This may seem like an odd move, but bear with me. I’d like to merge two recent streams of posts: our adoption of Yeoman Farm Baby, and the natural hatching/brooding of baby birds on the farm.
I’ve enjoyed the comments and input from various readers, who have asked about and shared their experiences with allowing various types of birds to hatch and brood their own young. Whether you’re doing this for the educational experience, the economics, to fly under the radar of NAIS, or purely for the entertainment value…hatching your own baby birds is a wonderful experience and I highly recommend it. But the unfortunate reality is that many good egg layers don’t make good nest setters. And many good nest setters don’t make good mothers. With broodiness and mothering instincts having been so aggressively culled by commercial hatcheries, it’s remarkable to find a bird that can both hatch and successfully mother her own young.
One answer that we’ve found to this problem: adoption! Unlike larger mammals, mother birds are not terribly particular about which babies are “theirs.” A good mother hen will look after and brood any chicks she can get her wings around. We saw this happen frequently in Illinois, when on occasion we had multiple brood hens in the barn at the same time. It was actually fairly amusing to watch as days passed, and the brood of the less interested hen gradually shrank while the brood of the more aggressive/interested hen gradually increased. I still remember one hen that ended up with something like eighteen chicks streaming across the yard with her (which was actually too many — even she couldn’t keep track of that many chicks, and they kept getting lost. And I kept venturing out to help, because there’s nothing quite as forlorn as the peeping of a stray chick stranded in the tall grass).
We’ve observed something similar with ducklings. We’ve had several ducks of various breeds successfully hatch a nest of eggs, with even greater variability in mothering ability. The Muscovies have been by far the best setters and mothers, with Cayugas a close second. The Khaki Campbells are not bad at setting, but we have yet to see one successfully mother her hatchlings. Every Khaki that has ventured off the nest with a brood has quickly lost every single duckling. Khakis don’t look back to see if the ducklings are keeping up, and they don’t respond to distress calls from little ones who have fallen behind. We got to the point where we would immediately remove any ducklings a Khaki hatched, and either give them to a mother Cayuga (assuming we had one with new ducklings) or brood them ourselves under a heat lamp.
We’ve never had very good luck getting a non-broody hen or duck to accept and mother baby birds — but geese are different. Earlier this year, we bought several goslings from a hatchery and brooded them under heat lamps for some time. Then, when we turned the goslings loose in the pasture, something amazing happened: our two older Gray Toulouse geese swooped in and adopted all eight of them. They proved to be excellent mothers, and took great care of the brood all summer. They were extremely protective, and dutifully led their charges to fresh grass and water (and stood guard attentively as the goslings grazed). The lesson we took from that incident: next year, we will put the goslings in with the mature geese much sooner. Perhaps not as brand new hatchings, but hopefully after significantly less time under the electric heat lamps. I may also try giving the geese a few ducklings at the same time, to see how that works out.
A final thought, for those of you interested in hatching your own eggs: try to find a broody bird to do it for you. We’ve never had much luck with the commercially-available incubators. We did get some chicken eggs to hatch in them, but usually the temperature ended up a little too high or a little too low (or both, when the air didn’t circulate properly). But we never got turkey eggs, duck eggs, or goose eggs to hatch; waterfowl eggs have special humidity requirements (picture a mother duck sitting back down on the nest after taking a quick swim), and humidity is difficult to adjust in most of the more affordable incubators. We decided a long time ago to give up on incubators altogether, and either purchase baby birds or let a broody hen/duck hatch them for us.