On June 25th, 2010 my Buff Orpington hen, Ginger, went broody (ie she was in the “mood” to incubate eggs and raise chicks). She had been thinking about it for a week or two, but hadn’t gotten very serious about it so I was rather surprised when she just got right down to it one day. The 25th was a Friday so all weekend I kept an eye out on her to see if she could be persuaded to move. Nope! She was on that nest and was going to defend it to the best of her ability. She laid an egg Thur, Fri and Sat. Saturday’s egg was to be the last one she laid. Probably for months.
Over the next week and a half she never left the nest that I could see. Then about the end of Week 2 (maybe Day 12 or 13) I’d find her out in the chicken yard eating or sunbathing once a day for fairly short periods of time. If you remember this was a VERY hot time for us here in Mid-MO. I worried. I tried to give her water. Ginger wanted nothing of it. She’d tell me in no uncertain terms to leave her alone. So I left her alone and I worried.
On about the beginning of Week 3 (maybe day 15 or 16) she started to let me feed her small amounts. No more than a teaspoon or two a day. For a hen that weighed over 6 lbs before going broody that wasn’t much food. I had lifted her up, to test weight, a few times which is part of why I worried. She had dropped so much weight and was panting almost all day long inside the small dark space she chose to occupy. Chickens can’t sweat. They use water, dust baths, and wind to cool themselves. They pant, they hold their wings away from their bodies to catch breezes and they bust bathe by throwing dirt up under their wings and getting it all up against their skin under the feathers while wallowing close to the cooler earth, hopefully in the shade. Step 1 (A “broody” hen on the nest for at least 21 days.) seemed to be a success.
So now I had to prepare for Step 2 (Acquire day old chicks sometime after Day 21.). I called many farms in the area looking for setting hens that would be hatching between July 16th and 20th. The 16th was Day 21 for Ginger and the 20th was the day I picked (fairly arbitrarily) to break her broodiness if I hadn’t found any chicks. Finally, I happened on Laura Peters in Millersburg who had a flock of free ranging bantams (Mille Fleur Belgian d’uccle and Mille Fleur Old English) and she expected chicks during my timeframe! We were ready for Day 21-Hatch Day!
Well almost ready. I had to prepare a travelling box for the chicks, a brooding box inside the house for the chicks to stay in until dark on Hatch Day, an area for them to eat/drink next to Ginger’s nest box, and a ramp into and out of the coop for them as the jump would be too high for their little bodies. I knew for almost two weeks that I needed to do these things, yet I didn’t do them.
Jul 16, 2010-Hatch Day
I got the call about 3:35pm on Friday July 16th that Laura had some eggs hatching and could I come today? So as soon as I got home from work I set to getting the last of the prep work done. I scrounged around until I found a 4ft board and a 10 in board to make a type of two sided ramp to fit over the coop entrance to the run. Then I found some bead board sized scraps to make traction with and 15 min later I had it installed. A few modifications to Ginger’s nest box gave me an area to set up feed and water for the chicks. After a little searching I managed to find the travel box I had used before and filled both it and the brooder box with litter partly from the coop and partly from the compost pile. As I was making the brooder box up inside the house I realize I only had a 250 Watt bulb for my heat lamp. That worked fine in the winter when my house is only about 55-65 degrees, but it’s summer and closer to 81 degrees inside. I scrounged around frantically until I found the only remaining incandescent bulb in my house. It was a mere 40 watts. Would it work? Could it heat a small 12 x18 inch box the required 15 degrees? I turned it on, added a waterer, and sprinkled some feed on a shop towel I had laid over the litter, and then I hoped for the best.
My friend Violet and I headed to Bourn Feed at about 5pm on Friday July 16th to pick up non-medicated chick starter and then on to see Laura! We ran the a/c a bit on the way out to Millersburg as the heat index was about 103. Laura met us as we arrived and took our box. We waited as she snuck up on the setting hen to remove the just hatched chicks, but leave the un-hatched eggs behind. Oh my, they were so tiny! Violet and I stayed for awhile talking chickens and petting puppies, kittens, sheep, goats and other assorted farm animals. Despite the heat I knew we had to leave and get those chicks under a lamp. So I poked Vi until she gave the puppy she was holding back then we loaded the chick box into her lap, rolled the windows down, turned off the a/c, and started home. It was a hot ride.
When we got back to my house at about 7pm, Vi took the chicks inside and loaded them into the brooder box on my dining room floor while I unloaded the feed. As she put them into the brooder, Vi gentle pushed a couple beaks into the water to show them where it was and they began drinking a bit.
Then the chicks huddled under the lamp. Uh oh, too cold! What to do? Violet suggested putting a blanket over part of the box to keep the cooler air from the house out. A towel was found and placed so as not to catch fire. It took about 15 min or so to see a difference, but it looked like it had worked! As soon as they were warm they collapsed where they were and went to sleep in a little chicken puddle. Vi went off to dinner with her family and I went outside to make sure the coop was ready for its new inhabitants and to see if mama Ginger would accept more food or water. And then I waited. And hoped.
Step 3 (Remove fake eggs and place said chicks under mama after dark.) and 4 ( Mama and chicks accept each other.) were only an hour or so away. Step 3 would be easy. Step 4 is the most crucial. It means life or instant death for my little hatchlings. And I wouldn’t know the outcome until morning. Finally dusk came and went and it was full dark outside. I turned off the heat lamp. Then a few minutes later I turned off the inside light. The only illumination left was the aquarium lights. A few minutes later I placed the chicks into a small bowl and went outside. I went around the coop and turned on the small flashlight I had left hanging on the side of the coop above the door I was going to use to access Ginger. I placed the Bowl O’ Chicks on the ground and knelt down. I opened the coop and reached in. She was a bit upset by this and began to peck me whenever I got close enough. After jumping a few times (it’s more startling than painful-not all hens are this gentle) I managed to remove Gingers fake eggs and place them on the ground. Then I scooped up a chick into my hand and turned the back off my hand up so that when Ginger pecked she’d be sure to get my hand and not the chick. I reached in again to slide the chick under Ginger, getting pecked both on the way in and on the way out. I did this four more times. Curios as to how she’d respond I shined my light into the coop. Ginger was standing up a little and kind of pecking and pushing at the chicks under her. Uh oh, I hope she doesn’t hurt them! I quickly turned off the light and closed the coop up. Now it was a waiting game.
July 17, 2010-Day 1
When morning came I was so nervous and excited. As usual I woke up around dawn, but I knew I had to wait until after sunrise for there to be enough light in the coop to wake its occupants up. So I made breakfast and waited. When the sun was shining brightly I went quietly out to the coop and opened the little door. All I saw was Ginger’s cute fluffy chicken butte. I didn’t want to disturb her, but I did want to know if any chicks had survived the night. So I reached a cautious hand in and lifted her closest wing up. There was a chick beak!
I was so excited! I wanted to poke some more, but it wasn’t my business. So I took myself off to other pursuits. I checked back ever few hours though. Eventually, I was able to see 4 of the 5 chicks. They were slowly emerging to inspect their surroundings in the inch or two surrounding Ginger. Ginger seemed to be very content with her little brood. She allowed me to feed her much more than she had while incubating the eggs. Her eyes had lost the glazed look and were tracking again. She was talking to the chicks and didn’t seem as upset with me as she had been. By 5 or 6 pm I still hadn’t seen the fifth chick so I made myself root around under Ginger, causing quite an upset, until I found its body. No trauma was visible, so off to the compost pile it went. As a meat eater I must acknowledge that I cause death to live. I try not to get too attached to things I might one day eat. This particular chick wasn’t with me 24 hrs and I had weeks yet before I learned whether it would produce food or become food. So I returned it to the nutrient cycle. It will one day feed the plants, worms, and bugs that feed the chickens who then feed me.
July 18, 2010-Day 2
Dawn came late to CoMO this sleepy Sunday. The first thunder cracked around 6:20 am. I got out of bed to make sure that everything was battened down around the coop. No open feed containers, tarp over the feeders, house windows facing west and south shut up, etc. Then I went back to bed as it was too dark for the birds to be up. There followed 3 or so hours of thunderstorms. I opened all the north, east and covered windows and doors to catch the cool air. About 9 the rain let up and I went to peak in on mama Ginger and her brood. The babies were now moving as far as the feeder and waterer, but Ginger was still on the nest.
Today marked another change in Ginger’s attitude towards food. She would no longer eat anything that her babies couldn’t eat. She would take food from me and try to smash it with her beak while calling to the chicks. When she couldn’t make it small she just dropped it into the litter. I finally figured it out and stopped trying to get her to eat high protein foods. Instead I placed a pile of non-medicated chick starter in the box in front of her a few times throughout the day. She ate some and made noises that brought the chicks over to investigate. They pecked at her beak and at what she was pecking at-teaching by example! Twice this day I would find Ginger and her brood outside of the nest, but no farther than 8 or 10 inches. By nightfall they had all moved back into the nest box and I had quit worrying. All was well. Operation Broody Mama 2010 is a success.