Broody Hens 101

BroodyHenAlthough most people tout fresh eggs as the best reason for keeping a small flock of hens in the backyard, observing the behavior and personality of the birds has to come in a close second.  Probably the most interesting hen to observe is a broody hen as she incubates eggs and raises her brood. Until the invention of incubators all chickens were hatched by broody hens, and managing them was an important poultry rearing skill.   

Because hens stop laying while they are sitting on eggs and raising chicks, broodiness is considered an undesirable trait in commercial egg operations. Breeds or strains of chickens that have had the broodiness almost completely bred out of them are used almost exclusively.

Although a hen of virtually any chicken breed can go broody, few egg production hybrids and most white egg breeds rarely do. However, the standard heavy breeds favored by most backyard chicken raisers for their brown eggs sometimes do go broody.    Broodiness is most common in late winter and spring but it can happen anytime.  It is not possible to predict if an individual bird will go broody, and many won’t.  It is important to note that there is nothing that you can do to make a hen go broody. It is  a process based on the individual hen, her hormones and her environment. The most reliable broody breed is the Silkie Bantam, and some people raise them just so they have broody hens. This small hen doesn’t hesitate to sit on large eggs from full size breeds, and Silkies have even hatched giant goose eggs!

When a hen goes broody she spends virtually all day and night sitting on eggs laid by other hens. Approach the nest to snatch eggs from under her and she’ll threaten and peck.     Once she settles into serious incubation she enters a near trancelike state and sits constantly, keeping the eggs warm until the chicks start to hatch at day 21.

Broody hens can’t tell their own eggs from those of other birds.They’ll sit on anyone’s eggs and anything that looks like an egg…..even golf balls! Hens raised without roosters can’t lay fertile eggs, but those hens may still go broody and sit on a clutch of eggs that has no possiblity of hatching.

There are times when you have a broody hen that you don’t want to be broody. At these times there are methods that you can try to help break the broodiness, which range from repeatedly removing the hen from the nest throughout the day to isolating the hen in a dark environment for several days to interrupt the mindset of broodiness.

Want more chicken knowledge? Make plans to attend a Tour D’ Cluck Chicken Chat near you this spring! Click the link to view schedule:  www.nutrenaworld.com/cluck  

 

 

 

Brooding Ducklings

Brooding Ducklings

Our very first batch of chicks from the local feed store several years ago included two ducklings. We hadn’t planned on raising ducklings, but they were just so cute, we couldn’t resist bringing two home along with the baby chicks. While it is possible to successfully brood chicks and ducklings together, and we did that first time, it really is preferable to brood them separately for several reasons:

  •  Ducklings don’t need as much heat. Unlike chicks that you start off at 95 degrees and then lower the temperature five degrees per week, ducklings you start off at 90 degrees and then lower the temperature by one degree a day, or seven degrees per week. 
  •  Ducklings grow extremely fast. You risk having your baby chicks trampled by the much larger and heavier ducklings, even if they all are the same age.
  •  Ducklings need a deeper water source. Ducklings need to be able to submerge their entire bill to keep their mucous membranes moist, so mason jar or chick waterers aren’t deep enough for them. Instead a sturdy stoneware dish that won’t tip over, with several stones in it so the ducklings won’t drown, works better.
  •  Ducklings make a mess in their water. Your brooder will always be soaking wet, which baby chicks don’t enjoy.  Much as ducklings love to play in their water, they can get chilled, so you want to keep their brooder as dry as possible. Using a spare bathtub with rubber shelf liner on the bottom and their water at the drain end works wonderfully, as does setting their water up on an upturned plastic seedling tray over paper towels so the spilled water gets absorbed.
  •  Ducklings need niacin.  Ducklings can eat chick starter feed but they need niacin to help them grow strong bones. Adding brewer’s yeast to their feed is extremely beneficial to growing ducklings. Additionally, ducklings should always only be fed UNmedicated starter feed since they rarely contract coccidiosis and eat more by weight than chicks do and there is a risk of them over-medicating themselves.

If you decide to raise some ducklings, consider setting up a separate brooding area for them. It will be far easier, and more enjoyable, for all.

Our contributing author, Lisa from Fresh Eggs Daily, gives advice on raising backyard chickens and ducks on Facebook.com/FreshEggsDaily and Facebook.com/DucksToo as well as her blog Fresh-eggs-daily.com.

 

 

Helping Baby Chicks Thrive

Many people associate spring with fuzzy baby chicks, but modern hatchery practices make chicks available year-round. Once you know which breed is right for you, select a reputable hatchery or dealer from which to purchase your chicks.

Young chicks must have a brooder for warmth and protection. Prepare the brooder by cleaning and disinfecting it at least two days before the chicks arrive. Once it has dried, cover the floor with 4 to 6 inches of dry litter material. Pinewood shavings or sawdust is recommended to aid in disease prevention. Hardwood litter is not recommended. Place the brooder in a draft-free location. Carefully position an incandescent bulb about a foot above the box floor to provide heat and add a second light in case one bulb burns out.

Newly hatched chicks will find their perfect temperature in the brooder. If it’s too hot under the bulb chicks will move away from the heat; if too cool they’ll move closer. Give chicks space to move about. Baby chicks huddle together when they’re cold, which can cause smothering or suffocation, so check your chicks regularly to be sure they are comfortable. Raise the height of the lights as they grow, because their need for artificial heat will diminish as they grow feathers.

Clean, fresh water is the most important thing to give your chicks. Make sure it is always available and that the waterers are clean. Check water levels daily to be sure your chicks are consuming enough. Chick starter grower rations are available in medicated and unmedicated formulas. Select one with the protein, vitamins and minerals chicks need to thrive. Sprinkle the feed on the brooder floor at first but use a chick feeder when the chicks are a few days old.

Given a snug brooder, fresh water and good food, your chicks will soon be big enough to move into their coop.

Caring for your flock in extreme cold

In extreme cold, measures can be taken to warm the coop

There’s cold…and then there’s extreme cold!

Generally well cared for chickens easily handle temperatures down to zero or a few degrees below. But once in a while the mercury drops to 20 or even 30 degrees below zero.   That’s extreme cold for both chickens and their human caretakers. When it gets that frosty chickens need special care.

Anyone living where the thermometer could plunge should stay tuned to weather forecasts. If subzero temperatures arrive a flock owner normally has a few days to prepare, and the following actions can help the birds survive in reasonable comfort:

  •  Eliminate coop drafts. Plug cracks in walls or around windows with caulking or bits of fiberglass insulation that can be pushed into gaps with a screwdriver. Bits of cloth work in a pinch.
  • Keep feeders filled and treat the hens to some extra grain. Corn and scratch are low in protein but high in cold fighting energy. Chickens also eat more when it’s cold.
  • Put a coating of Vaseline on combs and wattles. These are the body parts most likely to be frostbitten.  (Thinking ahead, consider buying breeds that have tiny pea combs, which are much less likely to freeze than breeds that sport large single combs.)
  • Warm the birds – slightly. There is an enormous difference between zero and 25 below zero.   It’s not necessary to make the coop warm but it is important to take the edge off extreme cold. Warming the interior of the coop to zero on very cold nights will help the birds come through the chill in good shape.   

As a first line of defense, you can try sheeting off portions of the coop to make the overall space smaller and easier for the chickens to warm with their own body heat.

If you are confronted with extremely cold tempratures, your last resort may be to use brooder lights to warm the coop. A chick brooder heat bulb in a porcelain socket fixture positioned CAREFULLY in the coopwill reduce the chill… but be careful. Bulbs get very hot. Keep them away from anything combustible and the hens, which could get burned. Suspending the fixture from the ceiling and away from roosts and anything that could catch fire will warm the air.  NOTE: using heat lamps in your coop in the winter is usually not encouraged. However, some situations may call for this drastic measure.     

Coops lacking electricity present warming challenges, but filling a five gallon pail with hot water, covering it, and putting it in the coop can add a few degrees to the interior temperature without creating a fire or burning hazard.

Over most of the country normal weather winters come and go without extreme subzero temperatures, but when the mercury plunges it is important to take action to keep hens alive and healthy.

Beating boredom in the coop

Keeping chickens occupied in the winter can be a tough task.

Warm months delight chickens that are fortunate enough to have the run of a yard. There are bugs to chase and devour tasty earthworms to scratch up under fallen leaves, tender grass to snack on, and interesting places to explore.

That changes with winter’s frigid confinement. Chickens shun snow while enduring the cold months indoors. Rather than dining on summer’s diverse outdoor banquet their winter diet is limited to nutritious but unexciting commercial crumbles or pelletized feed. They have no wondrous places to explore while being cooped up with their peers.

It’s unknown if chickens get bored, but they respond with gusto when people add diversity to their winter lives. That usually means treats and snacks to vary the diet.

Although commercial feed is an important mainstay for winter chickens, ambitious owners sprout grain to give their flock a winter treat of greenery. Table scraps also add diet variety but be careful as wet soggy foods can dampen the coop litter and create odor.

Among the best table scraps for indoor feeding are small amounts of salad greens, pumpkin and squash seeds, and bits of vegetables, popcorn, and almost any other food that’s relatively dry. Only put in as much as the birds can clean up in a few minutes.

Chickens love a snack of scratch grain or cracked corn, but only a few handfuls daily are all a small flock should have. Too much grain causes chicken obesity! A NatureWise Scratch Block of compressed grain sold at feed stores and left in the coop helps to provide exercise and diversion as the birds gradually peck the blocks apart.

Perhaps the most important help a flock owner can give birds is space. Cramming hens together in winter guarantees squabbling, pecking, and other social problems. Four square feet of floor space per birds is an absolute minimum. The more room the better, and a coop that has an array of perches and roosts at different heights and angles gives the hens a place to exercise, while adding three dimensions to a coop.

If your birds are all cooped up this winter (pun intended), consider giving them a distraction from winter boredom in the form of a special treat – and make sure there is enough room in the coop to help combat cabin fever!

Predator-proofing your coop and run

Keep your flock safe by locking them in the coop at night

In a recent article we wrote about how to identify predators that harm your flock. Now that you’ve identified your potential predator or predators, you can begin fixing the weak links in and around the coop and run.

First, let’s establish some basic ground rules to keep your flock safe:

  • No outside roosting at night. Your flock is most vulnerable in the dark.
  • Train your birds to come back to the coop every night. This may be natural for most chickens, but if your flock fails to return to the roost, simply keep them in the coop with no access to the run for at least a week. It shows the birds that this is their ‘home’. When doing so, make sure the temperature inside the coop does not exceed 70 degrees (F).
  • Secure the coop. Do this by building it off the ground about 12 inches. This discourages skunks, snakes and rats from hiding under the coop and stealing your precious eggs.
  • Keep the coop enclosed in a poultry run with poultry wire, electric netting, or wire mesh. Consider also covering the top with poultry netting. 

Mesh fencing material is optimal material. Small (½ inch by ½ inch) mesh  will deter creatures and snakes.
Electric fencing can be used for dogs, raccoons or coyotes. 
Hardware cloth can be buried under the fence around the perimeter of your chicken run to prevent digging predators. 

  •  A coop nightlight that stays on after dark will help keep your chickens safe. Chickens do need time for rest, though, so make sure the light is not shining directly into the coop, or opt for motion detector lights outside the coop. 
  • Having a watchful eye, such as a chicken-friendly dog or protective rooster, can also keep your girls safe — and alert you to potential predators.
  • Secure feed. Feed/food scraps attract predators, encouraging them to break into the run. Making sure no feed is left in that area will help prevent pests such as mice and rats. It’s best to store feed in a sturdy, metal garbage can with a tight-fitting lid, which will also help keep out moisture.

Finally, never underestimate the unpredictability of a hungry wild animal. Protect your flock, but never put yourself in physical danger.

Predator ID

Opossum takes up residence in a nest box

Nothing is more disheartening then having your flock attacked by a predator, and chickens seem to be a menu favorite for most wild and domestic creatures. Chickens are also more susceptible to attack since they’re smaller in size and weight compared to other flock animals. Knowing how to protect your girls begins with identifying who is doing the attacking. 

  • Missing birds:  Coyotes, dogs, foxes and birds of prey (like hawks), will take chickens during the day, however, owls will strike at night. Domestic dogs will usually not eat the bird; they more often attack as a form of sport, leaving the body in close proximity to the attack. If it’s not molting season, scattered feathers can be a sure sign of a panic-stricken bird and potential predation.
  • Missing limbs: Raccoons are known for their intelligence, hand skills and claws. If your birds are not kept in a mesh-style pen, raccoons can reach in and pull off limbs.
  • Missing eggs: Skunk, rats, opossums, cats, snakes and birds of prey target unprotected nests. Look for egg shells in the surrounding area where the hens typically nest. If you know eggs are missing, but cannot find any shells, a stealthy snake might be getting into the nest and swallowing them whole.
  • Birds with gashes near the cloaca: Weasels and their relatives kill for food, but unfortunately, also for fun. Look for scattered or bloody feathers. They tend to bite at the vent region, pulling out the intestines. You may find some birds still alive, but severely injured from an aggressive weasel attack.
  • Birds found dead in closed corners: Birds are known to huddle together when trying to avoid predators that are in close proximity. The weight of the flock is enough to suffocate or crush the birds below. If this is found in your flock, look for signs above, as the predator may still be lurking nearby.

Once you determine what predator is threatening your flock it’s time to take steps to prevent further attacks, including securing your birds and reinforcing your coop.