Raquel has been our alpha hen since we got our first three chickens in 2010. As we’ve added new chickens to the flock over the years she has maintained her status as queen of the chicken yard, and her subjects give her a wide berth, especially when treats are involved. This summer we had one of our lowest hens in the pecking order, Violet, hatch some chicks (Chick Love). We set Violet up in her own smaller enclosure in the corner of the chicken coop to keep the other hens from bothering her, and she happily doted on her chicks in the nursery area of the coop. Within a few days of Violet hatching her chicks, Raquel went broody, which means that she wanted to set on and hatch eggs. I like to think that Raquel had a chicken mid-life crisis. Raquel had happily been the boss lady for over four years, and then perhaps she began to think that maybe there was something more to life than being the boss. She determinedly sat in that nest box, right across from Violet and her adorable chicks, for almost 24 hours a day for nearly 7 weeks, which is a long time to be broody. This is more than double the length of time it takes to hatch chicks, and many broody hens would have given up by now. I began to take pity on Raquel, and I thought that if she wanted chicks so badly perhaps we should let her have them. I had to admire her perseverance. Besides, I had recently had my own mid-life crisis of sorts causing me to quit my job and move to the country, and I’ve never been happier. Didn’t Raquel deserve the same chance at happiness? Okay, I know, she’s just a chicken, but still it just seemed like the right thing to do.
We gave Raquel six eggs to hatch, but the strangest thing kept happening. When she would leave her nest for the 10 minutes or so a day that a broody hen goes outside to eat, drink, and poop, her eggs began to get broken. I suspect that another hen was sneaking into her nest box and breaking the eggs to eat them. Egg eating is a bad habit that hens can sometimes develop when they are in need of extra protein, and it happens occasionally, but it was frustrating that of all the eggs in the coop it was the ones we were trying to hatch that were getting eaten. Finally, after four of the six eggs we had given Raquel had been broken, we decided that our plan to let her hatch chicks was not going to work. So we resorted to Plan B, which was something that I had read about and hoped would work for us. How it is supposed to work is that you buy very young chicks, just a few days old is best, and you put them under the broody hen under the cover of night and remove any eggs she may be sitting on. When the hen wakes up, voila, she’s a momma! That’s the best case scenario, but I’ve also read about this method failing miserably resulting in the death of the young chicks. Nevertheless, we decided to try it, and I’m happy to report that it worked like a charm!
We bought four Golden Comet chicks for Raquel. These are a hybrid type of chicken that can be sexed when they hatch based on the feather color of the chicks. Gold chicks are female, and white chicks are male. Since we already had four new roosters from Violet’s chicks, we definitely did not want any more roosters so we decided buying the hybrid chicks was the way to go. The morning after our experiment, I got up early to check on Raquel and the chicks, and I found them happily bonding into their own little family. Raquel has taken to motherhood like I never would have imagined. I have to admit that she was such a brat as the flock matriarch that I wasn’t sure that she would be a good mother. But Raquel has turned out to be the most affectionate mother hen we’ve had. She has displayed all of the usual mother hen behavior, and often allowed her chicks to ride around on her back which is something I’ve not seen with our other mother hens and chicks. Raquel is also an extremely protective mother. You know how they say it’s dangerous to get between a mother bear and her cubs, well that’s a good analogy for Raquel and her chicks at feeding time. Any hen that comes within a few feet of Raquel and her chicks will get chased away with a vengeance for a surprising distance.
Typically a mother hen will stay with her chicks until they are about six weeks old, and then she’ll rather unceremoniously let them know she’s done with the whole motherhood thing by giving them repeated pecks of the beak when the chicks continue to follow her around or get a bit too close. It’s usually a pretty abrupt separation when it’s time for the chicks to leave the proverbial nest, and then typically the hen wants nothing further to do with the chicks. Raquel however, spent her nights with the chicks in the nursery until they were eight weeks old. When Raquel finally went back to sleeping on the roost with the other hens, the chicks continued to try to sleep with her including jumping on her back when she was on the roost which she has tolerated quite well. She’s only pecked at the chicks once or twice that I’ve seen, and they continue to spend quite a bit of time together during the day even though they are almost 10 weeks old. I’m glad we gave Raquel the opportunity to be a momma hen, she’s shown us a whole new side to her personality and it’s been a joy to see her raise up the next generation.
After months of anticipation waiting for one of our hens to go broody so she could hatch some chicks for us, we finally have seven new chicks at the farm. It was worth the wait! Violet has turned out to be an excellent mother, and despite being one of the lowest hens in the pecking order, her motherly status has given her a whole new attitude. She shepherds her chicks all around the pasture, clucking in various tones to tell the chicks to follow her, or to let them know she’s found something good to eat, or to take cover from some perceived threat. The other hens are eager to meet the new chicks, but when any of the other ladies dares to get a bit too close, Violet goes into attack mode and quickly sends the unwelcome visitor on their way.
As usual, I am quite enamored with our new batch of little ones, and I have been following them around trying to capture their cuteness in photographs. I am also trying to socialize the chicks to get them used to being picked up, but it’s been a bit challenging since they have such a big area to escape into. In the past when we have raised chicks in the kitchen it’s been much easier to pick them up from inside the confines of a 2 x 4 foot brooder box than it is to pick them up in a 40 x 40 foot pasture. The chicks have learned that I am the bringer of food, and they come running over when they see me walk into the pasture. They’ll also eat out of my hand, but the moment a chick senses me try to sneakily pick it up from below with my outstretched hand, most of them squeal with fright and run behind mom. There are a couple of chicks that don’t mind too much when I pick them up, and there is one chick that will sometimes jump up onto me voluntary and look up at me inquisitively as if to say hi, but wouldn’t you know it I’m pretty sure that one is a rooster judging by his rapidly growing comb.
Now that the chicks are 4 weeks old, the rooster guessing game has begun. Of course it is a bit early to know for sure, and as the saying goes “you don’t know until they crow”. But since this is my 6th batch of chicks, there are a few early signs of roosterhood that I’ve learned to recognize. The most obvious sign is a relatively larger and pinker/redder comb as compared to the other chicks. Another sign is slightly thicker and longer legs for the roosters, as well as brighter accent feathers making an appearance on their wings and around their necks. Based on these signs, I’m fairly confident that we have at least two roosters in the bunch. If we managed to get away with only two roos out of seven chicks we’d be lucky, but considering our last batch of chicks ended up being four roos and two hens, maybe we’re in for some luck. In the meantime, I’m enjoying each and every one of them and the amazing experience of watching Violet teach the chicks everything they need to know about being a chicken.
Usually around this time of year, when it’s cold and rainy out, I’m hard at work looking through the endless pile of gardening catalogues that makes its way to my mailbox and planning out my summer garden. But this year I have a much more exciting project on the horizon – hatching baby chicks! It’s been almost two years already since we bought the two dozen chicks for the farm, and it’s time to raise up the next generation to keep our egg production up. We let our smallest banty hen, Millie, hatch a couple of eggs last spring, and she did a great job raising the chicks (read about it in Momma Millie), so we will give her a few more eggs to hatch this spring. The good thing about Millie is that she is constantly going broody and sitting in the nest box for weeks on end, wishing and hoping to be a momma hen again so we’ll have no trouble getting her to hatch a few eggs for us. She’s such a small hen that she can only manage to set four or five eggs at a time, so we will also need another hen to go broody so that we can hatch a few more eggs than Millie can handle. That shouldn’t be too much trouble since we have several breeds of chicken that are supposed to make good mothers. When we’re ready to hatch some eggs we’ll just let a pile of eggs accumulate in one of the nest boxes, and in all likelihood one of our ladies will step up to the task.
Before we can hatch the eggs, we need to plan which hens and roosters to breed and the logistics of the breeding program. I suppose we could just hatch a random sample of fertilized eggs, but the scientist in me thinks it would be much more fun to do selective breeding. We are planning to breed mostly black australorps and easter eggers. These are among our favorites of the breeds we have for their sweet personalities and the beautiful eggs they give us. Right now we have Brown Rooster living with the ladies, but in order to breed purebred australorps we’ll need to separate Brown Rooster from the ladies for two weeks prior to letting Reuben mate with them. We want to breed Ramon, one of our two easter egger roosters, to several of our green-egg laying easter egger hens. Most of the ladies we will be breeding are coming up on two years old so they should have good fertility and we should get a good hatch from them, but we do love our Rhode Island Red hen, Rhoda, who is coming up on four years old and still lays a nice large dark brown egg so we want to try to hatch some of her eggs too. Both she and Brown Rooster have very pretty red feathers, so I think we’ll hatch a few of their eggs and see if we can’t get some Lil’ Rhoda ladies in the next generation.
Before we can start our selective breeding program we’ll need to divide up the chicken pasture to section off a couple of smaller areas so that we can segregate the chosen ladies with the lucky roosters. This will be one of those times where having tame roosters that will let me pick them up will come in handy, so I’m glad I’ve spent the time socializing the boys so that we will be able to transport them up to the hen pasture for their rendezvous with minimal objections.
When hatching eggs, the ratio of roosters to hens is usually 50/50. We would like to get more than a few ladies out of the hatch, so we’ll probably hatch about 12-15 eggs, or maybe a few more if chick fever really takes hold. When we got six baby chicks from a friend last summer, we ended up with 4 cockerels and 2 pullets (young hens) and one of the pullets died, leaving us with only one laying hen out of the bunch. So we want to hedge our bet a bit more this time in the hopes of winding up with a few more ladies. The roos, of which I’m sure there will be more than a few, will sadly have to go to freezer camp (read about it in Coq au Vin). I don’t say this lightly as it is a very hard thing to do to harvest one’s roosters, especially since I spend time with and get attached to all of our chickens. But it is a fact of life when raising chickens that you end up with more roosters than you need. I think it’s important to take responsibility for the extra roosters we produce, so we will give them a good life every day they are with us up until the very end when that difficult time comes again this year. In the meantime, I am looking forward to the fun that comes along with a batch of baby chicks and the amazing experience of watching a momma hen teach her chicks everything they need to know.
It’s been three months since we spontaneously agreed to provide a home for six chicks that were hatched out in a friend’s grade school classroom. They are old enough to differentiate the roosters from the ladies, and we now find ourselves with four more roosters on our hands. This of course is in addition to our other new rooster, brown rooster, that Millie hatched out six months ago and our two full grown roosters Rueben and Ramon. Oh, and let’s not forget Lil’ Red Rooster, which brings the grand total up to eight roosters! This is not the first time we’ve found ourselves in the situation of having too many roosters. When we got our first batch of chickens for the farm we ended up with six roosters, which we soon found out was way too many. We rehomed two roosters and lost one to a predator attack. For a while we were down to three roosters, and to be honest that was still one too many.
When we bought the 25 chicks for the farm back in March 2012, a dozen of the chicks we bought were breeds known for their “table” qualities since we wanted to experiment with raising chickens for meat as well as eggs. Two of the meat breeds we bought ended up being among my favorite in terms of personality. These included the Australorps, who were named Squeaky 1 and 2 and Twitchy, and the Dorkings, who became known as the Sweet Peas. The other meat breed in our flock, the Delaware, is a big white chicken that literally looks like dinner running around on big yellow legs, but lucky for these ladies they are prolific layers of extra large eggs, so they have been granted immunity. I did go so far as taking a chicken slaughter class last year at the Linnton Feed & Seed. It was a hard thing to do, really hard, but the instructor was extremely kind and patient and it went about as well as could be expected. Still it was a traumatic experience, and I think I cried and sniffled about half of the drive home. When I got home I cried some more, took a shower, then took a nap. Then I told Sean about the class, and I started to feel a little better. We decided to barbeque the chicken for dinner, and boy was it tasty! Nevertheless, there was no doubt in my mind that I was far too attached to my ladies, and even the roosters, to consider eating any of our first farm chickens.
So now here we are facing the same decision we faced a year ago. We have some young roosters who have been loved and raised with respect and who will soon be 5 months old, the prime time to harvest fryers. It’s a fact of farm life that if a rooster is not needed for flock protection or for procreation, they most often end up on the dinner table. That is the fate of many unwanted roosters that are advertised on Craigslist, and if our roosters are going to be eaten I’d rather know that they came to a swift and humane end by our hand than under unknown circumstances. We’ve lost a few chickens to natural causes over the past year, and we conducted a necropsy on one of our ladies last month to confirm her cause of death was internal laying. We are slowly becoming desensitized to the fact that death is part of life on a farm. That doesn’t mean that the decision that lies before us will be an easy one, but if we can do it, we will be one step closer toward self sufficiency.
I have exciting news to report – our very own Millie hatched out some baby chicks! You may recall I had written about Millie wanting to be a momma for quite some time in a previous post, Momma Wanna-be. Well, after she started camping out in the nest box for extended periods this spring, we decided to grant her wish of motherhood. Millie has never met a rooster in her life, but her breed is well known for making excellent mothers so we put three fertile eggs from the farm under her a few weeks ago. It takes chicken eggs 21 days to hatch. We were away for most of the day on day 20, and wouldn’t you know that had to be the day that one chick hatched a day early. We don’t know what happened, but unfortunately the first chick to hatch didn’t make it and I found it dead on the floor of the run. We are speculating that it may have followed the other adult chicken, Coco Puff, down the ladder that leads from the coop to the run and then the chick didn’t know how to get back to the coop and the warmth of it’s momma and so it may have died from exposure. I was horrified to find that first dead chick, but I was soon relieved when I opened the coop door and found Millie sitting in the nest box with a live chick under her and one more egg left to hatch. The following morning she had two adorable peeping chicks.
Coco Puff has been sleeping in the nest box with Millie the entire time she was broody and then during the whole time she was incubating eggs, and now that the chicks have hatched we decided to give Millie some alone time with her new chicks. We installed a screen inside the coop to make separate quarters for Millie and the chicks and to also prevent the chicks from leaving the safety of the coop and their momma. Millie appears to have spent the entire first two days after the chicks hatched in the nest box with the chicks. Then on day 3 she moved the family from the nest box to the food and water station we set up for the chicks and began giving them lessons in eating and drinking. To teach the chicks where the food is and what it looks like she makes a series of quick clucking sounds while picking up pieces of food, dropping the food in front of the chicks, and then pecking at it. The chicks seem to have figured it out and have been pecking hungrily at the food I sprinkle on the threshold of the nest box to lure them out from under Millie. Millie is doing a great job as a momma, and we are going to let her raise the chicks in the coop rather than raising them in the kitchen as we have done when we bought chicks from the store. We will need to be attentive to socializing the chicks to people, as chickens that are hen-raised are known to not be as friendly toward humans as chicks that are regularly handled while they are growing up. Today was the first day of socialization, and it did not exactly go smoothly. I was able to slide my open hand under a chick and pick it up without much objection by the chick, but when I lifted the chick up off the coop floor, Millie flew at me in full attack mode. Luckily when a two pound fluffy bantam chicken goes into attack mode it’s really more cute than it is intimidating! I can tell that Millie is going to make a great mother hen, and I’m already looking forward to having her hatch out more eggs. Now let’s just hope we are lucky enough to have at least one of the baby chicks grow up to be a hen and that we don’t find ourselves with two more roosters on our hands. Besides, I’ve already picked out their names – Daisy and Daphne – which are not very well suited to roosters!
With most of the chicks now between 8 and 10 weeks old, last Saturday was the day to move them from their overcrowded kitchen brooder to 5R Farm. Unfortunately, it was going to be in the mid-80s, and chickens can easily overheat in hot weather. We tried to figure out which chickens were best suited to be packed into close quarters together for the hour long drive to their new home, and then we packed them up in our two pet carriers and a big cardboard box. Just as we were about to load them into the van and drive to the farm, we got a call from our caretaker Chip, letting us know that a logging operation down the road had knocked down a power pole and that the road to the farm was closed while the power company worked on replacing the power pole. The road closure was close enough to the farm that there is no alternate route to get there, so we debated whether to head out and hope that the road would be back open by the time we got there or whether we should unpack the girls and delay the trip until later in the day when the road was certain to be open but the weather would be hotter making the trip more difficult for the girls. We decided to head out to the farm, hoping for the best. Just as we were approaching the split in the road right before the road closure we passed two power company trucks leaving the scene, excellent, our timing was perfect!
When we got to the farm we unloaded the girls into their new coop. Chickens are not known for being the most adventurous creatures, so despite being hot and thirsty it took some coaxing and much calling “here chick, chick, chick” to lure them over to investigate the waterer and feeder. They spent their first day inside the coop so they could get used to their new home. At 10 feet by 12 feet, the coop is 6 times larger than their kitchen brooder. It was not long before they started chasing each other around, sparring, and establishing the pecking order much more enthusiastically than we had observed them do in the kitchen brooder. One of the roosters started chasing the ladies fairly aggressively as well. He’s not too good at catching them yet, but he manages to grab the big black australorps on the wing and hold on tightly while they drag him along behind them as they try to get away squawking loudly all the while.
On day two, we opened the chicken door to the outdoor ultra-secure predator proof covered run. It took lots of encouragement (lettuce and more “here, chick, chick, chick”) to get the chickens to walk down the ramp to the run, but eventually they all came outside to check things out. They spent the whole day outside in the run and appeared to love every minute of it. By late in the day it was clear that they were not going to go back into the coop on their own. I picked them each up and placed them inside the coop and put a few on the roosting bar to demonstrate where they are supposed to sleep and left them for the night. We’ll repeat this training process of putting them in the coop at night and placing them on the roosting bar for a few weeks until they figure out how to put themselves to bed. It’s best for chickens sleep in the coop on the roost because they stay warmer when the nights are cold and it will also keep them cleaner if they poop from on top of the roost bar than in a chicken pile on the floor! It was hard to leave them and come back to Portland at the end of the weekend, but I know they are in good hands while we’re away and we’ll be back to the farm in a few days to see how they’re doing.
With our oldest chicks for the farm about 7 weeks old, we are fairly certain that we have at least two roosters. The first to develop a noticeably larger and redder comb was a black australorp, which is great because they are very handsome roosters and also this is one of the breeds we are hoping to raise for meat birds if all goes according to plan. After considering names for a week or so, we decided upon Rooster Cogburn. I had been lobbying for Antonio or Captain Jack Sparrow, but Sean is convinced that Marshal Reuben Cogburn is a more fitting name for the head rooster of the new flock. It looks like one of our fancy red frizzles is a rooster too. If he is, then he’ll be known as ‘Lil Red Rooster, and he’ll have to come out to the farm instead of living in our backyard flock as we had initially planned. So now we’re down to three chickens for the backyard flock since one of the initial five we bought for the backyard is a rooster, and unfortunately we lost little Hattie a few days after we got her. I am really hoping we end up with three girls for the backyard flock which will hopefully be comprised of the other red frizzle Henny Penny, Coco the mottled houdan, and our favorite little bantie Millie who’s still not much bigger than a ping pong ball. We have named a few other chicks but they are pretty boring names either based on color or personality. We have ‘Lil Blackie, ‘Lil Gray, Big Blackie, Blue (which is basically gray in chicken feather color terms), Jumpy – I’m sure you can figure that one out, and Twitchy – due to a rather amusing habit of shaking her head whenever she hears my voice, hmm what is that all about?! It’s possible that we’ll end up with another rooster or two since the youngest ameraucana/easter egger chicks are only three weeks old which is too early to distinguish the boys from the girls. The plan is to move the chicks out to the farm in three weeks. We haven’t quite figured out what to transport the chicks in, but I’m sure it will be very interesting to say the least!
The chicks will be arriving the first week of March. I’ve ordered a total of 25 chicks, and this time when a few turn out to be roosters we can keep them! The breeds we are getting are described below.
Australorp – This breed was developed in Australia and gained notoriety when one hen in the 1920s laid a record 364 eggs in 365 days. This is a dual purpose breed that is reported to be a good bird for the table as well as a good layer of brown eggs. Described as an exceptionally beautiful bird, quite big, with black glossy feathers that have a green sheen and huge black soulful eyes.
Delaware – This breed was developed in the 1940s in Delaware. Originally bred as a broiler, it is currently recognized as a dual purpose breed that is a good table bird as well as being a good layer of very large brown eggs that also lays through winter. While once a very popular breed, the Delaware is currently a rare heritage breed listed as threatened by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy.
Easter egger – The Easter egger is not a recognized breed, it is a hybrid that carries the blue egg gene of the Araucana breed and often lays blue or green eggs. Easter eggers usually have muffs on their face and come in many different colors. They are gentle birds that love treats and will often follow you around. This is especially true of our Rosie who tries to follow me in through the back kitchen door to get a special treat.
Speckled sussex – This dual purpose breed was developed in Sussex, England in the early 19th century. My favorite breed description is “If you are interested in combining the British poultry tradition with a brilliant all-rounder, the Sussex should be your breed of choice. Few other breeds can offer the same combination of formidable laying performance, brilliant table qualities and straightforward attractiveness.”
Welsummer – This dual purpose breed was developed in Holland and is known for its large dark brown or terra cotta colored eggs. Welsummers are probably best known for being the rooster on the Kellogg’s cereal box. Since you’ve made it almost to the end of my descriptions of our future flock, I’ll reward you with this entertaining breed description from Backyard Chickens “The colorful Welsummer has an upright stance with a strong, short beak, broad back, full breast and large full tail. It has a small single comb and medium wattles. The skin and shanks are yellow. The almond-shaped earlobes are red, and the eyes are reddish bay.” Now who could resist ordering some of this lovely sounding breed?