Posts tagged chicks

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.

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If You Can’t Beat ‘Em….

As reported in The Torture Chamber post, putting Tweedle Dum in isolation for a few days succeeded in getting her back into the routine of laying eggs and flocking with the others. But, one month later, she has become broody again. This hen is made to mother.

With our flock dropping down to an all-time low of 4 hens, it is as if she knows that we need a few more chickens running around.

With no rooster on the scene at the Queendom, FM called in on a work colleague and came home with six freshly laid, probably fertile eggs in a wide variety of colours.

These six eggs came from a farm with many breeds of chicken, resulting in the full rainbow of egg colours.

These six eggs came from a farm with many breeds of chicken, resulting in the full rainbow of egg colours. We may be so lucky.

The weather has warmed up significantly and it only drops slightly below freezing on some nights, so we are able to house Tweedle Mum and the eggs away from the other hens in the coop. To hatch a successful clutch, Tweedle Mum needs to feel safe and secure from predators and other chickens while she sits for the requisite 21 days.

Here she is immediately after we placed her in her new digs. She seems to approve of the dog crate housing.

Here she is immediately after we placed her in her new digs. She seems to approve of the dog crate housing.

The garden shed has once again become her broody pen but this time she is sitting in the lap of luxury inside a large dog crate, rather than under an upturned Costco vegetable box. Although we provide her with both food and water close at hand, she gets up only once each week to eat, drink, poop and preen. I check on her a few times a day and sometimes bring her a fresh garden salad of clover which she eats hungrily. The rest of the time she sits, flattening herself as much as possible to cover all of the eggs.

Tweedle Mum is our smallest bird and it is quite a stretch for her to cover all six eggs. Her wings need to be partly opened and her chest flattened below her.

This photo was taken on day 8.  Tweedle Mum is our smallest bird and it is quite a stretch for her to cover all six eggs. Her wings need to be partly opened and her chest flattened below her.

We couldn’t break this girl so now she gets her way. Go for it, Mum! Our hopes are high and we are trying to come up with 6 more egg-dish names!

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Another Sad Day

One year ago, we delved into the world of backyard chickens. We took on a clutch of 6 chicks and have watched them as they learned to peck, run, roost and lay. All of them have stolen our hearts and each for a different reason.

But with chickens come some sadness. We lost Croque Madame to sickness, Peeps to a mauling and Roo to aggression. But we gained happiness too. Benedict and Florentine were hatched just 5 months ago and showed such promise as the new generation.

But then, we lost sweet Florentine earlier this week.

The grey speckled sisters found refuge up on the nesting box.

Always inseparable, the grey speckled sisters found refuge from the older girls up on the nesting box. Here, Flo is in front and Benedict stands beyond.

Only 10 days earlier, she was running through the yard, with Benedict hot on her heels, flapping at the newly arrived Robins, tromping fearlessly through the deep snow and keeping an eye on the Mallards on the pond. She had even become comfortable enough to hop up onto my legs while I was having my daily visit with Chip. And, most importantly, she had just begun to lay eggs.


Perfect posture Florentine. If only this pic showed the beautiful proud tail she carried.

We first noticed her sneezing. Initially it sounded kind of cute but, within a day or two, it became a little too regular for my liking. She was also wheezing as she exhaled, making an upwards musical scale of five notes with each expelled breath. She stopped laying and had terribly watery poops. I started pulling her aside to feed her, wanting to watch how much she was consuming. But she was eating like a fiend, barely stopping long enough to catch her breath. I started to do some internet research and found everything from funny YouTube videos of sneezing chickens to complicated symptoms of respiratory infections. I learned that a sneeze may actually be a cough or a hiccup and that roundworms can increase appetite.

I called the local farm vet clinic, described her symptoms to the receptionist and then waited two days for the vet to return my call. Dr. Alicia eventually let me know that she wasn’t an expert in chickens but she recommended three medications to cover the bases of the symptoms shown – a de-wormer liquid for 4 days, 7 antibiotic tablets for 7 days and a soluble coccidiosis treatment for the whole flock. Armed with $9.00 worth of medicine (and a $14 dispensing fee!), I headed home to start her new regime.

As if she knew that I was now feeding her medicine, she stopped eating. Completely. And she began to make coughing sounds that sounded like a painful rooster crow. It was as if she was occasionally gasping for air and it seemed to happen most often when she ate. It sounded as if something were wrong right at the vocal chords.

Florentine was brought inside twice daily for her medications. She enjoyed a little FM scritch and often fell asleep on my lap.

Florentine was brought inside twice daily for her medications. She enjoyed a little FM scritch and often fell asleep on my lap in between her doses.

It took two of us to get those tablets into her. It felt so cruel to sneak them inside her beak as she was gasping for air and FM was holding her wings tight. She would sometimes stand up, look me square in the eye and then peck my forehead to show her displeasure. But then she would nestle down and drift off to sleep on my lap, enjoying the peace and quiet outside of the hen house. She was utterly exhausted, probably not getting any sleep because of the cough/sneeze.

One of her last days was a bluebird days with perfect snoozy sunbeams on the front porch. Here she is in full chicken melt.

One of her last days was a bluebird day with perfect snoozy sunbeams on the front porch. Here she is in full chicken melt.

Only 5 days into the antibiotics, she showed a real decline. Her throat and wattles suddenly were slightly purple and swollen, giving her neck an unnatural thickness. Inside our house after we gave her the pills, she had been sleeping comfortably on my lap with little wheezing but, when I brought her out to the coop, she was suddenly panicked. She began shaking her head wildly and scratching her throat and wattles with fierce aggression. She even started pecking and eating the pine shaving bedding. Her coughing and crowing increased too. I watched for a while, feeling completely powerless and knowing that she wouldn’t last through the night. In tears, I left the coop.

Sure enough, in the morning we found her dead. The other chickens were still up on their roosts, not wanting to go near her on the floor, and making a cacophony of squawks. She was still warm with her mouth and throat full of pine shavings, for some unknown reason. We do not know what illness or condition killed her.

You might say that this is a stretch but Benedict is showing real signs of grief over the past week. She has begun to lay shell-less eggs here and there around the Queendom. She can often be found hiding in the nesting box softly clucking to herself with no egg to show for it. Suddenly she is alone with the older girls, making her the lowest of the pecking order. When she had Florentine beside her, I think it was tolerable to be below the others. Florentine had been moving up in the ranks, foraging with Chip and roosting up with the ladies, and she always brought her big sister along with her.

I don’t think I’m tough enough for this backyard chicken business.

Look at that tiny beak poking out of Tweedle Dum's feathers!

Look at that tiny Florentine beak poking out of Tweedle Dum’s feathers!

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A Nickel Bet

FM and I have a very civilized way of agreeing to disagree. When we cannot meet eye-to-eye on a topic, we propose a nickel bet. A nickel is the highest monetary stake either of us is willing to take, yet it is a small enough fund to make the bet an easy way out of any disagreement.

For almost five months, we have been trying to figure out the sexes of our chicks. For most of that time, we have both waffled in our beliefs. For a while, we agreed that, whatever the sex, both chicks were the same. And then we both decided that Florentine was a hen. But Benedict has been difficult to figure out. About two months ago, I decided to bet my nickel and my bet was that Benedict is a rooster. FM quietly voiced his disagreement and claimed that Benedict is a hen. With time, these claims would prove a winner.

Today the truth was revealed.

Benedict is a hen!

Benedict left the flock this morning and is nestled in the nesting box!

When I was leaving the house for work, Benedict was missing, despite my scratch offerings. I peaked my head in the chicken door and, lo and behold, Benedict was tucked away in the nesting box.

When I came home from work, there were two tiny eggs together in that same box. So, as an offering to FM, I let him know that he was right (as usual) and left him this little peace-offering. With two different colours, two tiny eggs and photographic proof that Benedict was in the nesting box, we can be assured that this non-meeting-of-the-minds has been resolved.

A well-earned nickel!

A well-earned nickel!

Hooray!  We now have 5 laying hens! And still no rooster!


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The Torture Chamber

For the second time in her short life, Tweedle Dum has gone broody on us.

Within a month of laying her first egg, she got a wild case of Baby Fever and went on to hatch two chicks – Benedict and Florentine. After a certain amount of time, she became aggressive towards her babies and got back into the business of being a regular chicken and laying eggs. And now, only a few months later, she won’t get out of the nesting box again. This time, she has no fertilized eggs beneath her. In fact, she sits on no eggs at all and doesn’t seem to be bothered by that.

Broody Tweedle Dum is not earning her keep

Broody Tweedle Dum is not earning her keep

Her mood has changed. She sits in a trance-like state all day. She growls and barks instead of clucking and chirping. She gets up once every 4 or 5 days to drink, eat, poop and cause havoc in the hen-house and then she returns to her non-existent clutch of eggs for another long stint. She is losing weight. And, most importantly, she has stopped laying eggs.

After about 18 days of this behaviour, I discussed it with a chicken-farming friend. She reminded me that heritage breeds tend to be more broody than other chicken varieties. It is probably caused by long-term in-breeding. Not only does her broodiness stop her from laying eggs, but it also causes her to stop preening, dust-bathing and caring for herself which can lead to mites, infection, malnutrition and other nastiness. Tweedle Dum needs to either successfully hatch a brood or she needs an intervention to break her.

With a foot of snow on the ground and temperatures still dropping, we decided that it is not the right time of year to bring chicks into the Queendom. We could easily acquire fertilized eggs from a number of friends and colleagues, but we don’t have the facilities to keep Tweedle Dum and potential chicks both separate from the flock and warm in these late-winter nights. So an intervention it is.

What more could a girl need?

What more could a girl need?

I pulled the old brooding box out of storage and lined the bottom with thick cardboard. On top of that, I placed a wire mesh false floor which sits about 2 cm above the cardboard.  I filled up the old waterer, the chick feeder, a small dish of scratch and a lid of oyster shells, small gravel and egg shells. The point of a broody pen is to make the hen realize that this is not a good place to raise young. We left the light on 24 hours a day to prevent her from getting cozy. The mesh floor and the lack of bedding cause her to change her mind. She cannot get into a comfortable nesting position. The wire mesh is uncomfortable to stand on but it is more uncomfortable to lie down on. She is away from the other hens so that she cannot hear them and become defensive about her young. Although there is no water-boarding, it is truly a torture chamber.  On the upside, she is tempted to eat and drink. She has room to stretch and preen.

This Betty Ford Clinic is housed in our computer room. It was easy to grab Tweedle Dum out of her nesting box and place her in her temporary housing. I was told that a hen can be ‘broken’ in a day or two if you separate her as soon as she shows signs of broodiness. But Tweedle Dum had been broody for almost three weeks – so we were anticipating having her cooped up for about a week.

She is showing her displeasure and giving me the ol' one eye stare.

She is showing her displeasure and giving me the ol’ one eye stare.

For the first day, there was no change at all. She continued to growl at us and tried to assume her nesting stance in the darkest corner of the box. But the next day, she was standing more, eating more and occasionally chatted with us as we used the computer. By day 3, she had come completely out of her broody trance and was far more alert. She would watch us and chat away in an accusing tone, letting us know how displeased she was with us.

In the afternoon of the third day, with guilt weighing heavily on me, I decided to try re-integrating her with the other hens. There was enough daylight left for her to re-acquaint herself with the girls outdoors and, if she went directly back to the nesting box, I could separate her  again. With no issue at all, she joined the flock, began re-establishing the pecking order and chattering away in her typical bossy way.

Welcome back, Tweedle Dum.  You owe us about a dozen eggs, so get busy! Hopefully you’ll be broody again in April because I think a flock of 8 or 9 would be ideal!

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A Teeny Egg

What a joy to come home and find a teeny egg in one of the nesting boxes today.

The teeny egg on the right is from one of our chicks. The long brown egg on the left is Chip's.

The teeny egg on the right is the first egg from one of our chicks. The long brown egg on the left is Chip’s.

Florentine and Benedict hatched in mid-October which makes them four and a half months old now. Since then, we have been watching them for signs of typical hen or rooster behaviour. Until now they have kept their cards close to their feathered chests and kept us guessing and betting.

And although we got proof today that one of them is a hen, we still don’t know who is which!

They are hard to tell apart. Ben, on the right, is bigger and whiter. Flo, on the right, has a tall tail and is far more curious.

They are hard to tell apart. Ben, on the left, is bigger and whiter. Flo, on the right, has a tall tail and is far more curious.

Although this egg is teeny, as the hen develops and gets used to the process, she will lay more normal-sized eggs. Perhaps her eggs will eventually be as big as Chip’s – since Chip is the bio-mother to one of them. But the pale pink colour is typical of a Chantecler, which would come from her father, Roo.

Although this egg is teeny, as she develops and gets used to the process, this hen will lay more normal sized eggs.

It gets lost in the egg carton!

Teeny eggs like this give new meaning to a 3 egg omelette!

Teeny eggs like this give new meaning to a 3 egg omelette!

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