Most of us eat chicken but are so removed from our food that we don’t consider the actual life that gave us the meal. Meanwhile, upon starting a backyard flock of my own I’ve realized more and more about how important it is to treat your living food well. Happy chickens, chickens treated well with adequate space, food, affection and adventures, in my experience, have better tasting eggs. Their eggs are creamy and dark, full of nutrients factory hens are lacking.
So upon my quest to learn about all things chicken I decided, or my hen decided rather, that it was time to try our hand at hatching eggs. You girls are what, a year old now?
It happened to be my youngest hen, Macaron, that decided to go broody. Broody means she decided to steal everyone’s eggs and sit on them until they hatch. (They weren’t going to hatch.) She didn’t even have a rooster in her flock. Can you imagine? I thought about never being with a man and suddenly deciding I would have a baby anyway, any day now. She tickled me. I admired her persistence. Against the advice of my breeder I got her some eggs to sit on. Some blue ameraucana eggs and a few silkie eggs as well.
Now, to understand why someone would be against hatching chicks with a hen you have to understand a bit about chickens. These days, chickens have been bred more for looks or for egg production (or meat, gasp). Mothering instincts have not been prized by many breeders. If you’re a good mother but your feather quality is crap then you’re not going to be bred. Chances are a chicken aficionado won’t be buying a hen based on possible mothering skills. Many farmers and chicken hobbyists alike use incubators because it’s just easier for them. You don’t have to wait on a broody hen to possibly hatch chicks when you can hatch them year-round on your own.
I had faith in my Macaron. I knew she was head strong. So she sat. She didn’t give up. She got up to eat, drink and poop once a day and sat the rest. She sat during the lightening storms, she sat during the humidity.
“My only hen that was able to actually hatch chicks ate them as soon as they hatched — are you sure you’re ready for that?”
I just had to let her try. If I didn’t, I’d never know. If she failed we’d just assume hatching wasn’t our flock’s strong point. I candled the eggs (with a flashlight) at around seven days, on Mother’s Day to be exact, and each egg had veins.
Twenty days later a pip. A small beak poked through a blue ameraucana egg. I’m a little fearful my mother hen will eat it. She has to be really hungry and irritated by now, right? Possibly little case of cabin fever? I left for the day and when I came back a tiny chick emerged from underneath her fluff. She did it. I was as shocked as she was. She thought the chick’s toes were worms. She tried to snag them. I got a little worried. However she quickly realized they weren’t worms, much to her disappointment.
The next morning all but 1 had hatched. The tiniest silkie egg. Too tiny to have a yolk? I thought it had veins but perhaps I was wrong. Oh well. Nine out of 10 is pretty good for our experiment.
Macaron was so pleased, she really seemed proud. I realize have a serious issue with anthropomorphizing animals but I could tell she was living out her dream. She protected the chicks as she did the eggs but the excitement caused her to chase them all around. She let me hold them and pet her, she was done being aggressive and puffed up. Her feathers relaxed. The poor girl was already tired but now she was also exhausted and frantic.
Later that afternoon the small egg’s pip was larger. I saw the little blue beak take a breath and I snapped a photo.
I checked that evening around 6 o’clock and the egg had been partially smashed. It was bloody (I’ll save you that photo, it’s terrifying). The small chick lay curled up within half of it. I felt scared but left it with her. She must know better about hatching chicks than I. A few hours later the chick was pushed away into the nest bedding and cold. So small and lifeless. Curled like a baby robin. Looked much too small to be a chicken, to survive, to thrive. All the other chicks raced around and peeped. Happy and strong. I took the chick into my hands. I held it close, assuming it was dead, and it peeped. A small peep. As though to say, “I’m still here.”
I snapped a photo for a chicken advice forum and went inside to tell my husband the sad story. I set up a makeshift brooder with a clip-on light bulb and made sure it was warm. It laid there all evening. It started to dry but didn’t open it’s eyes. I noticed it was white, the only white chick.
Hours later it rolled over on it’s back. Dead? Maybe. I rolled it back over and let it rest. Chicks absorb their yolk the last few days in the egg so they don’t need to eat much, if any, for a couple of days after hatching. This was only a time for rest.
The chicken forums flood with advice, with concerns, with questions. People contacted me from all over the world to see the chick, to hear how she’s doing. I’m shocked at so much interest in a tiny hatchling. I feel grateful to be a part of a community like that.
The next morning I dreaded going downstairs. I knew I’d look in the shower and it would be hard and lifeless in the brooder. I heard my husband exercising in the living room. I assumed he would notify me of the terrible news. I dreaded walking down the stairs and hearing him say my name. It’s just a chick, you tried as hard as you could. It wasn’t meant to live anyway. The mother hen knew it was a waste of time. It was probably sick or something. It’s such a tiny, disposable animal. It’s absolutely ridiculous to feel sad about it.
She lived. I don’t know that she is a she but I’m calling her Baby. It’s more of a pet name than an actual name. I’m afraid to name her because I’m afraid to get attached. It’s still touch and go. However she is alive. Surviving any of that is a good sign.
Baby’s legs don’t work. She seems to have what is referred to as “spraddle” legs. They stick out and she can’t walk. Makes it hard to eat or do much of anything. I research a treatment and create a small brace with yarn and medical tape. She stands. She’s wobbly and weak. She passes out flat anytime she wakes up for a few seconds. I feed her some water with honey from a cotton swab. She drinks it. I continue to feed her this every few hours for energy. She starts to wobble around trying to walk.
I feed her some scrambled egg and she tries to eat it. She tries to eat chick starter and can’t. Her little weak beak can hardly eat anything but honey water. I bring her a chick friend and it’s a disaster. It runs over her and she has no energy to compete. I let her stay alone a little longer. I keep dipping her beak in water every few hours. I’m her mother hen so I have to teach her how to do everything, even drink. My husband and I hold her in our hands, against our torsos while we watch tv in the evenings. She cries loudly when we put her back in the brooder.
This is the second evening I’ve spent with Baby. I feed her some egg and she eats it. She eats a big piece and gulps it down like the large hens eat whole cherry tomatoes. I feel excited. I know if she can start to eat she’ll make it.
The third day I wake up to Baby walking around with her brace like she’s been doing it for days. She leaps and races around. She speeds really fast and then wobbles about trying to stop. She’s like a bumper car without breaks. She’s headstrong and ready to go but not so sure about how to stop. She ends up in the water dish several times and I have to rework things. I cannot imagine finding her having drowned because she couldn’t walk very well. I would feel so terrible to come this far and lose her over a silly mistake.
See the leg brace?
Today I decide I’ll try again to increase her attention by bringing her some silkie friends from Macaron’s brood. They all spend hours crying for their mom. I feel terrible about them leaving the flock but know that Baby needs some friends besides me. She needs other chickens. They start to settle down and connect with each other… I feed them egg and chick starter and they begin racing around chasing each other. Just like the hens. Baby is now accepted and can hold her own in the group. They were all hatched on the same day and she is half their size but her spirit is triple.
Because of the interest in adopting the healthy chicks, Baby’s nursery has taken in a new bearded blue cream silkie chick whom was the odd one out of her own brood. Baby has accepted her as her long lost sister. My oldest daughter named her Lil Debbie. They both stayed inside with me for another several weeks because Baby was too small to hold her own with the large fowl chicks. In a large group the very small and disabled chicks often don’t get enough to eat or get smooshed in the huddle. I don’t want to take a chance until she’s a few weeks older and much stronger. If I ever take a chance before she grows up, that is.
After about a week I was notified about a young cockerel (rooster). He had an odd coloring but was an English Orpington like my other big girls. I’d been considering a rooster to protect my ladies and to maybe have a couple of chicks that are all of our own blood line. I couldn’t imagine how cute they would be! So I took him in. He was about 6 weeks old. Much bugger than the silkies. I was told he would smoosh them or hurt them so I put him with the big ladies. They bloodied his comb and I couldn’t bear it. I put him with the silkies. I was terrified so I kept watch. They all snuggled and he became the mom. I was shocked! I set them in the main coop after a few weeks (much too long I’m sure) and put blinders on the hens so they wouldn’t hurt him. He put the other hens in line and established his dominance. Would he change? Some roosters become very mean when they go through puberty. However, he still cared for the little ones. Even today they’re all grown up and if I toss good treats he runs and carries them to the two silkies we kept (Baby and Lil Debbie) and they sleep under his wing.
Baby has taught me a lot about raising chickens that I never would have known even having raised a flock prior to this. She has taught me a lot about myself, too. She’s shown me that even when everything seems to be going wrong or my health seems to be deteriorating that it’s always worth the fight to stay positive. That having such a beautiful, strong spirit is the biggest asset. That even if you’re struggling you can always give of yourself to others because everyone is struggling in some way.
Baby has taught me that we all have 2 choices: We can stay strong in the face of adversity, turmoil and sickness or we can fall, stay weak and remain afraid. We can essentially be our own undoing by accepting that we are a failure. I choose to fight, don’t you?
What’s so great about chickens anyway? Even their name is used as an insult — it’s a common way to call someone out for being a coward. Meanwhile Baby, the tiniest chicken, has one of the strongest spirits I’ve ever experienced. How’s that for a chicken?