Crazy Hen Broods On!

I didn’t really expect Sunday’s surprise, totally-out-of-season chicks to survive more than a day. So, perhaps the biggest surprise of all is that they’re still going strong on Wednesday morning.

One of Henny Penny’s big challenges was getting her chicks over the curb and into the warmth / safety of the barn. She couldn’t do it alone, and she wouldn’t let me catch her in the open field. My solution: I waited until Sunday evening, and checked behind the barn. Sure enough, she was huddled against the outside wall, close to the door that most chickens use to come in for the night. From her clucking, and the way her wings were slightly poofed, I deduced that she was keeping one chick warm under each wing.

It was very easy to grab her, pressing each wing firmly against her body so as to keep the chicks in place. As I carefully carried this bundle deep into the barn, she clucked her disapproval – but didn’t struggle at all. Only when I set her down did she throw a hissy fit and charge my legs. Wanting her to turn her attention to her chicks, rather than me, I hightailed it out of the barn.

When I returned an hour or so later, there was no sign of her or the chicks. I took this as an encouraging sign; she’d clearly found a good hiding place. I turned off the lights, and called it a night.

Early Monday morning, soon after I turned the lights back on, I heard the distinctive mix of mother hen clucks and baby chick peeps. The three of them emerged from under an old milking stanchion – probably the best hiding place she could’ve selected.

Henny Penny led her chicks toward the place where we feed the birds. Here they encountered a problem: the four enormous turkeys I haven’t gotten around to butchering. All four were totally puffed up, strutting, and blocking her path to the grain. This didn’t deter her in the least. Remember the hissy fit she threw on Sunday night? She threw another one — this time directed against the turkeys.

I don’t usually post blurry photos, but there was no other way to capture what happened. She was a whirlwind of motion (and noise), all directed toward the giants she perceived as threatening her babies.

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Needless to say, the turkeys let her through.

I checked back later in the morning. I hoped she’d simply lay low and keep her chicks in the barn. No such luck; she clearly has a mind of her own. They were already back out in the grassy area behind the barn.

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Monday night and Tuesday night followed the same routine as Sunday night: I found her huddled against the outside wall of the barn, clucking reassuringly to her chicks, and then I carefully carried this bundle into the barn. And then hightailed it out.

This morning, we had really cold temperatures move in. Surprisingly (or maybe not), she again had them out in the grassy area behind the barn. I watched her for a while, and she did seem to be stopping and huddling more often, so the chicks could warm back up.

I still think she’s crazy, but I’m having an awful lot of fun watching her try to pull this off.

Never Gets Old

If you were to ask which one thing about living on a small farm never gets old, I would answer immediately: watching mother hens hatch and raise their own chicks.

The overwhelming majority of our birds come from a hatchery; trying to breed and hatch your own on a large scale is an enormous headache (and crap shoot). That said, we enjoy raising egg-laying breeds that haven’t had all their mothering instincts bred out of them. Every once in a while, one of them will surprise us by sneaking off to a dark corner of the property, making a nest, and hatching out a brood.

I recently noticed that our egg production was dropping somewhat. The nine-year-old had been put in charge of gathering eggs this spring, and I suspected that he wasn’t looking hard enough. A couple of weeks ago, I made a thorough search of the barn, to see if he might be missing something.

Of course, it didn’t take long to find the huge cache of eggs which had gone ungathered. An old box had been overturned, with the open side facing a wall. By all appearances, it looked like just an old box that someone had forgotten to take to the burn pile. Upon closer inspection, however, I found a very broody Buff Orpington hen inside — and, under her, about a dozen and a half eggs. She’d removed most of her breast feathers, so as to bring her warm skin into better direct contact with the eggs. When I tried to pick her up, she moved very little (unlike a non-broody hen, which would’ve run off squawking at first touch), and simply let out some deeply disapproving clucks as she tried to peck me.

I hoped that I’d caught her in time, and that these eggs were still good, so I took all of them into the house. As much fun as it is when mother hens hatch their own chicks, the process is too unpredictable to waste a lot of eggs on — especially because this hen was in a place where other hens could be adding fresh eggs to the ones she’d been incubating. I cracked a couple of the eggs, and they were seriously bloody – like they’d been incubating for a long time.

Not wanting to kill any additional developing chicks, I tested the rest of them (one at a time) to see if they would float in water. A handful of them sank right to the bottom and went on their side. That’s usually an indication of a fresh egg; some other hen(s) had likely climbed in and added these to the nest recently. I put them aside for our potential use.

The rest of the eggs either floated, or stood up on end. I took these to the barn, returned them to the box, and placed the hen (who hadn’t gone far) back on the eggs.

Then we left her alone, and waited.

This past Sunday morning, when I went out to the barn to do chores, she was off the nest and lying in the middle of a walkway. Her feathers were puffed up, and she was spread out like she was trying to cover something. A little yellow-and-black chick sat in front of her, seemingly oblivious to the low “come hither” clucking noises she was making. I nudged the chick toward her, and it quickly vanished into the puffy feathers. As she welcomed it under her wings, I could see a couple of other little ones shifting around. Much as I wanted to see how many she had altogether, I thought better of disturbing her.

That evening, she was leading three little chicks all around the barn. Monday morning, I had trouble locating her at first. As I continued looking, I grew concerned that the barn cats had swiped her chicks. To my relief, I found she’d made a temporary nest in the goat separating area. She was again puffed up, giving reassuring clucks. I knew, without looking, that all was well.

Every day since then, she’s led the chicks to a different part of the barnyard. Tuesday morning, they were out very early in the goat area. It looked like she was teaching them how to forage.

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Last night, she had them on the lawn behind the house. They were still browsing the lawn when I came out this morning, but eventually moved back to the barn.

No matter where she decides to take them tonight, I do know one thing: this entertainment never, ever gets old.

Summer Surprises Continue (Updated)

In the upstairs portion of our barn, not far from where a mother duck recently made a nest and hatched eleven ducklings, one of our Buff Orpington hens also hid a huge stash of eggs and went broody on them. How well hidden? She’d been there for weeks, and we didn’t even know it.

That changed yesterday afternoon, when Homeschooled Farm Girl happened to hear a chick peeping. She was outside the barn, on the ground level, so it’s pure luck that the sound carried that far. She did some investigating, and eventually tracked down the source. Way up here, behind the hay, in the northwest corner of the barn, hatching was in progress:

It’s a bit hard to get the full perspective, but I’ll walk you through it quickly. See the horizontal support beams, running along the barn wall? You can see two, and there’s a third that’s hidden, behind the hay. The nest is on that support beam, about three feet off the floor, behind the stack of hay to the left. Until this morning, hay bales were stacked all along that wall. We had to pull the bales out, just to access the nest. Here it is, with the eggs that didn’t hatch (note the stack of hay to the left, and the barn wall to the right):

It was an incredibly secure nest. The hen had squeezed in there, and did have a pathway out through the hay bales. Even when they’re broody and trying to hatch eggs, they take periodic breaks to get food and water. The problem is, the nest was too secure. There was absolutely no way the chicks could get out. They couldn’t follow Mother Hen through the hay – the climbs and jumps needed were far too large. Worse, they were in danger of falling off the support beam, and landing back behind the hay bales.

This morning, once we were reasonably sure the hatching process was complete, one of our kids captured the loudly-squawking-and-clearly-upset Mother Hen. I somehow fished out the eight chicks she’d hatched, and carried them down to the barn floor. We then carefully set Mother Hen with the chicks, and put some layer feed down for them. Happy, excited clucks followed, as she demonstrated for her brood what needed to be done with this wonderful stuff we’d put out.

I’m guessing the nest contained eggs from multiple hens. Either that, or Mother Hen had been bred by multiple roosters. There are a couple of chicks that look like purebred Buff Orpingtons. Two others are black. The others are white, or a mix of white and black. Doesn’t matter. Their eggs will all taste the same when they’re old enough to start laying.

We let the Hen and her brood wander around the barn, and the grass outside, for a couple of hours. It was clear, however, that eight is at least a few too many for her to keep track of. Plus, it’s a pretty cool day. For safety, we packed her and the chicks up, and moved them to the same garden pen that the mother duck and her eleven ducklings have been occupying.

So far, the two broods seem to be getting along. The pen appears to be plenty big for both groups.

Who knows what surprises we’ll find in the barn tomorrow…

UPDATE: 
Well, that didn’t take long.  At about 6pm this evening, Homeschooled Farm Girl came and found me again. She could hear another chick peeping, up in the barn, near where the nest had been. “I think there were nine,” she announced. “The other chick must’ve fallen down behind the hay.”

The two of us went back to the barn, flashlight in hand. I could hear the chick, too, but it was WAY down behind the hay. We began excavating bales, which toppled over into a haphazard pile in the middle of the barn. No matter. Those could always be re-stacked.

Eventually, we moved enough bales so we could shine the flashlight into the tight little space between the remaining hay bales and the floor. And there, way in the corner, under some cobwebs and lots of loose hay, was a tiny white chick. I reached down and scooped it up.

The first thing I noticed was how chilled the little thing was. We immediately took it out to the pasture pen in the garden, to rejoin the rest of the brood. It tottered toward Mother Hen, who did not peck at it or show any other signs of rejection. That’s a good start.

Here’s hoping that Number Nine is no worse for the long isolation, and hits the garden ground running with the rest of the brood. So far so good.

Surprises

As much as you try to plan what happens with the garden or livestock, farm life is full of surprises. Our laying hens are completely free range, and we keep a few roosters in with them. The roosters are around as much for entertainment as anything else, and in their spare time they keep busy making sure the hens stay fertile.

After a rooster mates with a hen, all the eggs she lays for some period of time are fertile. Of course, because we gather them every day, those fertilized eggs don’t develop. It takes several days of near-constant warmth, from a hen or artificial source, for enough development to take place to even be visible when the egg is cracked open.

Then, sometimes, a hen gets a mind of her own about those eggs. She begins laying them in an obscure, out-of-the-way place that we humans never check. After accumulating several eggs, she goes broody and sits on that nest. She emerges from time to time, just long enough to get something to eat and drink, and then she’s back on those eggs. With enough other hens in the flock still running around in a big crowd, the farmer will never even miss her. She might even be joined on the nest by another broody hen. Nobody misses her, either.

And then, one morning, the two of them emerge with the results of their broodiness.

One of the Yeoman Farm Children discovered the new arrivals in the upstairs portion of our barn, where we keep the hay (and were animals seldom go, but which the birds can get into if they really try). The hens had picked such a good spot for their nest, wedged between the hay bales and a barn wall, they’d gone completely undetected. They were clearly very good mothers; any time a person or barn cat came close, they’d fly into a tizzy, puff their feathers, and make all kinds of loud noises. We left them alone, and after a few days of exploring the barn they took their tiny brood outside. Again, any time one of us came close, they raised loud objections. Watching the four birds roam the property around the barn and behind my office was more entertaining than anything on television. Especially fun is the way the hens will cluck and point something out (like a bug or piece of grain) to a chick, who then scrambles over and pecks it up.

I snapped the photograph above on June 25th, when the chicks were about a week old. Shortly thereafter, something happened to the black chick. It could’ve wandered into the high grass, or fallen victim to any number of other perils; we don’t know, because we simply never saw it again.

The yellow chick, on the other hand, is still going strong. He/she is beginning to feather out, and is keeping up with the two hens as they forage all over the place. Note how alert both of them become, as soon as a human comes near:

They continue to retreat to their nest behind the hay bales each night, and are scratching through fallen hay scraps early each morning by the time I come out to the barn. I’ve begun putting a small amount of chicken feed in a bowl for them. As soon as they see it coming, their clucks change to an excited rapid-tempo.

It’s also interesting the way the two of them have both remained so dedicated to the chick. There doesn’t seem to be a rivalry; it’s a cooperative venture. In the past, when multiple hens have hatched broods around the same time, we’ve seen an alpha hen take command of all the chicks — and then the other hen(s) have lost interest and gone back to the general laying population.

Who knows what surprises might emerge on the farm next week. In the meantime, we’ll continue enjoying this one!

Out of the Nest (Updated)

About five weeks ago, we returned from vacation to a surprise gift: a barred rock hen had hatched out eight chicks in a dark corner of the barn. We’ve enjoyed watching them grow, and the mother hen did an outstanding job leading them all over the property foraging for bugs and seeds. It’s truly entertainment that can’t be purchased, and is part of what makes living on a farm so much fun.

There were a couple of nights that she tried to bed down with the chicks outside, but I forced her to take the brood into the barn each time. Last summer, we lost a couple of mother hens and well over a dozen chicks to predators; I didn’t want a repeat experience this year. To my relief, after a couple of “corrections,” mother hen stopped even trying to stay out for the night. All these weeks, only one of the eight chicks died. We loaned one other to a friend, leaving six to roam with Henny Penny.

In the last week or so, the chicks have gotten so big that they’ve been unable to squeeze through chain link fences. They’re fully feathered, and looking like juvenile birds rather than chicks. Because of their size, they’ve sometimes gotten trapped behind a gate that their mother could fly over. But, up until yesterday, the whole little family managed to reconnect and forage together after each separation.

Then, overnight, something happened. When I came out at about 6:30am, the six chicks were outside, foraging for spilled grain near the duck pens…but mother hen was nowhere in sight. I doubt a predator got her; anything that takes out a big chicken usually takes out any little ones that are with it.

I think that something inside the hen’s hormonal system just “clicked,” and told her it was time to rejoin the flock’s general population. But she looks so much like the other barred rocks, and we have so many of them, I can’t be certain.

And I can’t be certain that all six of the chicks will continue to thrive. Little birds have a way of flying into water tanks and drowning. Or getting lost in high weeds. Or bedding down in the wrong place and getting picked off by a predator. But I like to think that Mother Hen knew what she was doing, and has turned them loose because her instincts confirmed that the little ones were ready.

I’ll keep an eye out for them, but something tells me that they’re going to do just fine. They’ve had the best education a chicken can get.

Update: I went out at 9:30 tonight, to make sure the chicks weren’t trying to bed down outside or in some other dangerous place (yes, we’ve seen young chicks try to roost on the edge of a water trough). Much to my relief, all six of them were back in the general area where they’d been hatched and where their mother had spent each night. Best of all, five of the six had figured out how to roost on top of a cattle panel that separates the main goat area from the kidding pen. Number Six was down on the floor in the kidding pen, back in the corner where they’d been hatched.
Interestingly, mother hen was nowhere to be found. She’s definitely taken her hands off the bike and is letting the little ones pedal away on their own. And, so far, the six of them are sticking together and doing just great.
Kudos to mother hen for a masterful job brooding these guys. Mission accomplished!

Garden Helper

We have a fairly simple division of labor on our farm: I manage the animals, and Mrs Yeoman Farmer manages the plants. MYF is usually very insistent that members of my “team” not intrude on and mess with her garden, and with good reason. Ever seen what happens when a dog discovers how nice it is to dig in freshly-tilled soil? Or when a flock of birds discovers bushes full of beautiful ripe tomatoes? We therefore built a tight fence around the garden, and patrol it diligently.

Then, this morning, MYF observed that our new mother hen was managing to squeeze through a tiny gap near the gate — and her chicks were easily following her. MYF was about to shoo the hen out, but then she thought more about it. There are no more seeds that could be scratched out or uncovered. There is no fruit yet. The green tomatoes are probably unappealing. The potatoes are safely buried underground. Why not let Henny Penny take her brood on a bug-hunting safari?

So we did. She seems especially interested in the potato portion of the garden, which has lots of little insects hopping all over it.

I’m not sure we want to release the rest of the flock into the garden; some plants would be sure to get trampled. But for now, it’s an awful lot of fun watching Henny Penny and her brood do “organic pest control” for us.

Thanks for Your Service

Now that my professional work has gotten caught up, I’ve been turning my attention to getting long-postponed farm projects caught up as well.

My number one priority: the old laying hens.

We color-code our breeds, so it’s easier to tell how old the birds are. Once hens are mature, it’s nearly impossible to distinguish a yearling from a three year old. Hens have a productive laying life of about two years, and drop off dramatically in the third year. Our approach is to raise a batch of one breed in the spring of Year 1, which will start laying in the fall of that year. When then start a different colored breed in the spring of Year 2. In Year 3, we either try another new breed or go back to what we had in Year 1. Either way, in the fall of Year 3, we butcher the hens from Year 1.

If we repeat the Year 1 breed in Year 3, as we did this time with Barred Rocks, we must race against the clock to butcher the old hens before they become indistinguishable from the new pullets. The key features are the size of the comb and wattle on their heads. Also, younger birds tend to have yellow feet but older birds’ feet tend to get white with age. And once you pick up an older hen, it’s often obvious from the weight and fattiness of the belly that this bird has been around for awhile.
My work was so busy in recent months, I put the butchering off way too long. The pullets’ combs are starting to grow out, and I’m worrying that I may kill some of them by mistake. With the nice weather yesterday, I knew I had to get caught up. Homeschooled Farm Girl helped me chase down and catch six older hens, and then assisted me as we butchered them. Five are destined for the freezer, and we started a stock pot immediately with the sixth. Overnight, it turned into some of the richest and most delicious chicken soup imaginable. I had some for lunch today, and it’ll be the centerpiece of tomorrow’s dinner.
This morning, I managed to pluck an additional four hens off their roosts. Guess how I’m going to be spending my sunny Wednesday afternoon?
 
There may be a few more older hens to butcher after today, but I’ll need to wait until tonight (when they again come home to roost) to get a good look. In the meatime, we appreciate all the wonderful eggs our Barred Rocks gave us. And we’ll appreciate the chicken soup just as much.