There's a handful of new additions chirping away at our homestead in Vermontville now that one of our chickens has successfully hatched a clutch of eggs.
This is the first time we've had a hen go broody at the right time of year, and to our surprise, the momma hen is a golden-laced Wyandotte that is less than a year old. Golden-laced Wyandottes are not known for being particularly good at hatching or rearing chicks, but ours seems to be an exception.
We typically order chicks through the mail to replenish our stock of laying birds, since a few age out of laying each year, and we always seem to lose a chicken or two to predators of one kind or another.
One of the six chicks hatched earlier this month peers at the camera from the safety of Roo’s warm belly.
Photo — Justin A. Levine
So back in March when I noticed that our golden-laced was spending a lot of time in the nesting box, we decided to see if she would hatch any eggs for us.
The chicken that is now a "mother" is named Roo. We don't really name the chickens anymore because remembering 23 different names can be a bit much. But Roo was overly friendly as a chick last spring, and we thought she would turn out to be a rooster.
When you order chicks through the mail, most companies provide an extra chick, I think largely for insurance against a chick or two dying during the mailing process. We've been lucky over the last several years that no dead chicks have arrived, and it's an added bonus that the extra chick tends to be of a lesser known breed.
Roo was the extra last year, and she surprised us, not only when she started laying eggs, but also with her outgoing and friendly personality. She's fond of perching atop the 6-foot poles that mark the corners of the garden, and has no problem wandering into the house to say hi when we leave the porch door open.
After a few days of her basically refusing to get out of the nesting box, we gathered up nine eggs and moved them and Roo into a separate coop so she wouldn't be bothered by the rest of the flock.
Before she was moved, we would often hear her screaming as another chicken crouched on top of her to lay an egg or as she was chased out of the nesting box. The adjacent coop was the perfect spot for her relocation.
She sat on the eggs for a week, and at that point we did what is called "candling." Basically, candling is when you shine a bright light at the egg to see if any veins are developing, and therefore, if your eggs are viable.
I grabbed a high-powered flashlight and an empty toilet paper tube, and my wife and I climbed into the little coop to start fishing warm eggs out from under Roo.
In that first inspection, the first two eggs we looked at weren't developing. This wasn't much of a surprise, as we hadn't seen our rooster Poseidon mounting the girls as of late. Mating with 20 or so hens can be a daunting task, and from what we'd read, this is far more hens than most roosters can effectively mate with.
But (again) to our surprise, several of the other eggs under Roo were beginning to develop. Since our chicken flock is made up of a wide variety of breeds, we couldn't effectively candle each egg, but the few that did show veins gave us a lot of hope.
We tossed the two eggs that weren't developing and left the other seven for Roo to care for. While there is no shortage of tips, tricks and literature on hatching chicken eggs out there, I'm a firm believer that chickens know how to hatch eggs better than we ever will, so we gave her food and water and pretty much left her alone.
Chickens that are broody can have big changes in personality, but Roo stayed calm and let us inspect her and the coop regularly. Broody hens don't get off the eggs very often, so we did hand-feed her some food and water to ensure she wasn't starving herself.
Along with the lack of eating and drinking comes the fact that broody hens don't have to evacuate their bowels as often. But after a few little pieces of cucumber, Roo made a stinky mess that I have to admit was quite impressive for a little chicken that probably weighs four or five pounds. It was good to know that everything in that part of her body was still working at least.
Chicken eggs hatch in 21 days, which is both amazing and stressful. We had to get chick food and make sure everything was set before another half-dozen chickens joined the fray.
From day 14 on, the eggs are supposed to be on lockdown in terms of us handling them. We candled the eggs again at the two-week mark and were able to easily see some of the embryos moving inside the eggs. Some of the shells were too thick for us to see through, but we left them in place just in case they were indeed viable.
Then, on a sunny Saturday in early April (while I was out of town for work) I got a text from my better half saying that she could hear peeping inside the coop, indicating that the little ones were well on their way. And right on schedule too.
The hatching process is just that: a process. It's not like in the cartoons where the egg neatly splits in half and a healthy yellow chick pops out.
First, the chicks will start to "pip." This is when they make the initial crack in the shell which results in a small hole. At this point, it's still touch-and-go as the chicks need air to breath. So if the pipping doesn't go well, it may result in the death of the chick.
After the initial small hole, the chicks tend to take a bit of a break. The chick is exhausted in the shell, but has fresh air and can relax for a little while. Once rested, the chick uses a special hardened part of its beak to make a crack all the way around the egg. It will start to push on the shell, and eventually the shell pops open. The hardened part of the beak they're born with falls off soon after they hatch.
The chicks are wet and weird looking at this point, and still comfortably ensconced in the warmth of the broody hen's belly. They quickly dry out and become the fluff balls (fluff nuggets, the wife calls them) that are so cute and eminently photographable.
Much to our pleasure, Roo successfully hatched six of the seven eggs, which is a pretty good ratio of eggs to hatchlings. She's incredibly thin now, but full of energy and is slowly gaining back her weight while showing the new additions how to eat and drink for themselves.
It's fun to watch Roo with her babies (most, if not all of the eggs were from other hens, so they're not her genetic babies) as she shows them how to scratch for food and take dust baths. So far, she's a great mom, and with such fantastic role models like Roo and Poseidon, there's little doubt that the new fluff nuggets will be a welcome addition to our flock.
We're thrilled to have hatched our own chickens this year, even as we wait for our shipment of mail-order chicks to arrive. We ordered chicks before Roo went broody, but since we got mostly meat birds this year, we're happy to double up. We'll be going from our current flock of 23 to about 45 within the next month, but a dozen or so of those are bound for the freezer by mid-summer.
One other reason we really wanted to hatch eggs this year is that Poseidon is getting kind of old, but he's such a friendly rooster that we were hoping to continue his bloodline. In fact, his own father was so docile that the females in his flock were beating him up. And there's no doubt that at least one or two of the new chicks will turn out to be males.