Monday, 28 April 2008

When eggs is eggs

In a follow on to yesterdays item on keeping chickens I think it only right that I inform you of the pitfalls of incubating eggs.

Sooner or later if you keep chickens you will be faced with a broody hen that absolutely refuses to move off the nest. Any attempt to get at the eggs results in her sinking further onto the clutch and squawking blue murder as she takes the skin off the back of your hand with a beak she has specially sharpened for the purpose. You now have two choices, either go and get your welding gloves and remove stroppy hen from your breakfast or leave her to it for 21 days and hope for the successful arrival of potential Sunday dinners to coo over. If you do decide to let her sit your best advised to don full riot gear and move her and the eggs to a safe location where she can sit undisturbed and where the eggs can hatch safely.

Referring to the how to look after chickens book they will tell you to do this. As I am not inclined to read these types of books I have in the past let nature take its course and discovered that the hatched chicks have been killed by other hens squeezing into the box, or worse still chicks been pecked to death by rival females. The term henpecked does actually mean something.

I made it a rule to move all sitting birds to a special hutch, this worked fine and we had a steady stream of chicks throughout 2007. This system worked fine until some of the bantams wandered off into the wilderness returning with various clutches of weird looking chicks to the point that we were almost overrun. Moving sitting birds is not the right thing to do if it’s a duck, as I found out, not by reading but by experience. If you move a sitting duck they are calm and placid as you undertake this exercise. Once you put them in the special sitting hutch they freak out, go mental and smash the eggs in a strange demonstration of duck power. Obviously they haven’t read Darwin, know nothing of Ethology and so you have to leave them where they are, hopefully you can protect the site with warning signs, razor wire and landmines to stop Mr. Fox having a free dinner.

You have to bear in mind that what hatches out of an egg isn’t necessarily a chicken. No, Holmes you don’t get lizards and crocodiles, what I mean is you might get Hens and are equally likely to end up with Cockerels. So out of 40 eggs hatched you might have 20 spare cocks. What are you going to do with them all, not every one wants a cock. Luckily for me it’s not so much of a problem and I am a dab hand at Coq au Vin, a dish the spare bird was meant for.

So having had mixed success at raising chicks the natural way the day inevitably dawns where you find yourself rationalizing the purchase of a state of the art incubator that automatically turns the eggs and does everything a chicken does except pooh on the sideboard. Fantastic. Now you plan to raise a batch every 21 days, get some decent egg laying going from the new hens, show some, win prizes, write the book, sell the t shirts, sell the good hens, eat the not so good looking ones, freeze some, start a chicken franchise, buy a deep frying chicken van and sell your organic chicken to the lorry drivers that trundle up and down the A44 and buy a farm on the Shetland Islands with the profit. The success of this plan rests on you operating the incubator properly, and as I didn’t we weren’t very successful to start with.

First I got the automatic turner wrong so they effectively cooked on one side so no eggs hatched.This was easily solved so I eagerly awaited the hatch of the second batch.

The Eggs had other ideas though. These fantastic little capsules of wonder have all that’s needed to transform the white and yolk into a fully functioning chicken within three weeks provided a certain criteria is met.

First the cock has to do its job, it comes as a bitter disappointment when you realize that egg fertilization is only between 40% and 80% successful, so Mr. Math that means out of the 20 eggs you started with only 8 might be viable, if you’re lucky 16 will spring to life.

What you may not realize is that once the life cycle of the egg starts it is vulnerable to all sorts of life threatening attack. Any egg that doesn’t start developing eventually starts to give off a gas that kills the other eggs embryos. We didn’t discover this until advanced reading of the chicken book and was given advice by a friend who keeps Indian Runners in his orchard.

So to solve the duff egg gas problem you get a candling lamp to shine through the shell at day 10 to see if there are any signs of life. This can then lead to two further problems for the incompetent incubator operator like me. I either forget to turn the incubator back on or I don’t turn the auto turner back on. Either way it inevitably leads to the eggs failing to hatch.

Another thing to remember is to keep the water level topped up so the humidity stays at the right whatever it needs to stay at. If you forget the eggs dry out and, yes they all die.

However, if you get it right and removed the infertile or dead eggs, managed to keep the humidity right and remembered to keep it plugged in for 21 days you will be rewarded sometime on that day by the cheep cheeping sound coming from the incubator as the chicks struggle free and encourage each other by calling out.

They start by pecking an air hole, the cheeping gets louder and when you peek in the box as you just can’t contain your curiosity you will see small holes with little beaks pecking away. It’s a lovely thing to watch but you have to be careful not to help too quickly. As the chick breaks through to the outside world a membrane starts to dry out and the blood vessels withdraw. If you assist the chick you run the risk of breaking the blood vessels and the chick will die.

But getting out of the egg is the least of its problems. Chicks have all the survival instincts of a suicidaly depressed Kamikaze pilot. They die like flies in a vacuum. If the temperature is wrong they die. If they don’t have a textured floor to stand on they do a sort of chicken split, their legs don’t work and they die. If the food offered is too large they can choke on it and die. If it’s the right size they can eat too quickly, it gets packed in their throat and they die. Give them water to drink that’s too deep they drown. Give them water that’s just right they have a tendency to stand in it, get hypothermia and die. Get the food water and temperature right and you can still find dead ones in the morning as they have all sat on each other crushing the one at the bottom.

But, get it all right; build the chicks a nice hatching box where you put them in under a heat lamp with a textured floor, special water dispensers and proper chick food to develop into chicks they will survive into healthy birds. This is the stage we are at, getting about 90% success rate once the duff eggs have been disposed of. The latest batch which we hope will contain a Winnecott are growing nicely.

Except for the one the cat ate.

Note to self. Must make wire mesh smaller.

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