Bonafide Farm

Drinking and candling

March 1st, 2014 § 1

Last night I drank half a glass of wine and candled the 15 eggs I’d put under a newly broody hen Sunday. What, this isn’t your idea of a rocking Friday night?

Maybe not for most people, but for me candling eggs induces Christmas-morning excitement. There are few things cooler in this world than getting to peek into an intact egg, with nothing more than a flashlight, and see bright red veins, a beating blob of heart and small dark eye. It is a magic trick, a miracle, and all those other things that make me grateful to be along for this wild ride.

Out of fifteen eggs, eight were definitely on the road to becoming chicks. One egg was a big fat question mark, and I magnanimously returned it to the clutch. I suspected five eggs were infertile, and in the interest of self education I risked destroying embryos to crack the eggs into a white bowl to check. All five were totally clear. My instinct and eye must be getting sharper.

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I didn’t take any photos of the developing eggs this time because I wanted them to be out in the cold air as little as possible. In fact, I withdrew them from under their mother two at a time, quickly candled them, and then snuggled them into a pan full of clean towels to hold their heat as much as possible. The whole operation was over in minutes. My pipes may have fallen victim to the polar vortex, but my potential chicks shouldn’t. If you want to see candling photos, they’re here.

I have high hopes for this hen as a broody. She’s one of last summer’s olive egger babies, and there’s a 50% chance she is Dahlia’s daughter. I only mention that because broodiness is a genetic trait. The young broody started plucking her breast feathers out a few weeks ago, and then hunkered down on all her flockmates’ eggs, hissing violently at any chicken that got too close. She’s the only broody out of the four I’ve had that’s actually pecked at me when I reached under her, and I take this feistiness as a good sign. I suppose I should name her as she’s definitely distinguishing herself.

I was on the fence about whether to do chicks again, but finally decided that it’s the best part of chicken keeping and costs me nothing. So I moved the broody to a coop in the garage, where she settled immediately despite being moved during the day, having a raucous rooster (Griz) in the coop next door, and me driving the loud and stinky tractor in and out right after the move. She remained steadfast, I set the eggs, and here we are.

I placed four eggs from my Coronation Sussex, two from last year’s olive egger babies, and nine Wheaten Ameraucana eggs from Cora under the hen. I removed all four of the Coronation eggs tonight, which were all infertile, and one Wheaten Ameraucana egg that was one of the oldest I placed, and had also cycled through the refrigerator as I waffled. I find it telling that my Coronation Sussex hen is the only bird that still has luxuriant feathers on her back and all her eggs were infertile. The hens that laid the fertile eggs are all looking a bit sparse back there because of Calabrese’s attentions. Another lesson learned—keep an eye out for “favorite” hens when scouting future mothers.

I just read back through last summer’s pained posts on hatching eggs, and I have to say that after that experience and this, I will never again let a hen set eggs in the middle of the summer. I realize now that the heat was really detrimental, leading to spoiled eggs that burst and contaminated the nest, and to chicks that were born prematurely and deformed. Incubating in the winter is the way to go. Live and learn.

But then again, we’re only five days into the 21-day incubation period, so let’s not count our chicks before they hatch, right?

The chicks at eight weeks old

September 3rd, 2013 § 0

What happened to those damp little fuzzballs? Nothing remains of the chicks but their little peeping noises, which they still make when they aren’t busy practicing being grown-ups, crowing, and mating their siblings.

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The chicks are now eight weeks old, and they are miniature chickens in most regards. This week I’ve let them find their own way out of their brooder coop and out of the garage into the wild world. They stick close to the bushes, dust bathing for hours in mulch, but each day they venture a bit further from their comfort zone. It’s wonderful to watch.

It looks like I have two cockerels: Griz, Oregano’s baby, and a Black Copper Marans/Wheaten Ameraucana mix. One thing I’ve really noticed is how much more flighty the chicks with the Black Copper Marans blood are. Makes sense, as their parent hens are the least docile of all my birds. Here’s the BCM/Wheaten Ameraucana cockerel, in front, with Griz behind, then the pretty black pullet hatched from Lilac’s egg, and finally a BCM/Wheaten Ameraucana pullet in back.

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The homegrown birds all, except for Griz, have the cute facial feather tufting that comes along with their Wheaten Ameraucana blood. Interestingly, even though Griz’s father is a Wheaten Ameraucaua, he does not exhibit this feathering. Instead he looks like a straight-up Cuckoo Marans, which is blood that came from his mother’s line. So interesting to see genetics in action. Meanwhile, Griz learns just how palatable slippers are.

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The white Coronation Sussex chick is, I believe, a pullet. Thank goodness. She is the sweetest of all six babies, always the first out of the coop and very amenable to being handled. Her lavender feathers are growing in around her head and tail, and I think she’s just so pretty. I have named her Calla.

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None of the other birds are named yet. I will have to see what comes to me. I also have to get Griz and the other young cockerel up on CraigsList soon. Hard to do because the birds are so cute right now—just perfect little mini chickens. But mini chickens will soon be full-blown roosters, and three on this farm is two too many.

The big chickens have met and mingled with the chicks. It’s gone okay, with the expected bullying as the older birds show the younger birds their place. Here’s Cora landing a squawk-inducing peck on a chick, while the other babies bunch up for safety and Griz tries to decide whether to be a man.

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As of last night, Dahlia has rejoined her flock. It seems to be going okay for her. I bet she’s glad to be rid of these increasingly active babies in a small brooder coop.

Fifteen birds running around here is a lot, but I kind of love it. If chickens weren’t so messy, and their food so expensive, and if we didn’t have to go through winter when free-ranging isn’t as easy or safe, I would have zillions of chickens.

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The chicks at four weeks: New trick

August 6th, 2013 § 2

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For the past week or so, the chicks’ new trick is to fly out of their broody coop when I open the lid to feed them or fill their water. At first they were shaky and tentative, but now they explode up the second the lid’s lifted, and fly from rim to rim, occasionally overshooting their landings and meeting the concrete garage floor. It’s cute, yes, but it makes a pretty ridiculous scene as I try to grab each chick and toss it back into the coop before another flies out before I can shut the lid. It makes me wish I still had the big garage brooder my dad put together for the guineas.

The only chick that has yet to fly out of the coop is the white Coronation Sussex. This bird is more stout than the others, which may be part of it, but I find it interesting that my homegrown barnyard mixes are more daring and precocious.

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All these little flapping feathers definitely catch Tucker’s interest and provide a good training oportunity as I reinforce the concept that “the babies are to be protected, not eaten.” As you can imagine, this is a challenge for any dog, let alone one that I am asking to differentiate between unwelcome varmints and livestock. But I know he’s up to it, with constant reinforcement and vigilance on my part to help him succeed. Just after I took this photo my rooster and Cora started walking in the garage toward the coop. Tuck turned around and herded the older birds out the door. I would think this was a coincidence, except he did it each time the big birds tried to approach the broody coop. Very interesting.

The chicks, now four weeks old, have reached “the awkward stage.” Their baby down is quickly being replaced by prickly pin feathers, and their legs are now thick and scaley. But they are all healthy, and growing quickly thanks to their forays into the garden for free ranging. After having only raised chicks in a brooder, not with the help of the broody hen, I am noticing how much sturdier these chicks are. I attribute that to the more varied, natural diet they receive while free ranging, and to their being able to live a more natural chicken life, scratching in dirt and bug-hunting, much earlier than other chicks I’ve raised indoors.

As an unrelated aside, I just realized this is my 400th blog post at bonafidefarm.com. For some reason that number seems so big to me, and I am glad to have kept up with this journal for so long. I wonder if I will get to post #500 before getting fed up with country life?!

“Hey!”

July 29th, 2013 § 1

“Stop looking at her butt!”

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Mother surfing

July 24th, 2013 § 0

The chicks are growing by the hour, and their new trick is to jump on Dahlia’s back and ride around a bit before sliding/flying off. She is amazingly patient with these constant assaults, which are probably way more cute to me than they are to her.

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All this action shows me the chicks are ready for new adventures. On Saturday night I wrapped Tuckers’ puppy crate in chicken wire to make an escape-proof pen, and took the chicks outside for their first real exposure to grass and dirt. I’ve had then out every evening for a bit, and it’s neat to watch them learn how to scratch, hunt bugs, and eat clover. It’s amazing how much the chicks change and grow from day to day. Just two weeks old and they’re well on their way to being big chickens.

On a happier note: The chicks at one week old

July 16th, 2013 § 0

Enough of bloody flock power struggles. Let’s talk about the happy family living in the broody coop in the garage. Dahlia is a very calm and patient mother, and protective. She flew out of the coop last night when I took one of her chicks out to hold and she heard its distress cries. She’s doing a great job with her six chicks. They’re growing and changing by the day, and are already feathering out. It’s exciting to see a lot of copper brown in the new feathers of the black olive-egger chicks.

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I am not sure if they will be any indication of the final coloration of the birds as adults, as coloration changes each time the chick molts. But it would be neat to have some brown hens—I don’t have any in the flock now.

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Some of the chicks still have their dried up umbilical cords attached. I never knew birds had umbilical cords until I saw them on the guineas that Iris hatched out last summer.

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Here’s the sole Coronation Sussex chick. My $20 chicken (six hatching eggs cost $20, and this is the only bird I got out of them). Thankfully these birds are rare enough around here that if it’s a cockerel I should be able to sell him for at least $20.

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This is Griz, the only chick out of my barred olive egger Oregano and the chick whose egg survived car trips and refrigeration at my brother’s house. I let my brother name the chick. He picked Grizabella, but when the chick was born a boy the name got shortened to something more masculine. The white barring is just starting to show on his wing tips, and he’s got a bit of copper color to his head (which makes me think this coloration traveled in on my Wheaten Ameraucana rooster’s genes, as the black chicks have it too). But who knows!!? The neatest thing about making these breed crosses is seeing what they turn out to look like.

Last day of the hatch (I think, and hope)

July 10th, 2013 § 1

There were no new babies born overnight, but around noon today I found a broken open Coronation Sussex egg. The embryo inside was well developed but still had a lot of yolk, so I know it wasn’t ready to be born. It was the egg that Dahlia chucked out of the nest on the first day of the hatch. Perhaps she did that because the embryo had died, or maybe it was out of the nest long enough to chill and stop developing. We’ll never know.

There was a Black Copper Marans egg in the process of hatching under Dahlia. It seemed to be struggling a bit, but I left it alone. When I came back hours later there was a new chick.

Once the chick had dried, I inspected it. Unfortunately it was born with a severe birth defect. It has only one eye, and its beak is misaligned.

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I suspect that there is no sight in its one eye, as it struggles to open that eye and doesn’t seem to respond to any visual stimuli.

I did some quick research and the prognosis isn’t good for a bird born with this defect. Some people can keep them alive with careful attention to making sure the bird gets enough to eat, but most people cull chicks born like this. That is what I plan to do.

The deformed chick, did, however, give me a good opportunity to get all six healthy chicks under Dahlia. I knew going into this that if I had just a few chicks, I would try to combine them under one hen. It didn’t make sense to double the work and cleanup of managing two coops of babies, and I knew that the older the birds got the more trouble I would have when it came time to combine both groups of babies. As I already know how potentially fraught introducing new birds to the main flock is, I wanted to minimize one extra step in the development of a new pecking order.

I chose to take the chicks away from Oregano because of the two birds, she seemed the less serious about mothering. She had pecked at the toes of the Coronation Sussex baby when it was brand-new, and today she was off the nest several times during the day, eating, drinking, and trying to dust bathe in the pine shavings. Not that one can blame her! Perhaps she knew the hatch was done and was trying to get her babies to follow her out to food and drink, but I didn’t get that sense from her.

I was stressed to put Oregano’s three chicks under Dahlia, but I did it one at a time and she didn’t bat an eye. The chicks dove right under her breast like they’d always been there, and there’s been no looking back. In fact, she led her babies off the nest this afternoon, leaving the deformed chick in the nest.

I took the unhatched eggs from Dahlia’s nest and added them to Oregano’s along with the deformed chick. I figured she’d go less crazy if she had a chick under her than if she had nothing and could hear chicks next door. But who knows, maybe she wouldn’t care? Anyway, the plan now is to give any remain eggs another day under Oregano to try to hatch, though I doubt any will, and then return Oregano to the main flock. Which might be tough if they see her as an intruder instead of a flock mate. Geez—managing these birds can really be a pain!

But if I get Oregano back with the flock, I should be in the clear. Dahlia can raise six chicks for as long as she likes, and I will deal with whatever comes next when it arrives. The good news is the six chicks now with Dahlia have spent the afternoon learning to eat and drink.

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They are very active in the coop, pecking at everything including their mother’s comb (you can see a little blood spot in the photo above), wattles and even eyeballs, and seem healthy and happy. They run around, and when they are tired they dive into their mother’s feathers for a nap. Can you spot the stowaway?

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Another P.M. update, 24 hours into the hatch

July 9th, 2013 § 4

There are new chicks, hatched early this evening, under both Dahlia and Oregano. Both are babies from Black Copper Marans eggs. Now each hen has three live babies, for a total of six on the ground. Oregano had one baby that pipped this evening, but it died before making it out of the shell. When I investigated, its yolk hadn’t yet been absorbed. I am starting to think the hot temperatures have affected this hatch, but that’s just a hunch and not substantiated yet with any research.

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The chicks that were born last night are very active, hanging out at the front of the next box, pecking at shavings, and interacting with each other. Here are the yellow Coronation Sussex and the barred olive egger/wheaten Ameraucana boy.

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They must be starting to think about food. Perhaps tomorrow they will take their first excursion out of the nest box. I am sure both mothers are also ready to get out of the nest. Notice how pale and dehydrated their combs and wattles are. Incubating eggs takes a lot out of a hen as they barely eat and drink just enough to keep from dying. They’ve both lost a bunch of weight—when I feel their chests all their breast muscle mass has shrunk away on either side of the keel bone.

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I find it interesting that when the guinea keets hatched last summer, they were way more active, way sooner than the chickens. The guinea keets were still wet from hatching and they’d already begun running out of the nest box. The chicks seem to be rather limp until they fluff up and find their legs. This little one under Dahlia has favored this front corner of the box all day. The chick has a few copper colored feathers, the same tone as mama’s, around its head and sides.

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I suspect we might be done with this hatch. There aren’t any more pipped eggs, and nobody cheeped when I tapped on their shell. But we’ll see what the morning brings. I am ready to be done with this hatch phase, with its attendant death and stinky ooze, and on to seeing darling little fluff balls running all around the coop learning to be big chickens.

A.M. update on the hatching chicks

July 9th, 2013 § 6

At 8:00 a.m. I went out to check on the chicks. I heard peeping when I opened the garage door, so I knew there were babies somewhere!

Under Dahlia, two black chicks were just about all dried and fluffy. One came from a Black Copper Marans egg, which makes it an olive egger, and the other chick is Lilac’s baby. I saw one pipped egg but didn’t check them all.

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Under Oregano, the barred olive egger, there were two hatched chicks.

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First up is a yellow Coronation Sussex baby!

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This is pretty exciting. And Oregano’s own egg, the one that journeyed to a Richmond refrigerator and back, had hatched during the night.

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Unfortunately I think it’s a boy, as it has a white spot on its head, a sex-linked characteristic of barred breeds. Too bad I won’t get a chance at a super green egg layer this time around.

Meanwhile, here are the chicks’ empty eggshells. From top, the Coronation Sussex, then the barred olive egger, then Lilac’s egg, and finally a Black Copper Marans egg.

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I saw another pipped egg in Oregano’s nest, so I left them in peace to continue hatching. There may be more babies to come, we’ll see.

Update on the broody hens: Candling the eggs

June 28th, 2013 § 2

Today marks the halfway point in the incubation of the chicken eggs. It’s been ten days since I placed them under the hens, and my most respected chicken resource states that eggs incubated under broodies usually hatch in twenty days instead of the 21 days for mechanically ¬†incubated eggs. We shall see. As it is things aren’t looking awesome in the brood coops, and my confidence in the viability of these hatches is waning.

One of the eggs in Oregano’s coop was broken when I checked earlier in the week, and then yesterday I found the broken shell of a Coronation Sussex egg—the prettiest one of the bunch. Boo.

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I don’t know if they are breaking on their own because they are rotten or if she’s cracking (and possibly eating) them. That nest box didn’t smell horribly of rotten egg, so I suspect the egg was fertile when broken. However, I don’t know how many days it would take under the hen for an infertile egg to spoil. So that’s the situation in Oregano’s coop. She’s been getting off the nest, as evidenced by her “deposits” in the cage, and has lost a lot of weight already. Broody hens generally don’t eat much while sitting, and if they do get off the nest their poo has such a strange and horrible smell that it’s enough to gag you just walking into a room with it. Needless to say I remove it as soon as it’s discovered, to keep flies off it and to get it out of my life and into the compost pile.

Over in Dahlia’s coop, I found a major mess in her nest box. One of the olive egger eggs placed under her was broken, and it had made a horrid fermented/cooked mess in the nest. At least five of the ten remaining eggs were coated in dried egg goo. Not good, for several reasons. The incubating egg is a living vessel, and its shell needs to be clean to allow air to pass in to the developing embryo. To seal the pores of the egg could suffocate the embryo.

I was at a loss as to what do. I know the embryos need air, but I also know that to wash an egg is to remove its “bloom” or protective covering that helps keep bacteria out of the egg. In this case, though, I figured washing was probably the lesser of two evil decisions, so I gently scrubbed the dried egg off the dirty eggs.

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Oregano had a few dirty eggs too, so I touched those up as well, trying to just wash the dirtiest areas. Then I cleaned out Dahlia’s stinking messy nest, filling it with clean pine shavings. I made notes in my log of which eggs I washed, which may be telling around hatch day.

Of course I started this project before suiting up with gloves, and the stink that was on those eggs was so strong I couldn’t get it off my fingers all night despite multiple scrubbings and soaking in lemon juice. In all, it was a fittingly disgusting ending to an evening that began by killing a black widow in the crawlspace. Ugh.

Tonight it was time to candle the eggs, which means I shine a light through them to see if they are developing into chicks. I made a candler out of a MagLight flashlight (with fresh batteries) topped by a taped-on piece of cardboard to concentrate the beam and cushion the eggs.

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Then after dark I headed out to the garage to candle the eggs. All I needed was my candler, my record log and pencil, and a small dish to hold the eggs as I pulled them from the nest. I waited for the garage door lights to go off and began with Oregano’s eggs.

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I removed each egg from under Oregano, enduring a peck on the wrist each time, bless her. I held the egg over the end of the candler, turning it until I could see something, or nothing. Most eggs looked like this, below, with some murky shape with no clearly defined blood vessels but perhaps the hint of a developing eye. Perhaps because many of them are Black Copper Marans eggs, which are dark to begin with and thus more difficult to candle.You can clearly see the air sack at the bottom of the egg.

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Here’s an egg in which you can see some veins and perhaps a developing eye, right on the line between shadow and light.

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Here’s an egg, unfortunately one of the two remaining olive egger (Oregano’s) eggs, that I think has no development:

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Here’s a Black Copper Marans egg that appeared very porous. This porosity is thought to be an indication of a poor egg for hatching.

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The clearest picture came from the last egg I candled, a Coronation Sussex under Dahlia. You can definitely see a healthy pattern of veins, and as I watched, I could even see the embryo moving within the shell.

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I have to admit that holding this egg in my hand, in the dark, and seeing those veins pulse is a pretty freaking incredible feeling. It’s scary, to hold such perfectly planned beauty alive within that fragile shell.

Out of the 20 remaining eggs, there is only one (the olive egger) that I feel I can conclusively describe as not developing. The rest are big question marks, and I am not yet experienced enough to discard any eggs based on my judgement. I feel better about the clutch under Dahlia, my Black Copper Marans, than the clutch under Oregano, my olive egger. But that’s just a hunch. So they will all stay put in the nest, and we will wait the ten more days to see what becomes of them. As you can already tell, a lot can happen in the next ten days. And so I remind myself, and you, dear reader: “Don’t count your chickens until they hatch.”

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