Thursday, May 5, 2011

Counting My Eggs

I'll bet you've been thinking, "We haven't heard about Sharon's chickens in a while.  Wonder what they're up to?"  Well, the girls have been busy scratching up bugs, leaving poop around for the dog to clean up, laying eggs and a couple are preparing for motherhood.  In a previous post on the tendency for some hens to become broody, I mentioned that when the broody mood strikes a hen, she'll sit on the nest all day and night, taking a couple of short breaks to eat and drink.  She'll bristle and cluck menancingly (ever heard a chicken growl?) when I lift up the cover of the nesting box in an effort to scare me away from her nest.  Some will bite when you reach under them.  A broody hen will stop laying once she thinks she has enough to hatch and start sitting on her eggs so that they will all begin incubating at the same time.  This is how birds get their clutch to hatch within a 48-hour period even if it took 10 days to lay all the eggs.  A fertilized egg remains in a state of limbo until incubation commences.

Mumbles - Blue Silkie
In this day of mass egg production and plug-in incubators, most modern hens have the broody trait bred out of them.  If you don't want new chicks running around all the time, but just want eggs for consumption and healthy chickens in the backyard, broody gets in the way.  Some hens, however, are naturally broody and can serve the purpose of being a surrogate mom if one wants to hatch chicks the way that nature intended.  Such is case with many Silkies, the funny looking chickens with hairy legs and fuzzy hair that stands up on top of their heads.  We have one Silkie, a little blue one named Mumbles.  Silkies are well-known for being a broody breed and are often used to hatch other hens' eggs the old fashioned way.  Silkies are a bantam (miniature) bird, weighing less than 2 pounds.  On the other end of our chicken spectrum, we have Thelma, an 8-pound Jersey Giant. 

In casual conversation with fellow volunteer Lorraine at the horse farm, I learned that she not only had many chickens, but also had pheasants.  She was interested in hatching her eggs, but none of her birds had the maternal broody instinct.  I'll remind the reader that I do not have a rooster, so although my hens lay daily, none of the eggs are fertile.  Lorraine has both genders of chickens and pheasants.  I was at the point where I needed to break Mumbles of her broodiness, but after talking to Lorraine, we decided to give Mumbles a job.  

We put 8 tiny, dark green pheasant eggs under Mumbles, removing the golf ball decoys to encourage the other hens to lay in other parts of the nesting boxes.  Hens like to all lay in the same one or two locations, even to the point where one will stand on top of another.  They will cue up like women waiting to use the public restroom, waiting for one hen to finish delivering her egg du jour (which can take over 30 minutes) just to use that particular nesting box.  The empty spaces on either side of the laying hen are ignored unless there is another egg (or golf ball) there to indicate that this is also a suitable place to leave one's egg.  Even with the golf ball decoy, some hens insist upon using the same box each time. 

Once Mumbles started happily incubating her pheasant eggs, Thelma decided she wanted to go broody too and took over Mumbles spot.  Mumbles was dedicated to sitting on her eggs, but with her small size, it's too easy for the larger hens to push her off the nest.  If I did this the right way, I'd have a separate nesting box caged off just for broody hens.  The problem is getting a hen to adapt to a new space once she has started sitting.  I tried bringing Mumbles inside, setting up a large cage for her and the eggs.  Like I'd suspected, she was so freaked out at the move that her unhatched babies were forgotten in her anxiety.  Back out they all went. 

Thelma - Jersey Giant
Toward the end of the pheasant eggs' 24-day incubation period, Thelma had all the pheasant eggs and Mumbles had two golf balls.  I tried splitting the eggs up so each hen would have a job, but the other hens would inevitably push Mumbles off her eggs.  None of the other hens would dare challenge Thelma from her spot so I gave in and just let her take all the glory while poor Mumbles hovered protectively over her Titleists.  She's not that smart, but little Mumbles is committed. 

Finally, the pheasants started pipping their eggs.  It can take a day or two for a chick to work its way out of its shell enclosure.  Unlike mammals where the mother's body does all the work to push the baby out into the world, the process of hatching is completely up to the chick which has now outgrown its womb.  The really incredible part was being able to hear the peeping and pecking and feeling the heartbeat in my hand while holding the egg.  Unfortunately, hatching takes a toll.  When the hatching started we had 7 eggs as one had broken in the nest previously.  Two chicks went through the process of hatching only to die immediately.  Two eggs never hatched.  Three eggs eventually revealed viable pheasant chicks.  We were amazed at how large the chicks were compared to their egg.  It was twice as much chick as egg. 

Pheasant egg hatching
I had told myself that if hatching eggs worked, fine.  If not, I wasn't going to lose any sleep over it.  However, I stayed home the day the eggs started hatching, checking on the eggs every hour or so.  I was even out there at 10 pm with a flashlight.  My concern was that I'd learned from the wonderful resource of the Pheasant and Partridge Forum on Backyardchickens that pheasant chicks are so wild that they will not stay with their surrogate mother, but will run off.  I wanted to make sure I brought each one inside to the cage I had set up with a heat lamp as soon as it hatched.  Hatching under plain heat doesn't work either as they need the humidity, otherwise the egg sticks to their feathers and inhibits their movement.  Once a midwife, always a midwife.  Who was I kidding?

New Pheasant
Pheasants are beautiful birds and most often used for hunting.  Their feathers make gorgeous fishing flies, hence my husband's interest.  The pheasant can not be domesticated like the chickens.  They require a separate, completely enclosed area which allows them room to fly.  If given the chance to escape, a pheasant will take off; no thank you's, no parting gift, no last glance over the shoulder, just gone.  They can't be mixed with chickens as they are likely to pick up diseases from them.  They are actually known for attacking chickens and each other if the conditions aren't spacious enough.  Pheasants are truly wild and since we like having pets and didn't want to do any new construction, we declined Lorraine's offer to keep any. 

Lorraine has since gotten an incubator, a method I would employ if I wanted to hatch a lot of eggs simply because it leaves less to chance.  She did, however, give us eleven fertilized hen eggs to try when she picked up the pheasant chicks.  Thelma and Mumbles are at it again, partly because I feel guilty for taking their babies away.  I drew a black line around the fertile eggs with a marker to differentiate them from our other eggs.  Lorraine has agreed to take any chicks back that we don't want.  Hatch date is May 21st.  I'll keep you posted. 

Pheasant Chicks

1 comment:

  1. I used to check the eggs and the hen did not bite my hand. She have already recognize me