Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Counting Chickens Before They Hatch

Last summer, a season which seems like a dream right now with the umpteenth snow falling in Connecticut, Jay and I discussed chickens.  We had a backyard flock of twelve, eleven hens of various breeds and one awesome Cochin rooster named Aslan.  We had lost two hens during the summer to unknown causes.  Lucy the Rhode Island Red and Righty, a Silver Spangled Hamburg, were found dead in the coop.  Our coop isn’t big enough to handle a lot of chickens so our discussion centered around replacing the hens we’d lost, not adding more than two. 
I love having the pale green eggs laid by our two Easter Eggers/Americauna’s, Faye and Flo, but they are going on five-years-old and don’t lay as often.  I reasoned that if we were going to add another hen, she should be an Easter Egger as well.  Jay suggested we hatch our own chicks, but I was not sold on the idea. 
We have two Silkie hens, Mumbles and Beeker,  who seem to always be broody.  Silkies are known for being broody which means they feel a need to sit on the nest for weeks at a time with few breaks in an effort to hatch whatever may or may not be underneath their bodies.  Silkies are often used to hatch eggs the natural way (no plug in incubators).   I had read that hens which are Easter Egger crosses will still lay green eggs which would be our case; Easter Egger/Cochin mixes.  If we hatched our own, the ideal would be to get one or two female chicks who grew to look like their father, but laid green eggs.  The worst case would be hatching another rooster.  That’s the risk of hatching your own eggs as opposed to buying chicks that are already sexed.   We have a no-kill policy with our flock so gendercide was out of the question. 
I wanted to wait and go to a poultry show to buy chicks from a breeder where I could be guaranteed of the gender.  The coop is small, so adding males would only take up unnecessary space.  Roosters are not needed for hens to lay eggs and I was afraid of them fighting each other.  If we were to add chickens, they really needed to be female.  Also, since our Silkies had hatched eggs before for a friend, I’d learned that the chances of getting viable chicks were slim.  It’s heartbreaking to watch an egg hatch only to have the chick die before it can exit the shell. 
So I compromised.  We’d try to hatch our own and if it didn’t work, we’d go an upcoming poultry show and buy a sure thing, a young pullet or two.  This gave our birds almost a month to produce home-grown chicks (hopefully little girls). 
Faye and Flo cooperated and gave us two eggs each, two days apart, then went on their merry ways.  Most hens just lay the egg and go, trusting society to raise their children, or not.  They don’t care.  I wrote the laying date on each egg with a Sharpie so I would know when to expect hatching.  Beeker and Mumbles were both broody so I put two eggs under each hen.  Twenty-one days later, two eggs were rotten, one hatched a dead chick and we got one live chick.  The live chick came out of the darker green egg which told me that Flo was the biological mother.   I was skeptical, but Kelsey said she’d had a dream about the chick; it was a girl and we had to name her Penelope.  Kelsey was often clairvoyant when she was younger so I felt somewhat reassured.
Newborn Penelope hides under foster mom Beeker
 We set Penelope up with her foster mom, Beeker, in a cat carrier in our fenced-in garden.  It was late August so the outside temperatures were perfect for a hatchling.  I studied chick pictures of Cochins and Easter Eggers to try to determine who Penelope would take after.  Our rooster is a partridge color, absolutely gorgeous with his patchwork of colors and his long, copper-laced teal cape feathers.   Partridge-colored hens are plainer than the roos, but still more attractive than the Easter Egger golden brown.   Penelope looked just like a baby Americauna/Easter Egger with her chipmunk black stripe.  The only difference was that she had feathered legs like a Cochin.  Oh well.  I just hope she remained a girl. 

When Penelope started chest-bumping her mother and her neck grew longer, like a cockerel’s, I got nervous.  What’s the male form of “Penelope”?   Peter?  I watched You Tube videos on how to determine the sex of a chick and tortured little Penelope by holding her upside-down, her mother clucking at me anxiously while I examined the chick’s vent, a.k.a. “hoo-hoo”.  Nothing popped up which would indicate a little roo, so maybe Kelsey was right.  Of course, professional chicken sexers can make mistakes and I was only You Tube trained.
Penelope and her fluffy white mother were inseparable, even as the child outgrew her mom.  After about a month of keeping them confined to the garden, I put the two in with the flock.  They were accepted pretty easily as the others were used to seeing the little peeping chick run around by now.  If another hen came near Penelope, little two-pound Beeker would challenge her.  Silkies are a bantam breed which means they are mini chickens.  Bantams are about half to a third the size of our other hens so the sight of Beeker chest-bumping another hen was almost comical.  Penelope’s sire is a Cochin, one of the larger breeds of chickens and weighs in at nine pounds.  For the chicken people out there, Cochin’s also come in bantam size, but ours is a standard.  She should be a big girl (again, hoping she’d stay a she). 
Aslan the rooster.  Beeker is the white fluff directly behind him.
Penelope (center) with the flock.  Her biological mother, Flo, is left of her in brown.  Foster mom, Beeker, on the far right.
Finally, Penelope’s feathers started coming in during her second month.  Her Easter Egger down feathers and black stripe was replaced by the brown coloring of a partridge colored hen, complete with copper-laced teal feathers on her cape.  Definitely a girl, and a partridge color to boot! 
Penelope as a teenager
If there was any doubt, Penelope started laying eggs in January.  She still doesn't look like a mature hen, more of a teenager.  Penelope's eggs are a pale green like the other Easter Eggers, but a darker sage color.  Her eggs are still small because she’s young, but I expect the size will increase.  We have our first home-grown chicken to carry on the green egg laying in exactly the color and gender we were hoping for.  
Our tray of rainbow eggs.  Penelope's are the center two.