Our chickens have occupied so much of our time this month that inevitably, it is the subject of June’s blog post. At the end of May, we returned from our trip to the beach to find one of our eight White Sussex hens rather poorly. We researched her condition to discover she had vent gleet, a fungal, yeast infection that left her with a swollen, dirty behind. We did everything we could to help her condition: gave her a bath, cleaned the chicken coop and water carrier, added some apple cider vinegar to the drinking water and replaced the food tray. Sadly, still unwilling to eat or drink, she died a day or two later. Just one week later and we lost a second hen in the exact same way. Now it can’t have been the water or the food, and living conditions were good, so we can only assume it was the unusually high temperatures that caused it, unless anyone has any other ideas??? The chicken house gets extremely hot and the outdoor run is south-facing so we are going to look into extending it so that it incorporates some shade from the nearby trees, when the chickens are not free ranging.
But this still does not change the fact that we were two hens down. As a general rule, we have found that eight hens is a good number for a constant supply of eggs for our family of six (including my mum and dad) but they have not been laying as well since the weather warmed up so obviously six hens, averaging two eggs a day is not ideal. When a third chicken started to show signs of illness, we didn’t really see the point in buying new replacement hens just for them to die in our coop, for reasons unknown to us. This time, however, the apple cider vinegar seemed to do the trick. Her tail soon lifted up to a normal position and she was back to her usual self.
So what to do about the lack of eggs? We could have gone and bought two, three or even four new, ready-to-lay hens from Elevage Avicole de Mayran (a nearby breeding farm)…but we liked the idea of raising our own chicks and we had all the ingredients: a cockerel and six seemingly healthy chickens. Last year, the surrogacy method worked when our neighbour successfully hatched one of our fertilised eggs under his broody hen so there can’t be a problem with our cockerel! Of course there is one major issue to contend with here, not one of our six hens has ever shown the slightest sign of being broody for longer than 24 hours and the neighbour’s hen doesn’t seem at all interested in having another chick!
This led us to the incubator method. We borrowed a manual 12-egg incubator from one of the parents at school. Sure, it was basic, but the school had used the very same one last year and Madeleine’s class managed to hatch three or four healthy chicks from it…it had to be foolproof! After four days of egg collecting, we put eleven eggs inside and turned them twice a day until Day 18. We candled them on Day 7, but since it was our first attempt we decided to leave all eleven eggs inside, just in case we had misjudged our visual readings (we were not using a genuine egg candler and we are very much in unknown territory when it comes to egg hatching and chick rearing). On Day 17, I noticed that one of the eggs had a maple syrup-like blob on it, which Google signalled to be a sign of rottenness. I removed the egg immediately, sealed it in a freezer bag and tossed it in the bin. We did experience a few short power cuts over the three week period when my dad was doing the electrics in his room…and the temperature went down a degree or two during the last few days, but when Day 20 arrived, I was confident that I would see some egg pipping. Surely we would have at least one success?
I’m afraid not. Not a single egg hatched! Unwilling to perform an eggtopsy to find out what went wrong, on Day 26, I carefully placed all ten eggs in a paper bag and put them in the bin.
But, it wasn’t all doom and gloom…not wanting to put all our eggs in one basket, we had a back-up plan! Precisely one week after we put the eggs in the incubator, one of our hens decided she was feeling abnormally broody and started sitting on one sole egg! The next day, to my surprise she was still sitting there so I added two more eggs to her collection (I would have added more if only I had some, but then if I had had more eggs, we wouldn’t be desperately needing to hatch chickens in the first place!). She quickly accepted them and moved them underneath her, and there she sat quite happily until Day 11, getting down from the nest now and again to eat, drink and do her business. On this particular day however, she unfortunately jumped back on the wrong nest, where she sat for a good 24 hours before she returned to her cold eggs. Nothing seemed to be going right…how hard can it be to hatch a chick?
Still not wanting to admit defeat, on Day 17 we decided to move her to a purpose-built pen of her own, where she would not have access to other hens’ eggs. She literally growled at my dad when he tried to move her…he was wearing gloves which is always a good idea, wow can this girl peck! Once she had settled into her new pen, she got back on her three eggs and didn’t move (to my knowledge) for days. She had food and water and seemed to be doing ok, but Day 21 came and went and…still nothing.
So you can imagine the excitement on my face when I came home from doing the weekly shop on Day 22 to hear loud chirping coming from the pen! Sure enough, there was a little black chick stood shivering on its own. When we had moved the mother hen into the new pen, we thought it would be more comfortable for her to brood in a little wooden crate, but it’s a highly impractical nest for rearing baby chicks, which are likely to fall out, unable to climb back in to the warmth of the mother! We didn’t think that through! We seemed to to be failing in so many areas. Without hesitation, I scooped up the little chick and put it back in the box where it quickly scuttled under it’s mother’s wing. I got back just in time to save it. Any longer and it would probably have died from the cold.
Worried the chick might fall once again out of the crate, we took the decision to remove the crate entirely from the pen. Pete lifted her off the two remaining eggs, which I picked up and carefully placed on some straw on the pen floor. She quickly sat back on the eggs, with the little chick peeking out from under her wing. The next day, we discovered a second chick had hatched, but it seemed to have either splayed leg or a broken wing…either way, it had been rejected by the mother and died soon after. The third egg remained unhatched and the mother pushed it out of the way, for us to remove.
So, I can safely say I am now all chickened out. I seem to have spent an entire month dedicated to chickens and I have no plans to breed any more in the near future. So what exactly have we gained from all this? Certainly a lot of knowledge, through various mishaps and mistakes along the way, not to mention a ‘miracle’ chick that proved to us that despite our best efforts, mother nature knows best. I have put my newly-acquired heat lamp away in storage for the time being, and my mum has kindly offered to buy us two new replacement hens. At least now I can concentrate my efforts on the garden and leave Mother Hen to look after her little one, which might just turn out to be a cockerel after all that!
Oh, but there’s just one more thing that I have to take care of first…a little boy who has just come down with, you guessed it, the Chickenpox!!!