Hatching Health Issues

Do As I Say, Not As I Do

More Tips On Broody Hens

I sometimes work with youth, providing workshops that stress responsible, informed decision making involves integrating what you know with what you do. Part of which involves your own experience and knowledge, but also your instinct or intuition.

This is one of those stories where I hope you will learn from my mistakes, a tale of “do as I say, not as I do”. I think it’s was a situation that, like many folks who are juggling work and home life, I was over-stretched and let some things slip.

I have loads of experience with broody hens: more than 50 in the last few years. Over time I’ve learned from my experience about what works and doesn’t (for me at least) and have written a post with pointers for others.

I always separate a broody hen from the flock – putting her in a dog crate in a separate area of my coop. Sometimes they have direct access, through a pop door, to a 4’x9’ wired pen to give them access to a outdoors dust bath.

The ability to get rid of parasites, like mites and lice, is critical for hens who are sitting the better part of 24/7 for three weeks straight. An infestation can cause them to get off the nest prematurely, abandoning their eggs, or worse, die. When I haven’t been able to give them access to the outside I’ve tried to provide a dust bath in plastic litter box, though it’s rarely been used. I also treat them with topical Ivermectin (drops applied directly to their skin) at the outset of their sitting and then again, seven to ten days later.

For whatever reason – oversight, multi-tasking – I didn’t apply Ivermectin to Shona, who also had no outside access. She was sitting on a combination of eggs from my birds and from friends, Thomas and Elizabeth. I’ve been cocky lately, having seen no mites for ages (and have never had to deal with lice). That attitude came back to bite me. Around day 16, I noticed that she was getting off the eggs more often (two-three times/day), for longer (thirty minutes), was agitating to come out of the coop and resisted going back to her egg. Once there, she settled, but I was concerned that she wouldn’t make it to hatch day.

Shona was in and out of her crate and I really started to worry she wouldn’t make it to the finish line. Her coop-mate Ella, incubating a dozen eggs in an adjacent crate, still had two more weeks to go so she wasn’t going to be of help. I didn’t want to borrow an incubator because that meant I’d be raising a passel of chicks and I didn’t have the time or space. On day 18, I put some Ivermectin drops on both hens to kill off any mites that might be bothering them.

Luckily, the first two chicks hatched on the morning of day 20 – which gave Shona the incentive to stay. Before I left for work on day 21, five had hatched, with one externally pipped (beak had broken a hole through the shell) and another working its way breaking out of the shell.

When I got home from work, ten hours later, Shona wanted to come out of the crate. I let her out to poop (better that than on the eggs) and surveyed the hatch: no progress since that morning. The one that had almost broken out of the egg was cool and had died. The other, also cool, was still in the same position.

Shona On Eggs

When I first started putting broody hens in dog crates I filled the bottom with wood shaving and put the eggs in a little nest. I’ve had a number of eggs roll away from the hen and get cold when the hen got up or break on the hard plastic crate bottom when she moved all the shavings. I now put a small plastic container, like a dish pan, in the crate filled with shavings to keep the eggs from moving from under her or breaking. The problem is, if the hatch is staggered, I run the risk of the first ones climbing out of the pan, and once separated from the hen get cold, or even die. The benefit of using the plastic box is that it’s small enough it keep the eggs together and ensures they all get incubated and not pushed out from under a hen.

I have two strategies to deal with hatch day: either move the eggs out of the box and into the shavings of the crate just before hatch, or let the first few hatch and then remove the dish pan and shift the chicks and any unhatched eggs, directly into the crate. It’s tricky, especially if the hen is over-protective and might peck me or accidentally injure the chicks, but so far it’s worked in that it’s minimized egg breakage.

So now I had five chicks, a dead chick in the egg, a chick trying to hatch and four unhatched eggs that I had to move without damaging. Shona was ravenous (even though she always had access to food and water) and was totally oblivious to what I was doing. I quickly shifted all the chicks and starting transferring the shavings and that’s when I noticed a big pile of mites at the bottom of the plastic pan. I couldn’t eliminate all the mites, but went to Plan B: transferring Shona, the chicks and eggs into a clean crate with new shavings. Unfortunately, she’d still have mites, but not as many.

Then I took a closer look at the pipped egg which was still in the same position as that morning. It was cool – a sign that Shona had got off the eggs – so I quickly peeled some shell and saw the membrane was pure white with no blood vessels, which meant it was safe to peel that off as well. I removed as much as I could, then tucked the weak chick back under her for warmth and to fluff up. If it had been earlier in the day, I would have brought it inside to dry and get stronger, but seeing as Shona was now back on the eggs I left the chick with her.

The next morning there were six fluffy chicks: one more had hatched overnight, but sadly the one I helped didn’t make it. The four unhatched eggs all turned out to be unfertilized. The next day I moved Shona and her chicks to an outdoor pen where she’d have the chance for a real dust bath in the dirt. It was the first thing she did. Once she got the mites under control she’s been happy taking care of her chicks.

My other lapse in judgement involves Ella. For the last three years I’ve sold hatching eggs. I am diligent about only collecting the best eggs (e.g. clean, uniform shape, no double yolkers, an obvious wide end) and storing them carefully (i.e. in an egg carton, pointed end down, at room temperature, tilting the carton daily) to ensure their best chance of viability.

If broody hens are left to their own devices they lay an egg a day until they have a nest full – usually about a dozen. None of the embryos start to develop until she sits on them, which isn’t until she’s laid the last one; by synchronizing the start time of the incubation she ensures that all the chicks will hatch at the same time. My hens don’t have the luxury of hatching their own eggs. I collect eggs daily and when I have a broody hen I select which ones go under her.

I love frizzles. I have two frizzled hens, but haven’t managed to hatch any of their chicks this season. I was bemoaning this fact to my friend Tracy, who has frizzled birds from my stock. I had totally forgotten she had a rooster – one of mine, an Appenzeller Spitzhauben x – so her eggs would be fertilized. My hen Polly had gone broody so I asked Tracy to start saving eggs for me, which she did for several days. By the time I picked them up, three days later, Polly had changed her mind.

I left the carton with a dozen eggs in the coop waiting for another broody and although I hadn’t forgotten about them I did forget my egg storage routine. I walked past the carton several times a day and didn’t tilt the eggs once. We also experienced a bit of heat wave, so instead of being kept at @60-70f/15-21c they probably went as high as 90f/32c!

Three days later, I had another broody hen. I pitched the two oldest eggs and replaced them with some eggs freshly laid that day and put the whole bunch under Ella. It was only after the fact that it dawned on me that I didn’t follow my own advice. Too late, Ella was broody and the eggs were there. Now I had to wait three weeks to see if my oversight was fatal or not. Nature isn’t always perfect: eggs get hot or cold, wet or dry, inconsistently incubated and still somehow manage to survive. I decided to be hopeful, since there wasn’t much else I could do.

On day 20, five chicks had started to pip. I breathed a sigh of relief. Two more hatched; one got separated from her when I was at work. By the time I found the chick it was quite weak. I tucked it back under her, but unfortunately it didn’t make it. In hindsight I wonder if I should have brought it into the house until it had gained some strength before returning it to the hen.

Two days later she got off the four remaining unhatched eggs. Out of curiosity I always crack them open to understand why they didn’t make it: one was unfertilized; the only one from my own frizzles was fully developed, but didn’t hatch; one had died @three days before hatch (there was still some yolk sac) and one, mysteriously disappeared without a trace. I’m assuming it got broken and Ella ate it.

She has been my most vigilant broody hen: there were days that I don’t think she got off the eggs once, and others she made a dash for food, water and to poop and was right back on the eggs. I lifted her off several times just to ensure she didn’t get dehydrated. Being a mother is hard work.

Dealing with chickens is often a guessing game of what’s the best thing to do. What works in one situation doesn’t always in another. Often we are advised if we don’t do things by the book doom and gloom will follow. In both these cases I feel like I dodged a bullet: where things might have gone sideways they’ve worked out. Both hens have six healthy robust chicks. And if I end up with at least one frizzled pullet I’ll be a happy camper.

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