Ameraucana chickens rarely become broody. That means the hens do not often act like they want to set on a nest of eggs and hatch them. Some breeds of chickens are prone to broodiness, not Ameraucanas. These hens would rather lay their eggs every day then spend the rest of the time in carefree pursuit of bugs and seeds, or dusting under the hedge. Setting on a clutch of eggs is hard work.
Twenty-one days of patient incubation are required to hatch a chicken egg. An incubating hen leaves the nest only for a quick drink and bite of food. She turns the eggs daily, talks to the embryos in the eggs and assures the proper temperature and humidity are maintained on the nest at all times. Only one of my Ameraucana hens ever successfully hatched babies. Most get bored after a week and abandon the nest for more fun activities.
To have new generations of Ameraucanas, I use an incubator with a fan and automatic egg turner. As the babies grow in the eggs, I talk to them like a mother hen, using the same sounds I’ve heard hens use. When the chicks are hatching, I encourage them with excited clucks and chirps. The first face the babies see and the first voice they hear is mine. I use the ‘time to eat” call to show the babies their first bites of chick mash. All my chickens think I’m their mother hen. Being mother to so many babies carries responsibilities. One of my jobs is to teach chicks how to roost, just as a hen would do with her chicks.
Roosting is done at night. Adult chickens sleep well above the ground on a limb or other handy perch, safe from most night-time predators. Baby chickens sleep in a huddled mass on the ground. If they had a real mother, they would sleep under her, protected by her body and wings. Alas, I can’t spend the nights in the barn sheltering chicks. As soon as the babies get a good covering of body feathers so they don’t have to huddle together for warmth, I teach them how to roost.
You would think roosting comes natural to chickens. During the day it does. The babies fly up and rest on any convenient surface all day long. Yet, when dark falls, they want to mass together on the floor. Without light, chicks often stay frozen in one place. This works to my advantage. In the dark, I scoop up the chicks and place them, one or two at a time, on the perch. At first they tend to squawk and drop back off. But, with persistence, all the babies will stay on a roost. This is hot, dusty, sweaty work in the dark with a small flashlight clenched in my teeth. My upper thighs get sore from all the crouching to pick up chicks. The life of a mother hen is not easy.
The first three to five nights are for training. I must go out in the barn after dark and put chicks on roosts. Every night is a little easier. More have flown up to the new sleeping spot on their own. The stubborn ones on the floor stay put on the roost after one or two tries. Finally, all are where they belong, safe above the rats and other undesirables roaming the barn in the dark. When the babies make their special trilling noise that means ‘let’s go to sleep,’ I know the training is over for the night.
This year I am training both my first and second hatch to roost at the same time. The younger ones are learning faster than the older babies. Perhaps the older ones have been sleeping on the floor longer and the habit is more ingrained. This evening will be the third night of roosting lessons. I am hoping a few hop up on the perches by themselves. Once one or two birds go up on their own, the rest of the clutch will follow within a few days.
The two hatches share space for eating and drinking, but are wary of each other. They have separate perches for roosting. As they grow and get closer in size, the younger chicks will begin to sleep with the first hatch. Right now the little ones are half the size of the bigger babies. The first hatch stands about 7″-8″ at the shoulder and the second hatch, about 4″. The small ones are nimble and scurry under their older siblings, usually before they receive a warning peck for getting too close. These are free-range chicks. They spend the day in outside adventures, detouring into the barn for food at regular intervals. At dusk, all the babies return to the barn to sleep.