the other hens sourced it out and killed it(I took the other eggs and put them in the incubator- none hatched though). Is this a normal thing? Should I have seperated her? I have never set eggs before under a hen, I thought it would be all peaceful and serene with the other hens all pitching in to raise the little gaffers. I was wrong. Dead wrong. Lesson learned.

Paula said...

you have some very pretty birds, lady.

Jennifer Montero said...

HKS - I learned that same lesson. The hens seem programmed to care for their own chicks and peck to death any chick they don't view as one of theirs. There is always the exception that proves the rule but to be safe, I would always separate a broody hen now. And they never go broody where you want them to!

If you have to move them, do it in the early evening when they would be settling down. Move the whole nest (hay and eggs) if possible and put it in a small box or broody coop. Put the hen in and make sure she can't get out. She should settle but you're taking a chance.

They're easy to move when they have already bonded with their chicks. I've had to build a frame around a hen to keep her in and the others hens out. I move hen and chicks after 48 hrs of hatching. I've never had a failure doing that. Then the mothering instinct is too strong for even me to screw it up! Good luck

Paula - Thanks, I will tell them you said that.

Everytime I think I should be sensible and just keep a utilitarian brown hen I look at the bantams and fantastic shapes and colors, and I end up breeding a few more.

People come to buy chickens from me and I try and steer them towards a basic egg layer but they end up taking away trios of bantams, even though I tell them they only lay sparingly. Cuteness wins out again!