Saturday, 25 February 2017

The miracle chick

 Today we aren't counting our chickens so much as counting our blessings!

By Friday evening eighteen little chicks had hatched. For us this is a fabulous hatch rate, 90% of the eggs had hatched and we were over the moon. I had already moved eight of the chicks into the brooder box. This is a small secure cage with an electric heat pad on legs that the chicks can walk under to keep warm and feel secure. Effectively it's an electronic mother hen. So at supper time I moved the remainder of the chicks to the brooder, switched off the incubator and watched the eighteen little chicks finding their feet, exploring their cage and eating and drinking. Then I returned to the kitchen where the incubator was and started to clean it out.

There were lots of eggshells and the two remaining unhatched eggs. Sometimes, but not always, I carry out a simple post mortem by opening the unhatched eggs to see whether the chick had died in the shell early on or whether it had just become too exhausted to hatch. It's a useful process as it gives me an idea of whether I have let the incubator dry out or the humidity level was too high etc. It's a bit of a grim process, but it's the best way for me to learn whether I am doing things wrong (or right!).

I picked up the first egg to examine it. It was pipped and the shell was broken in a line about 3/4 of the way round, obviously this little chick had just worn itself out trying to hatch. I started to open the shell when the little bird inside started cheeping and moving! Good grief, I had switched off the incubator about 20 minutes earlier and left the lid off for several minutes while taking the chicks out of it to move them. So, I put the egg back into the incubator and put the lid back on. I grabbed a water sprayer and filled it with warm water and then lifted the incubator lid a little and sprayed warm water on to the shell of the unhatched bird and on to the empty shells in an attempt to quickly increase the humidity levels in the incubator.

Lifting the lid of incubator reduces the humidity levels significantly and leaving it off will mean that the air inside will be as dry as the air in the room. The air surrounding hatching chicks needs to be around 65% humidity (or more) to enable them to hatch properly, if it drops too low then the membrane inside the egg ( you know the one you have to peel off a hard boiled egg) will dry out. Then what you end up with is a shrink wrapped chick that can't get out of the membrane and shell and dies before it's even hatched.

The little chick struggled for some time to get out of shell and eventually the shell was off, but sadly the membrane had got too dry and part of it was stuck to the back of the chick. This little bird was weak, exhausted, had been subjected to cold, dry and being handled and neither Mr J nor I had much hope of it surviving. It was another white Jersey Giant and I would have loved one more to add to our growing flock.

It seems to me that about this point in any hatch I start hoping for miracles, hoping that the weakest little chick will find the strength to live. Up to now we haven't had much luck with the hoping, wishing and fingers crossed method, up until now that is.

Little chick no.19 lay in the incubator, too weak to stand up, its breathing alternated between deep gasping breaths and rapid shallow breathing. Its eyes were closed and looked swollen, its abdomen looked distended. As the evening went on the swelling went down a little and it opened one eye, although it still couldn't stand but looked like it had a little more control of its head and neck muscles.

When we went to bed we anticipated coming down to a dead chick and were prepared to be sad for the one and to celebrate the eighteen healthy hatches. 

But to our delight, no.19 made it through the night and as its tiny feather fluff had started to dry out, it began to look a little healthier. It was also up on its feet, wobbly and weak looking, but upright! 

By mid-morning it was moving tentatively around the incubator and with each passing hour, it looks stronger. It is still sleeping a lot, but then all chicks do that and it has started cheeping which indicates that it's lungs may not have been damaged by the rocky hatching experience. Chicks can stay in the incubator for up to 72 hours as they have enough nourishment from the yolk absorbed into their bodies and I think no.19 is going to need most of that time to become strong enough to join the others.

As I type it is late afternoon on Saturday, about twenty-four hours since the chick hatched, it is now cheeping away in the incubator and walking about, a little wobbly still, but definitely gaining strength hour by hour. It is not out of the woods yet, it still needs to be able to stand steadily, but we are both now hopeful that this little chap or chapess will survive and that if it continues to improve at the same rate, it will be able to join its brothers and sisters in the brooder box in a day or so. 

Every time we hatch some chicks (or ducklings) I am struck by how clever nature is, that little beings can grow inside an egg, go through the struggles of hatching and be well and lively within hours is nothing short of a miracle. The additional struggle that no.19 has gone through surely earns it the title of today's 'Miracle Chick'.
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You can see videos of the chicks on my YouTube channel where I post vlogs daily (almost). You can find my YouTube channel here.
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Thursday, 23 February 2017

Hatch day success

The chicks were due on Tuesday, but there was absolutely no sign of any eggs hatching, in fact, they didn't even pip. I felt quite low, storm Doris was starting to arrive at our smallholding and it was too cold, wet and windy to do much outside. I was getting a heavy cold and a lack of chicks just added to my feeling fed-up. On Wednesday morning I was feeling a little despondent and as though I had done something or not done something that had caused the eggs a problem, as it turns out it was quite the opposite.

By nine in the morning one egg had pipped and by mid-morning that a little chick hatched. 

It was early afternoon before a second chick hatched, a bonny little white Jersey Giant.

Then, in late afternoon, the incubator seemed to come alive, it started looking like a popcorn maker with chicks hatching one after another and by the time we went to bed there were nine chicks jostling about in the confines of the incubator. When I got up briefly at 3am, there were twelve chicks and when I got up for the day at 6am, I found what I think is fourteen chicks. 

It's become quite difficult to count how many chicks there are, partly because of they are all similar colours, but also because they keep moving around. In the moments that they are all resting or asleep I start counting and then suddenly one pops up from under a little heap of baby birds and they all move around again and so, I lose count. This is a good problem to have, I am delighted with the hatch so far.

As I type there are six eggs that haven't hatched, at least two of them have pipped, but a pipping is no guarantee of a chick. They sometimes pip and then become exhausted by the effort required to do that, so die. Sometimes they get much further into the hatching process and then die. Hatching seems an incredible process and I am fascinated by it.

I filmed one little bird emerging from its shell and included it in yesterday's vlog.

It is much too windy to work outside today (unless of course you absolutely have to), so I have the perfect excuse to sit and watch these little bundles of fluff as they dry their first feathers and learn to use their legs. And of course, first of all, I'll make a nice cuppa!

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I also post vlogs daily (almost). You can find my YouTube channel here.
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Monday, 20 February 2017

Chickens, chickens everywhere

The next batch of chicks is due to hatch on Tuesday and I am starting to get excited about our chicken breeding plans for the year.

In the chicken field, we have now separated the Australorp breeding group from the White Jersey Giants, so in two weeks time the eggs of both will be ready to start hatching as pure breeds. It also means that we will be able to offer hatching eggs for sale. Both the White Jersey Giants and Australorps are in groups from different bloodlines, so the offspring should be strong and healthy.

We have two Australorp boys, one is with the girls and one is going into his own house and pen with a few hybrid girls for company. We want to keep the second male as insurance, in case anything happens to our first choice of breeding male. These two cockerels were selected from the seven we hatched last year, I hope that we've made the correct decision about which ones to keep.

The Jersey Giants (JG) have Little White (who has now become known as Big White) as our breeding male and three unrelated females and there are also two young JG birds in the nursery area of the chicken condo. They are around 14 weeks old and as yet, still a little young to be certain of their gender. It matters little what their gender, they have a different bloodline to the adults of the little flock and will add another set of genes to the group.

One of the young ones has the wrong colour of legs, so sadly will only be joining the flock for a few weeks before being dispatched as I don't want to add poor traits to our flock (or to anyone else's for that matter). A Jersey Giant should have olive colour legs with yellow underfoot and not a blue leg with pink underfoot that this little chicken has. It has occurred to me that it looks more like a Gauloise chickens than a JG, but it's character is the gentle, friendliness of a Jersey Giant rather than the flighty feistiness of a Gauloise (or at least what I've read about them).

In the chicken condo we have more birds than I want. We have decided to reduce our Cream Legbar group to just two girls, so we still have some blue eggs in our egg boxes and we will rehome the boy. I also want to rehome the two white bantam girls, who are great egg layers but small, as a bantam would be and not any use for us to breed from as we are focusing on large birds. I will be advertising them (to be homed for free) on a local poultry group on Facebook. We don't need as many hyline girls as we have now so they can either be rehomed or as they die naturally we won't replace them. They have been great over the winter period, but now that the JG and Australorp girls are laying, I don't want to become overrun with eggs. The young birds that are currently in the nursery pen will become part of our mixed flock as they grow up.

Mr J and I continue to have discussions about how, what and where to build pens in the chicken field. We want the birds to be able to free range, but are also aware that we want to keep some birds in separate groups and to do that, we will need separate living arrangements for them. 

If money was no object, I would have a series of covered pens built with a raised house in each pen, with a covered pathway (for humans only) that ran along the back of them. We could leave them open when the birds are allowed to free range and close the pens during periods of lockdown or when we want specific breeding groups kept together. However, money is a factor and we don't have the cash lying around to invest a considerable sum in pens and housing. So we continue to discuss how best to make suitable pens and housing for the chickens for the long term and will trundle along creating walkways, runs and pens as and when we can.

When I looked at the incubator a little while ago, one of the eggs was wobbling which means that the next batch of chicks are on their way! To follow their progress you can follow me on Twitter (click the link to the right of my blog) as I will give updates throughout the hatching period with the hashtag #hatchwatch2017.