We originally got chickens to produce eggs. But since moving from city limits to a rural setting we have now added roosters to our flock. This provides us the opportunity to breed to repopulate our flock with new laying birds and by default the excess roosters supply us with meat.
After discovering the eggs my mixed flock were producing were fertile I went about researching the step to making baby chicks. The easiest and most natural way is to allow a mother hen to do all the work. But this meant I needed a broody hen…
While you cannot make a hen go broody you can do a few things to encourage her. I set about making the laying boxes into more attractive nesting beds with extra fresh herbs (lavender, sage, basil, thyme, oregano – whatever was growing in my garden). I added curtains to the entrance to make it darker and more secluded and added fake eggs in one of the boxes. My target was a black bantam austrolorp. Bantams and austrolorps are said to make excellent broody and mother hens. After a few weeks I bought an incubator.
I decided to keep Harriet’s, my lavender Araucana, eggs to set in the incubator. She lays blue eggs and she is a pretty bird. Each day I kept a look out and collected her blue egg. I kept them in an egg carton in a small esky with 1-2 ice packs. I monitored the temperature and kept it at a range of 10-15 degrees celsius. Apparently a fridge is too cold. This process helps keep the fertile egg in a resting state. I dated each egg and once I had collected 9 eggs I went about setting them in the incubator. Once in the incubator all eggs start to develop at the same rate even though they were laid on different days.
The incubator can house up to 24 eggs depending on the size. It was reasonably priced at around $100 and featured an auto turning function. I went with the factory setting for temperature. I let the eggs come up to temperature a bit and made sure the incubator was functioning properly. Then I set them on a Friday. The follow day Harriet laid another blue egg so I added that to the incubator too. On Sunday I realised she had been in the coop for a long time. Hmmmm. It appeared that on the Sunday, 2 days after I set all her eggs in the incubator, she went broody.
Harriet was sitting on the egg she laid on the Sunday and a bunch of fake eggs. She was taking up a space in the coop. I moved the curtains from the coop entrance to her nesting box. Although she generally sat well, on a few occasions she returned to sit in the wrong nesting box, so I had to put her back on the clutch of eggs. After a day or so I tried to move her and her eggs to the nursery coop I had set up. This was a small coop which I had cut the legs off. I laid down a brick platform and an insulating blanket under the coop. There was no ramp so chicks could easily get in and out into their run area. But Harriet got stressed and wanted to get back to the old coop. So I left her there in the old coop but removed the roosts and added extra nesting boxes. The old coop was only for laying as all chickens roost in the shed that I have sectioned off into a large chicken sleeping area. This meant Harriet slept in her nesting box each night alone.
As the 21 days proceeded I kept and eye on Harriet ensuring she had water and food. After a while the other chickens cottoned on and it became difficult to manage. So at night husband picked up Harriet and I grabbed her eggs and we moved her to the nursery coop. There was much clucking but we shut her in. By morning she had calmed and accepted her new quarters. She was able to come out each day to stretch her legs and wings in peace. I’d added a wooden box to the nest area so the eggs would not roll out.
I was also candling the eggs set in the incubator. As this was all new to me I was relying on online photos and an incubator facebook group I joined. My first candling was at day 3 but blue eggs are harder to see through so I saw nothing. However only 24 hours later on day 4 I was able to see the telltale signs of a chicken developing. It really is fascinating stuff.
I candled the eggs again at day 10 and day 18. I removed a few quitters before lockdown. It was interesting to note that some of Harriet’s eggs were fertile and others were not. At lockdown I removed the turning tray, added in some shelf liner to provide traction for little feet and adjusted the temperature down a touch and humidity up. Six eggs were locked down.
I recall spending hours gazing into my newborns eyes but I didn’t think I could lose track of time looking at an egg. It seems I can. The eggs were due Friday afternoon and that is when our first chick hatched. Five of the six incubator eggs hatched and Harriet’s egg hatched on the Saturday too. I let the chicks fluff up and gave that last incubator egg a chance to hatch. On Sunday night I prepared a cane basket with a towel, a wheat heat pack and we opened the incubator to transfer the chicks. With a towel over the top I then carried the chirping basket outside.
Outside temps were close to zero overnight and I was a little worried about my chicks. I reminded myself that Harriet was looking after her own chick so would likely accept the others. One by one I reached behind Harriet and carefully pulled out the fake egg and popped a chick in. Each chick snuggled in and soon enough all was calm. We pulled an insulating blanket over the coop and left her to it. The next morning we opened the coop door and wondered when she would bring her chicks out. By mid morning when the sun was providing gentle warmth she lead them out. I ducked in to check in her nest and I realised I had left one fake egg. I removed that and left her to the task of teaching the chicks to drink, eat and scratch. Later in the day I replaced her nesting bedding as it had egg shell pieces through it.
Harriet is doing an amazing job as mother hen. I really am proud of her. It is such a wonderful process to watch. I’m pleased I was able to hatch some incubator chicks and allow the children to experience that excitement. But I am also happy that mother hen is now in charge of her chicks.
I still watch the chicks each day but limit the time to a cup of tea. I’ve made a chicken tunnel so they can have access to grass and I can see that from my kitchen. After around 10 weeks Harriet will have taught them all the basics and she will be ready to return to the main flock. I’ll keep the chicks in the nursery quarters until they are big enough to join the flock too. This will be around the time we might hear some little roosters crowing..