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Baby Chicks Learning to Free Range

The baby Ameraucana chicks are three weeks old now.  This past week they have been learning to go out on their own into the big world and free range.  Seeing such small babies on their own can give a mother hen like me heart palpitations, but I can’t hold my little ones back.  They need to understand how to find food, hunt for insects, avoid danger and return to the safety of the shelter at night.  Although they are quite tiny, these chicks are old enough to be on their own.

The babies love freedom.  They run together in a little flock.  All twenty-three of the original hatch are still with us, hale and hearty.  On a sunny spring day they sprawl in the sunshine lighting the barn doorway and spread their wings to collect the warmth.  As a group, they move from place to place finding adventure and keeping in constant contact with a steady stream of peeps and chirps.

Thursday was the first time the little birds ventured from inside the barn out on the grass.  Once this wonder was discovered, there was no stopping those chicks.  They found the grass and greens delicious and also teeming with juicy bugs.  I am teaching them to drink from a pan by sinking their plastic waterer in the center of a rubber dish full of water.  The chicks have quickly caught on.

It is amazing how fast baby chickens grow.  The tiny roosters already test their strength in mock fights.  In no time the birds will be fully feathered and starting to fly.  A baby chicken is actually quite a good flyer because its body is small and light in comparison to the size of the wings.  This tends to give the small birds an advantage against predators.  They are very good at escaping.  Although they appear delicate, millions of years of evolution have made these small creatures tough and capable of caring for themselves.

Good Hatch

These chicks are the first to hatch from my new Brinsea incubator.  The hatch was a great success, 96% hatch rate!  The best rate I ever got was around 70% using styrofoam incubators.  I’ve started the second clutch, a total of 28 eggs.

I was amazed by the difference in the hatching process between the solid plastic, double walled Brinsea Ovation Eco 28 and the styrofoam incubator, a Hova-Bator circulated air model.

In the Brinsea, the chicks all hatched within 20 hours, compared to a three-day process for the styrofoam.  In the Hova-Bator, it was always evident when the eggs were hatching because the chicks made so much noise.  They often peeped very loudly.  In the Brinsea the chicks are quiet.  The double plastic walls do insulate sound, but there is no loud, endless crying.

The chicks in the styrofoam tended to move all over the inside of the incubator, peeping and scrabbling around, disturbing the eggs still hatching.  In the plastic model, the chicks all gather in the middle of the incubator and fall asleep.

The Brinsea incubator also seems to dry the chick fluff more quickly than the styrofoam incubator.  They fluffed up hours before chicks that hatched in the Hova-Bator.  At the same time, the humidity level was well maintained.  The chicks stayed moist inside the eggs and easily broke out of the shells.

The most telling thing for me was the cleanliness of the new incubator after the hatch.  The inside contained just broken shells and loose fluff.  No nasty smells or egg insides stuck to components.

With the styrofoam incubator there was always a smelly mess.  The inside was always smeared with meconium.  There was none in the Brinsea incubator.  Early expulsion of meconium, the contents of the intestines that formed during the development of the embryo, can be a sign of stress in any newborn.  With this first hatch from the plastic incubator, none of the chicks passed meconium until they were placed in the brooding box.

I think this fact and the quiet, calm demeanor of the chicks during and after the hatch are testimony to the greatly reduced stress achieved by the Brinsea incubator.  Even now, several days after the hatch, the chicks are more calm compared to past hatches.

The only complaint I have about the Brinsea is that the well holding the water for humidity is too shallow.  There are two wells, the second is to be filled only at the time of hatch.  Using just the one well requires adding water about every other day.  This can be annoying.  Filling both wells during incubation would probably raise the humidity too high due to an excessive water surface area.  However, overall, I would say this new incubator is a great addition to my operation.

I look forward to watching these babies mature and to the results of the other hatches I have planned this year.

Also, let me state that I have not received any remuneration from any incubator seller.  This comparison is based solely on my personal experiences with two incubators I chose to use.

Rough Life For A Chicken

Chicken society can be brutal.  Ameraucana chickens are known to be less aggressive and more tolerant of other birds than many breeds.  That does not preclude them from becoming vicious at times.

This hen is part of the flock, hatched at the same time as the rest, raised as a sister.  Yet, one morning in the middle of the winter when I did chores, I found this hen with her head all bloody.  I thought the weasel who attacked my flock in December had a relative trying to prey on my birds.  I locked them up tight at night for awhile.  The hen began to heal.

Then one morning, again, her head was all bloody.  She was also acting afraid of the primary rooster and trying to stay away from him.  I closed her away in her own smaller pen and her head healed.  Just about the time she was starting to look good again, she escaped from her pen and went in with the others.  Everything seemed fine that day.  She went to roost with the rest of the flock.  The next morning, there she was again, her head pecked into a bloody mess.

This time I ensured her enclosure was completely escape proof.  I gave her a nest to use and after a few days she began laying.  She was separated from the other birds by wire so they could still see each other and interact.  When her head was well healed I tried once again to introduce her to the flock.  Within minutes, as I watched, the rooster went after her, attacking her head.  Quickly, I scooped her up.

I don’t know why the rooster took such a strong dislike to this hen.  She looks like everyone else.  She lays an egg a day.  She is docile and submits to the rooster.  Perhaps she said something to insult his male pride and he won’t forgive.  Who knows?  Chickens are ruthless.

So, to keep her company and fertilize her eggs, I placed the auxiliary rooster in her pen.  He is the back-up in case the main rooster dies.  The birds hit it off immediately.  He is a perfect mate, considerate and gentle, always finding little tidbits to entice her affection.  She cuddles up close to him at night on the roost.  They are so happy together.

Every day the main flock goes out to free-range in the afternoon and returns to the roost about an hour before sunset.  When the coast is clear, I lock the main flock up and let the hen and auxiliary rooster out to roam.  Their happiness is complete.  I’m hoping the poor hen will grow feathers on her head again.  With all the trauma the skin has endured, she may remain a bald bird.

 

New Incubator

The new incubator is up and running with the first set of eggs.  It’s a Brinsea Ovation Eco 28, a new design for Brinsea.  The incubator has automated egg turning and digital temperature control.  The humidity control is done manually although you can purchase a separate attachment to automate humidity.

So far the incubator has been running great.  It maintains a temperature of 99.6F, with no fluctuation I have noticed.  There is a warning alarm if the temperature goes above or below a pre-set level.  This incubator is a big step up for me, function-wise and price-wise.  For many years I’ve used styrofoam body incubators.  The first one did not have automatic turning so I had to turn the eggs by hand twice a day for 19 days.  Then I got one with egg turning racks and a blower fan.  It was around $175, a Hovabator.

The hatch rate for the styrofoam incubators was always disappointing for me.  It rarely got over 70%.  Some hatches were dismal with only 40% or so.  The poor performance was most likely due to difficulty with maintaining correct warmth and humidity.  A chicken breeder said try a better quality incubator, so this year I finally sprung for the $380 Brinsea.  It has a hard plastic case.  The digital temperature control is much easier to use than the old manual control on the Hovabator.

The Brinsea only holds 28 hen eggs as opposed to 42 for the Hovabator.  In the past I was lucky to get 18-20 chicks in a hatch.  Most of the time there were less. But with Brinsea users attesting to 90% plus hatch rates, I may end up with more chicks than ever before!  I’ll just have to wait another 20 days to find out!

Winter Chicks

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The chicks I was forced to hatch in January due to the loss of my best rooster are a month old now.  There are nineteen babies.  One died at day three, a common time for newly hatched chicks to perish if they have an internal birth defect.  The rest of the flock seem to be doing well.

The first month of their lives was spent in cardboard boxes in our house.  Their lives began in a bathroom in two joined boxes with a 60W light bulb for warmth.  At two weeks they outgrew that space.  I moved them to two larger conjoined boxes in our unheated woodshed.  With foam board insulation around the boxes and a 100W bulb they kept warm.  When the temperatures dipped below 30F in the woodshed I ran an electric space heater.  The babies thrived and grew quickly.b

Two days ago we moved them outside to an insulated hen house.  I’ve sealed all the windows and doors with plastic sheeting, used plywood to create a space with a ceiling about three feet high, and installed a 250W heat lamp.  At night I close off the heated area with plastic burlap to a space about 3 ft x 5 ft under the lamp.  Their water and food are inside with them.  So far they have stayed warm and their water hasn’t iced up.  We are lucky to be in a thaw period with temperatures in the 40sF during the day and no colder than 15F at night.a

The little guys are growing fast, making more insulating feathers by the minute.  They love the freedom of forty square feet of floor during the day.  I can hear them chirping away as they romp and flutter about in the hen house.

Chickens love apples and these babies are no exception.  They will peck a whole apple away in a day.  They also quickly learned to drink from a pan.  I teach all my baby chicks to drink from a pan by placing the beginner waterer they first learned to use inside the pan.  In no time everyone drinks from the new water source.  They eat chick mash like little feathered piggies.

These winter necessity chicks were a real burden to raise in the house, but I think the effort will be worthwhile.  At least four of the babies appear to be little roosters that look very much like the father we lost to a weasel back in December.  They are silver splash in color with lots of white on their breasts and body feathers.  I am hoping to produce some laced chicks from the splash color.  Although splash and laced are not accepted purebred Ameraucana chicken colors, I find the laced coloration very beautiful.  Each white feather has a band of black around the outside edge.d

So, if I’m lucky, breeding the splash color may result in laced babies one day.  Hopefully on a nice warm spring day and not in the depths of winter!

January Chicks

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The first Ameraucana chicks of 2017 finished hatching overnight.  Currently there are twenty babies, an excellent hatch rate any time.  The hatch is particularly impressive for eggs that were collected when the temperatures were at or below 0 degrees F and the majority of eggs set had been stored in the refrigerator for several days.  When the best breeding rooster for the next generation is killed by a weasel, any possibly viable eggs that could contain his DNA should be set.  Of the 42 eggs I placed in the incubator, 37 grew embryos.  Of those, 22 pipped and 20 hatched.  Had I owned a better incubator, I believe the hatch rate would have been higher.c3

In the photo above, the last two chicks to hatch are in the lower area.  They appear less fluffy than the rest because their down has still not shed all the albumen residue that keeps them wet and lubricated so they can escape from the egg shell.  In a few hours they will be as fluffed as the others.

I’m saving my pennies to purchase a Brinsea incubator to replace the styrofoam Hova-bator currently in use.  Had I known that such an early hatch was necessary, I would have begun saving sooner.  The usual hatching season begins in March for me.  By then all the hens are laying well, the days are long enough to assure good fertility and when the babies hatch, the weather is warm enough to keep the chicks in the barn.

Now I am faced with twenty chicks that must live in the house until they are old enough to go outdoors.  They will need to stay in with us for at least three weeks!  Anyone who has raised chicks knows they can get smelly.  They usually go in the barn after one week.  I will need to provide a large brooding area and consistent attention to bedding to keep the odor of chicken at an acceptable level.  The cats are another concern.  One of our cats, Chloe, killed some newly hatched chicks the first year she lived with us.  Since then she has mellowed, but we now have two one-year-old males who consider themselves mighty hunters.  The baby chicks will need to be enclosed in a cat-proof system.

Still, my hopes are high for a good outcome with these babies.  I’m certain many of them were fathered by my best rooster since he was the dominant male in the chicken house.  So far they are a beautiful hatch of silver Ameraucanas.  I look forward to seeing their adult plumage and the color of the eggs they produce.c2

 

Requiem for a Rooster

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The last few days have been an adventure for the chickens and me.  On Dec 30, I went into the chicken barn to find two dead fowl.  One was a lovely black hen and the other was my best silver splash rooster.  It was easy to see what happened from the tiny neck wounds.  We had a weasel.  Outside in the fresh snow around the barn (we had received about 16″ overnight,) were the tracks of the tiny predator.  It hopped across the top of the deep snow right in the barn door and then squeezed through the chicken wire into the pen.  The weasel must have grabbed the hen and the rooster went to defend her.  This is the first time a weasel has ever bothered my birds.

Weasels are tenacious little killers.  They latch onto the throat with a massive grip that is not dislodged by the frantic thrashing of the victim.  The strangle hold subdues even a large, strong bird like a goose in a couple minutes or less.  Often a weasel will kill more than one animal, almost as though it were sport.  Because the prey was too large to pull back through the wire, my beautiful chickens were left dead on the floor.  So sad for me.

I only had thirteen hens, my breeders overwintering to produce spring chicks, and two roosters.  The lost rooster was gorgeous.  I found the two pictures of him that I’ve posted.  One was taken when he was a very young bird and the other when he matured.  In both photos he is in the back so it is hard to see just how attractive a rooster he was.a2

Unlike a regular silver color rooster, this one was splashed with lots of white.  He had luxuriant muffs and beard, the feathering around his head.  He was also the dominant rooster, yet a gentle soul peacefully coexisting with the other males.  The ladies all loved him.  And so did I.  Now I have to find a way to dispose of his body in two feet of snow and with the ground frozen.  So aggravating.  And devastating since I planned to use him as my main breeding rooster.

I removed the bodies of the chickens I’d raised from eggs and placed them on the floor outside the pen.  If something wasn’t done to stop the slaughter, I could lose all my flock to the villain.  I started worrying about how to protect the birds.  A couple hours later alarm calls began sounding from the barn.  Hurrying down the snowy path, I crept into the barn and there was the weasel.  It had returned to feed on my dead chickens.  When it saw me, the weasel scattered.  In a cloud of rage, I dug out my only trap, an ancient leg hold variety left over from my brother’s trapping days 40 years ago.  It was designed to hold foxes.  I hoped the powerful jaws would get a chance to dispatch the little chicken murderer with a quick snap to the neck.  I set the trap and laid it between the bodies on the floor.

That night the chickens went voluntarily to their safest roost, an enclosed space I use for segregating birds.  Securing the door with layers of fine mesh chicken wire, I closed my diminished flock in the small space.  A dedicated weasel could dig under the wall and get in with some effort.  I hoped the fresh kill would keep the weasel busy.  The next morning the chickens all wanted out of the confining pen.  The dead birds and trap had not been disturbed.

This continued for two more nights.  The chickens instinctively went where they felt safe at night.  The trap was undisturbed.  Then yesterday morning when I went in the barn door:  victory!  There was a small, white creature with beady black eyes staring back at me.  It tried to run, but couldn’t.  The trap held it by the right front leg, high up at the top of the humerus.  As I approached, the chicken murderer became frantic, struggling to escape.  I grabbed a sturdy club for the final coup.  The weasel froze and watched me.  I got a good look at those big ferret eyes, the tiny little white ears so cute and rounded, the pleading expression, almost as though the animal knew what came next.  I couldn’t do it.  I was too weak to crush the skull of the little white murderer.

So I got a cat carrier and made a loop out of baling twine.  I worked the loop over the weasel’s head to act as a leash.  Weasels are vicious.  Teeth are their weapon and they brandish them, waiting for the right moment to sink them in deep.  I gave the weasel a stick to chew on so I could step on the trap to open the jaws.  It latched onto the stick, but let go in favor of my boot.  After several minutes struggle I pulled my boot out of the weasel grip.  I was left with puncture marks in my nice LL Bean Bob chore packs.  Such power compressed in a small package was amazing.  No wonder birds haven’t got a chance.

Finally, I maneuvered the tiny wild ferret out of the trap and into the cat carrier.  The skin where the trap held the animal was badly abraded, but not an open wound.  The weasel put no weight on the leg and I feared it was broken.  Such a large trap was designed for thicker bones.  I had hoped the critter would have been quickly killed by the trap instead of maimed.

I gazed into the carrier and the weasel looked back.  It was fairly terrified.  It pushed under the newspaper lining and watched me with huge dark eyes.  It also emitted the odor of weasel, not such a fine cocktail of musky scent very reminiscent of its ferret kin.  I decided to bring the weasel in from the cold, give it food and water and see if it started to use the leg.  After a few days, it might actually recover and I could release it far away.  The weasel was settled comfortably in the bathroom and it went to sleep.

Quickly I realized it was illegal to hold onto wildlife.  I called the game warden.  He said he would contact a local wildlife rehabilitator to see if they wanted to take the creature.  Turns out they did want to try and help the weasel.  So I drove 45 minutes to South China to the Wildlife Rescue people.  They assured me this was not the first weasel they’d wrangled.  One of the specialists put on gloves and proceeded to try and extract the weasel from the carrier.  The chicken murderer was not going to come easily, launching itself repeatedly at the man’s hand as he tried to subdue the animal.  Little weasel managed to find a hole in one glove and bit the rehabber’s thumb.  Luckily, wildlife specialists get their rabies vaccinations so he was not in mortal danger.

He got a good grip on the weasel, removed it from the carrier and restrained it to look at the wound.  The skin was not broken.  The upper leg was swollen.  It was impossible to tell if the bone was broken.  I smoothed anti-bacterial salve on the trap burn and the weasel went in a new cage with an old blanket to tunnel in for comfort.  The rehabber said they’d give the weasel a few days to see if it resumed use of the limb.  Because the sturdy little animals are so muscular, lithe and athletic, it is possible this weasel could survive just fine in the wild with only three legs.

I left a donation to help purchase weasel food (frozen mice) and was glad to leave the creature in skilled, if bitten, hands.  Maybe I’ll call later to see how Mr. Weasel is doing.  In the meantime, I salvaged 42 eggs from the refrigerator and set them in the incubator.  It is very early in the year to hatch chicks, but my only hope for preserving the genes of my best rooster.  Hens carry sperm in them for up to 10 days after being fertilized so the eggs I collected after the rooster’s death could still hold his DNA.  My fingers are crossed.  If any babies do hatch, there will be the new problem of how to deal with chicks in the house in the middle of winter.  That is for a later blog.