Archive for Lessons Learned

The Incubator Death Trap

OR “Why I will never hatch chicks in a classroom again”

The science curriculum includes a large life sciences component so it is a fun idea to bring some kind of animal into the classroom to give children first hand experiences. In the past, I have had butterflies, tadpoles and hamsters in my classrooms and even chicks once, about 20 years ago. This year, my teaching partner suggested hatching some chicken eggs in an incubator. Being a chicken fanatic, I was keen on the idea although I recognized that my recent chicken farmer experience would not necessarily transfer to knowledge on incubation.  Until now, I have left all the responsibilities of incubation up to Tweedle Mum.

We borrowed the big foam incubator and egg-turning device from the school district resource centre and a student’s parent brought in 22 eggs from a local farm. We read the page of instructions and did exactly what it said.

Loaned incubator from the school district resource center - circa 1970.

Loaned incubator ‘death trap’ from the school district resource center – circa 1970.

For twenty-one days, we tried to monitor the temperature (100° C) and the humidity (65%) but this was not easily done. Firstly the incubator temp control is clunky and very imprecise.

This pin spins freely and it is difficult to tell if you have actually changed the temperature.

This pin spins freely and it is difficult to tell if you have actually changed the temperature.

Also, our classroom has many large waist-to-ceiling windows which have a greenhouse effect on every sunny day in the spring. By the time the students are dismissed, the room temperature is easily approaching 28° C. This high temp has some effect on the incubator temperature, which would sometimes exceed its incubation limit by a degree or two despite our attempts to turn down its thermostat. So in anticipation of the long holiday weekend, which was forecast to be hot and sunny, I turned the incubator thermostat down a bit and closed all the classroom blinds. When I arrived back three days later after a cool and rainy weekend, the incubator temp was around 97° C. I was pretty sure then that we had just killed 22 baby chicks.

The students waited and watched as the twenty-first day of incubation came and went. No chicks hatched. On the morning of the twenty-second day there was finally one egg with a pip. By the end of that school day, that chick had emerged and a few others had pips and cracks. The 23rd day had more action with six chicks hatched and a bunch more in various stages of pipping but things were not going perfectly.

One little guy had emerged but his bottom was still connected to his shell with a gummy egg-white string. As he tried to stand up and move around the incubator, the egg-shell restricted him and he dragged it everywhere. Other chicks stepped on him and he seemed very weak. By the end of the school day, his innards had been pulled out of his bottom. You could see his intestines, gizzard and other parts lying on the incubator floor while he still gasped for breath for a short while before he died.

Another chick successfully hatched but was unable to get dry even after a few hours. Her thin down covering stayed wet and sticky and, when I touched her, she was cool. That is when I noticed that the incubator temperature was only 97° C again. I tried cranking up the thermostat again, knowing that her life depended on the accuracy of that dial.

The weekend had arrived so we moved the successful hatches into a classroom brooding box with a heat lamp, chick feed and water and I took the rest of the eggs and the cold chick home in the incubator. The incubator was installed in our computer room and it was temporarily renamed the Sick Bay.

The first order of business was to get the cold chick warm. I placed her on a hot water bottle and wrapped that in a heating pad. When I checked on her a little while later, she was dead.

My remaining hopes were with the 4 eggs with cracks. I could hear them peeping to each other and I could see their cute little beaks with an egg tooth poking out of each cracked shell. One of those was so close to breaking out, pushing the shell apart around a middle seam over and over, and I had trouble tearing myself away to prepare dinner.

All the literature about emerging chicks insists that you shouldn’t offer any assistance at all, no matter how tempting it is. A mother hen simply sits and keeps those chicks warm throughout the process but does not help a chick break out. So there was nothing to do but let nature take its course. Survival of the fittest and all that.

When I came back to see her progress, I could see that she had stopped chirping and moving. The trauma of a low temperature and being moved from school to home had taken its toll and killed her. FM and I peeled back a bit of the egg-shell to find that the two membranes beneath were thick and difficult to break through even for us. It broke my heart to see that a fully developed chick had died because of the environmental conditions that I was controlling. There were 3 more eggs with pips and occasional peeps but as the evening rolled on, two more gave up the fight and we found that they had died as well. I removed the eleven eggs with no pip marks, knowing that they were surely dead after 24 days of incubation.

How many of these dud eggs have fully developed chicks in them? My bet is that they died sometime after 18 days due to the cold temperature inthe incubator.

How many of these dud eggs have fully developed chicks in them? My bet is that they died sometime after 18 days due to the cold temperature in the incubator.

With only one more pipped egg left, FM and I were no longer going to stand by and watch another fully developed chick die. He cracked the last chick’s shell and found that the shell had affixed itself to the dry, crusty coating of the chick’s down. The membranes were so thick – probably do to incorrect incubator humidity – and it was improbable that this chick would have emerged on its own. Even after we removed the shell covering his head, the bottom half of his shell still remained attached to his bottom  – the same problem that another chick had had in the classroom. Without hesitating, I got some scissors and cut the sticky egg-white thread to separate him from his shell.

With bits of cracked shell still attached to him, we named him “Shelled In” (Shelden), let him rest in the incubator and went to bed.

For two days, we were treated to the peeps and chirps of little Shelled In. We kept him in the incubator but held him, showed him how to peck food and drink water and tried to mimic his chirp to keep him company.

Fluffed up Shelled In

Fluffed up “Shelled In”

"Shelled In" was a successful hatch only because we intervened. Poor humidity and temperature control would have killed him.

“Shelled In” was a successful hatch only because we intervened. Poor humidity and temperature control would have killed him.

On Monday morning, I brought Shelled In into the classroom and placed him in the brooding box with the 6 successful hatches. He was the loudest of them all, still traumatized from the car ride and he seemed to stare at the other chicks in disbelief. When I left, he was leaning against a blonde chick and snoozing contentedly.

When I look back on this ordeal of losing 16 / 22 chicks and compare it to the joy of watching Tweedle Mum hatch 5 / 6 chicks, it is apparent that nature does it best. I am quite sure that the incubator became a death trap because of our poor monitoring of temperature and humidity. It breaks my heart to see so much death over the course of two days and to think that any of those chicks could have been full of personality and affection, like Chip. But it is also pretty sad to think that a delicious Angel Food Cake could have been made with those 11 unpipped eggs.

Our eleven unhatched eggs would have been better used this way.

Comments (5) »

Chip Chop – Impacted Crop (part #2)

After weighing out all of the options for Chip’s impacted crop, we decided to surgically empty it. I’m sure this comes as no surprise to any of you who know us and especially to those who have met Chip.

Although this procedure should only be considered in extreme cases and when all other options have been exhausted, it had been in the back of our minds for a number of weeks, long before her case had become extreme. We talked about and began acquiring equipment that we would need (headlamps, scalpel, forceps, syringe for irrigating, needle and absorbable sutures). We also began watching youtube videos showing chicken crop surgery (not for the faint of heart and not right after a meal). The majority of youtube videos showed people with very little medical knowledge pulling off successful surgeries. Some of them were ghastly to watch, using dull knives and scissors to open and crazy glue to close the incisions. Most videos showed crops filled with masses of straw or hay bedding that their chickens had consumed. We wondered aloud what was the cause of her impacted crop, since we don’t use straw in the coop. Could it be piece of plastic found in the ‘fill’ around the garden? Could it be a piece of that fraying tarp under the porch? Could it be some of the dry, brown grasses still lingering in the garden from last fall?

We finally decided that she was close to crisis. If we waited any longer, she would be too weak to recover from surgery and too susceptible to infection during the healing process. We set a date for Saturday and steeled ourselves up.

When our operating room and recovery box were ready, I went out to find Chip. As usual, she eventually came out of hiding to visit me and I was able to scoop her easily. Her crop was larger than an egg even though it was morning. We lay her down, covered her head with a tea towel and bound her legs loosely with an elastic. My job was to hold her still and keep her from flapping her wings while FM had the tougher task of performing the operation.

Everything went just as planned.  FM cleared away feathers with scissors from a very large area of her chest and we used a surgical drape to hold the remaining feathers out of the way. The incision was made high up on her crop, avoiding any blood vessels and it was about 5 cm long in both the skin and the crop tissue. There was very little blood.

As soon as her crop was opened, that familiar dark brown liquid oozed out and the smell was nasty. She was full of green grass, clover and barley (from the scratch feed) which are all normal consumables for our girls. But she also had a lot of pine shavings in her crop, the type that we use for the coop floor and nesting boxes. As FM emptied the crop, he found that the entrance to the proventriculus/gizzard was packed with these pine shavings. It was no wonder that she was losing weight.

FM emptied about a 1/2 cup of crop contents into a container.

FM emptied about a 1/2 cup of crop contents into a container.

Using forceps and tweezers, FM pulled out all the contents of her crop, pinch by pinch. There was no solid mass like in the images we’d seen. Instead, it was a long labour of a few leaves at a time. He used the syringe with saline to rinse and irrigate the crop, ensuring that all nooks and crannies were cleaned out. As the crop was emptied, it shrunk and collapsed in on itself, as it should do, making it difficult to see if we got everything out. FM was determined to do a thorough job, knowing that we really have only one opportunity to do it.

Just before he stitched her up, he swabbed her, trying to make sure that the incision would be clean and clear of any remaining crop juices or contents. The swabbing caused her to bleed and suddenly there was a fair amount of blood. I felt myself go pale and FM’s hands began to shake. We both had a panicked minute while we tried to deal with this unexpected twist. With a good amount of gauze and pressure, he got the bleed under control and he was able to close the crop with 7 stitches. The skin took another 7 stitches and a dab of crazy glue at each end. We cleansed the area, put a good blob of polysporin antibiotic ointment and bandaged her with gauze and tape.

Immediately after surgery she was up and alert, but very exhausted.

Immediately after surgery she was up and alert, but very exhausted.

When her feathers were flattened down, her incision was completely covered, so other hens haven't seen it or pecked at it.

When her feathers are flattened down, her incision is completely covered, so other hens haven’t seen it or pecked at it.

Chip held so still throughout it all, flinching and attempting to sit up only 3 times – during the first skin incision, during the final cleaning of the incision area and during one of the stitches. When she was all bandaged up, we helped her up and she just stood there looking at us for minute. I held her on my lap for a few minutes until she drifted off to sleep and then I placed her in the recovery bay.

She had some special treatment. She joined us in the living room for our morning coffee the next day.

She had some unusually special treatment. She joined us in the living room for our morning coffee the next day, spending her time roosting on our shoulders and looking out at the view.

We kept her in the house, in the recovery box for 2 days and 2 nights. She removed her bandage as soon as we put it on every time, but she didn’t pick at her stitches. She slept for almost all of the first day and night and became more vocal on the second day. We fed her dishes of moistened chick starter (high in protein) which she enjoyed although it took her a long time to get through a tablespoon of it. On the morning of the third day, she was squawking and eager to get outside. As soon as I brought her outdoors, the other hens came running over to see her and seemed genuinely content to have her back.

On day 3 we put her out to flock with the girls. It was just like old times.

On day 3 we put her out to flock with the girls. It was just like old times.


We have kept a watchful eye on her and are so pleased to see her eating normally, flocking with the others and having no infection near the incision. Her crop has been flat in the mornings and smallish in the evenings, just as it should be.

Thing We Wish We Had Known

1) The surgery from start to end took about 1.5 hours – much, much longer than we anticipated. We were not trying to set any speed records, but it was a long time for us all to be under such stress.

2) It is possible to get anesthetics – either topical or injectable – and I wish we could have used something for her pain. But we did all of this with no freezing at all.

3) We were so busy with the intensity of the moment that we took no photos at all. It was helpful to see others’ photos and videos so that we knew what things would look like. It would have been good to share ours as well.

Comments (6) »

Everybody Loves Chicken

After a morning of puttering around the Queendom, FM and I had just come inside and were beginning to prepare a late lunch of soup and cold pizza. Out the kitchen window, movement caught my eye. I called out,

Look at that! Our those eagles mating?

We ran to different windows, picking up both the binoculars and the camera as we tried to get a better look.


FM answered and he was right. As we watched two full-grown Bald Eagles jostle for position, we could see that they were intent on getting the other guy out of the way.


The dominant one had finally scared the other eagle back a bit and got down to the business of eating something. What was it?

Chicken dinner, anyone?

Chicken dinner, anyone?

Oh my god! It’s a chicken! I saw the foot!

Oh no. It’s Benedict! Oh no!

I wailed and my eyes started welling up. How could we lose another of our flock? This cannot be happening. I stepped out on the kitchen porch to try to get confirmation. My panicked motion and voice sent both Bald Eagles and an angry Raven flying away.

We quickly donned our coats and boots (and safely turned off the soup pot burner) and ran outside. Before we left the house, he looked me in the eye and said,

There won’t be much that we can do for her.

Despite the situation at hand, it was a comical fact. There was nothing we could do. We could run over there but that was it. He was preparing his soon-to-be hysterical wife for the worst.

As FM headed straight out to the spot where the eagles had been, I ducked down under the front porch and counted. One, Two, Three. All three of our hens were cowering under the porch. Our fourth hen was safely locked in her broody pen in the garden shed. I recounted and put names to each one.

Benedict. Tweedle Dee. Chip.

With an enormous sigh of relief, I ran to catch up with FM and share the news that it wasn’t one of our hens.

The mystery chicken was, indeed, way beyond help. Already missing all the innards and the head, we couldn’t tell if it was a hen or a roo. The carcass consisted of legs and wings connected with the back bone. Orange-brown wing feathering suggested a typical Rhode Island Red. From our reading, we knew that if one of your chickens simply disappears from your flock, the culprit is either an eagle or an owl. Now we could see the truth behind it. The owners of this chicken could be our neighbours or could live many kilometers away. Probably they wouldn’t even notice their loss until their remaining chickens went to roost that night and someone counted them.

We left the chicken remains in the same place, hoping that the eagles or ravens would sate their hunger with the remainder of this chicken instead of hankering for one of ours.

Because, you know, everybody loves chicken!

Comments (1) »

Who Needs A Rooster?

Let’s get something straight. I don’t have a rooster to give away. I am simply asking a rhetorical question:

Who needs a rooster as part of their flock?

“We do” is the quietly whispered answer.

After the crazy shenanigans of our Roo, FM and I have been pretty content to no longer have a rooster around. Our tiny flock of four hens and two unsexed chicks seem to miss him almost as much as we do (which is to say – Not At All). The hens no longer have to escape his unwanted attention. There is no more mad flapping to throw him off their backs. There is no more trickery as he deceitfully led them to non-existent food with a mind to take them by surprise. Everyone seems to have taken a deep breath and relaxed. The Queendom is home to happy hens who have not a care in the world.

But then, we lost Peeps.

Even when she was just a chick, Peeps Baby has got back!

Even when she was just a chick, Baby’s Got Back!

Dust Bath with BFF

BFF Peeps and Tweedle Dum enjoying a tandem dust bath on a hot summer’s day.

A week before Christmas, we found Peeps dead in a mound of her own feathers with her back side ripped open. Tweedle Dum fared better, having managed to squirm into a tiny space under the garden shed and escape the attack. Dum lost quite a few of her tail feathers during her escape and she was quite traumatized, having been less than a foot away from the demise of her BFF. Although we are unsure what animal killed Peeps, we have placed the blame on a neighbourhood dog who must have chased her and shaken her to death. It could have been a raccoon, despite the facts that it happened at noon in broad daylight, she still had her head (raccoons are known as the brain-eating zombies of the chicken world) and we rarely see raccoons here. I’m sticking with dog mauling.

There is a point in bringing up these gruesome memories. Would Peeps still be alive if we had had a rooster in our flock? Since their main role is to procreate, roosters are masters at keeping their ladies at hand. They don’t let hens wander away alone, but instead lure them back by enticing them with found food. Roo could often be seen, sprinting around the yard, calling each of his girls back home. If they wandered away in search of grubs and fresh greens, he would accompany them and keep one eye toward the sky, on the look-out for eagles. He rarely ate outside the coop. Instead, he would spend his time searching for food for them, watching for dangers, announcing his territory (every 10 seconds!) and attacking FM.

The only time I miss Roo is when I think of Peeps and her untimely death. She was a beautiful Welsummer hen with the fluffiest backside that you ever saw. She was made for sitting on a nest and raising chicks, although she didn’t live long enough to do this. She had a gravelly cluck that reminded me of an old waitress in a diner who just got back from her smoke break. She was the Den Mum of our coop, insisting on regular bedtimes and keeping the peace when tempers rose. When it came time to roost, she preferred the spot at the top left and, if anyone took her spot, she was able to unseat them by putting her neck under their wings and sending them off balance.

Peeps had the flappiest wattles in the flock!

Peeps had the flappiest wattles in the flock!

Even a s young pullet, Peeps lacked the bold colouring of her Welsummer sister, Chip. She seemed more Rhode Island Red than Welsummer.

Even as young pullet, Peeps lacked the bold colouring of her Welsummer sister, Chip. She seemed more Rhode Island Red than Welsummer.

So, the question remains. Do we need a rooster? My gut feeling is that we already have a new rooster in one of our baby chicks. Any day now, Benedict will reveal if he is the new man about town. I continue to wait (and hope).

Comments (2) »

What a Month!

It all started one month ago today. I went from being healthy, athletic and adventurous to being hooked up to machines that go beep all night. But luckily, because I am so healthy, athletic and adventurous, one month later, I am well on the road to recovery. Soon, this little episode will be nothing but a foggy memory.

It all started with a mild belly ache while I was working on the chicken coop but soon it progressed to doubled-over pain. After the pain continued to escalate, we figured that it was appendix-related, because of the right-sidedness, and we headed into town to the hospital. In no time at all, I was hooked up to an IV and given morphene. The CT scan told a very different story. This was no appendicitis. I had a twist in my large intestines, causing a complete obstruction, and I needed surgical intervention right away.

I suppose the mere suggestion of emergency surgery was enough to scare me straight but that is what happened. There in the ER, as spontaneously as it had twisted in the first place, my intestine decided to untwist itself on its own accord, instantly reducing my pain and allowing me to walk away and head home minutes later.

Unfortunately, this story doesn’t end here. We were told that this twisting  had probably happened before to a lesser degree and had a high chance of reoccurring, perhaps even more severely. I was told that I needed surgery to remove the damaged section of intestine and it needed to be done soon.

Despite my initial reaction of shock and denial, I managed to come to terms with the severity of my situation and realise that I didn’t really have a choice in the matter. ‘Elective surgery’ is a misnomer because surgery is never something that you would elect to do. I simply had to count myself as fortunate. Firstly, because the twisting hadn’t happened during one of our wilderness adventures, a few days’ journey from help. Secondly, because I narrowly averted a high-risk, emergency bowel surgery when I visited the ER.

In a relatively short amount of time (10 days), I was able to land a consultation with a general surgeon and I almost enthusiastically signed the papers for my surgical booking. I emphasized that I would easily be able to clear my schedule and come in for a last-minute cancellation, if that occasion arose.

It did. Within that week, I accepted a cancellation date, was admitted to hospital and had my surgery done. 20 cm of intestine were removed and I now sport a 14 cm abdominal scar. The whirlwind of time and activity then came to an absolute halt as I lay in a hospital bed for five days. Although my brain was murky with the concoction of drugs flowing through my back and my arm, my memories are snippets of precise clarity. There was gentleness from the night nurses, moans and cries of fellow patients, pain that took over my ability to think and a dry, parched feeling in my mouth as I tried to speak.

With FM ever perched at my bedside, we chatted whenever I surfaced about the issue of the moment, plans for the future and other random bits. He managed the streams of visitors and kept family up-to-date with my condition through emails and phone calls. He brought up concerns with the nursing staff and brought me tasty treats from the outside world, once I was given the green light to move beyond ice chips. He supported me as I took my first shaky steps around the ward and watched with interest when my first staples were removed.

This was taken right before 7 of the 13 staples were removed. Its going to be a beautiful scar! Can you picture a zipper pull tatto at the top?

This was taken right before 7 of the 13 staples were removed. It’s going to be a beautiful scar!   Can you picture a zipper pull tattoo at the top end?

As if a light were suddenly turned on, I felt instantly better and no longer could tolerate sitting in a hospital bed all day. Soon enough, the hospital din of beeps, tones, rings and alarms became almost intolerable. It seems that once you are conscious enough to hear all the noise, your discharge papers are issued. All my tubes and trolleys were unhooked and I was allowed to go home.

This Impatient Patient endlessly sits and waits for her discharge papers

This Impatient Patient endlessly sits and waits for her discharge papers

On that clear, cold December day, as we ferried across the Strait and drove up-island, I felt that my eyes were seeing beauty for the first time. I relished in the views of coastal mountains dusted with snow and the sun shining brightly but giving off little warmth. As I crawled into my own bed, I felt as if I had been swallowed up by heaven. There really is no place like home.

In the week since arriving home, I have hunkered down and done very little, except read. The big efforts of my day include putting a log or two on the fire, surfing the web for easy Christmas gifts for my nieces and nephews and sitting amongst the chickens on the porch. But each day, I rest less and take on more projects (admittedly small ones). Running and racing are a long way down the path I am on, but I will enjoy the opportunity to re-learn and re-train. Next time someone asks “What are you training for?”, I will answer “For my health” because that is the truth of it all.

Remembrance Day 2013 will long be a day that I remember, but not for the right reasons. For me, it was more like the beginning of a lesson in Thanksgiving, as it reminded me to be grateful for my health and my healing.

Comments (4) »

Tweedle Dum is a Mum!!

After only a month of laying eggs, Tweedle Dum got the worst case of Baby Fever ever recorded!

It started with her taking her sweet time in the nesting box. She would loll around while laying her daily egg, spending an hour or two hiding away. Then her nesting box stints moved into the four-hour range. Soon, she seemed to be in a panic whenever she came outside, racing around to find food, have a dust bath, do a quick preen before heading back to the nesting box. Finally, she sat. And nothing we did could get her up.

A Broody Hen is what they call it and it caused a complete change in her. She went to being the most vocal and happiest of our hens to being a growly grouch. She stopped enjoying a scritch under her chin and began pecking your hand if you came close. She would sit all day long and only get up once a day to briefly poop, eat and drink before getting back on the nest.

From what we read, our hens are a bit too young to hatch chicks. Supposedly, young hens (under a year old) lose interest in sitting after a week, so we continued collecting her eggs each day. But after we saw her determination, we thought “Why not? Why not let her try??” From then on, we let her sit undisturbed on three eggs. We simply chose that day’s eggs laid by three different hens, so they were not necessarily her eggs. We marked the shells with happy faces so we could keep track of them.

This is how Tweedle Dum sat for almost six weeks.

This is how Tweedle Dum sat for almost six weeks.

But, we started noticing a problem. When she would get up for her daily chores, she had a 50/50 chance of hopping back into the wrong nest box. Some mornings, we would come in the coop to find that she had switched boxes in the night and now her week-old clutch would be stone cold.

At this point, she had been broody for about three weeks. She was barely eating and drinking, but she still had another 21 days of sitting to do if she was going to hatch some babies. So we reorganized our garden shed to accommodate her, with a temporary fence around it and a dark, private nest box with access to her own food and water. One night, we moved her out into the garden shed with three newly-laid eggs.

And there she sat. It was amazing to see that she would only get off her eggs once every five days! She barely ate that whole time. There was one evening where she flew out of the enclosure and didn’t show any intention of going back, but we were quick to place a hot water bottle and blanket on the nest. That night, we carried her from the regular coop back to the nest. Another day, she seemed confused by her surroundings and began flying all around the garden shed, but we managed that catastrophe as well.

Then, exactly 21 days after moving to the garden shed, two of the three eggs hatched! Tweedle Dum has beaten the odds, shown steadfast determination and brought some new life into our flock. It is amazing to see her teach the new ones where to find food. The best part is when they peek out at us through her wing feathers!

With Chantecler Roo as the father and Welsummer Peeps and Chip as the mothers, it is a bit of surprise to see that both chicks are white, black and grey. It seems that the milkman may have fathered these two! We named them both after our favourite egg dishes.

Two day old Florentine!

Week old Florentine! She wears a black mask and a yellow hairband.

Two day old Benedict!

Week old Benedict! She has a yellow cap and tail

First family photo

First family photo (two days old)

A quick snooze under her wings!

A quick snooze under her wings!

The aunties come for a visit (little does Chip know that she is actually the mother of one of them!)

The aunties come for a visit
(little does Chip know that she is actually the mother of one of them!)

Comments (3) »

%d bloggers like this: