This city boy is still learning. My first experience with chickens has been pretty successful. After purchasing 15 day old pullets (female chickens) of unknown breed from the local TSC (Tractor Supply Center), I followed all of the brooding instructions I could find in my internet research. All 15 survived. One turned out to be a rooster, which was cool, as I intended to produce fertile eggs with the goal of renewing my own stock naturally. My local chicken expert said I could expect to lose 10-20% to predators, disease, accidents. A local farmer donated 2 additional Rhode Island Red Roosters, so I began the chicken business with 3 roosters and 14 hens. After a full year, here's the scoop:
I lost one of the Red Roosters to our dogs (the idiot kept leaving the safety of the electric fence to tempt the 4 strays we had rescued....survival of the fittest I guess....probably didn't need his genes in the pool). Over the year dogs and birds of prey took out 6 of the hens. As the chickens are totally free range, I did not experience any of the trauma and pecking order behavior I had been warned about. When critters (and people) have enough breathing space, things seem to work out real well.
The folks at TSC led me to believe my flock would produce brown eggs, but all I got was the white kind which, from the outside, looked just like the stuff you pick up at the grocery store. The inside was a whole different story...plump, dark yolks and very rich and tasty whites. I was hoping to sell enough to at least cover the feed costs, but the tree-huggers are turned off by the white shells and only believe brown eggs can be free range. The city folk my wife works with are uncomfortable with the idea of eating eggs from chickens that eat whatever they want...they actually trust the quality of the hormone induced, factory bred, Wal-Mart fare over ours. I blame our educational system...but that is another blog!
Curiosity drove me to research breeds and I determined that my stock was of the Danish Brown Leghorn variety. These ladies know how to lay, and once mature, I could count on at least one egg a day from each hen. I noticed that if I let the eggs accumulate, a few of the hens would hunker down and sit on them for several hours. As other chicken farmer's explained that only a "broody hen" would endure the 21 day chore of settin' and hatchin', I was curious to know if there was anything I could do to encourage the "broody attitude" so as to allow one of the hens to hatch and raise some replacement stock. Much to my surprise, I learned that most of the commercial, egg-producing stock (such as my Brown Leghorns) have been selectively bred to ELIMINATE the broody instinct. This sounded a little too 'Brave-New-Worldish' to me, so I started asking around. To my dismay, most of the chicken people are resigned to incubating eggs to reproduce stock. They buy these fancy machines that mimic all of the things the mother hen would normally do like keep the temperature and humidity at the correct levels, rotate the eggs to prevent the chick from developing abnormally. My naive image of the legendary 'mother hen' was being seriously violated. Apparently, in the egg producing industry (even on the local, personal level) it's all about efficiency. Since the broody hen stops laying during the incubation period, all the local farmers prefer the artificial approach in order to maintain production.
Being the rebel that I am, I explored finding a "broody hen". One expert explained that there are a few breeds that still exhibit the instinct to brood, but to introduce one into a new environment would require several weeks of acclimation. To get the hen to set on eggs laid by another hen requires some subterfuge on my part and some late night egg-swapping to fool the mama. I am realizing this whole thing has gotten out of hand. Why can't we just leave things alone!
Being on a first name basis with the Creator, I took it it with Him (yeah, I know the Big Guy has no gender, but I'm not about to refer to the Lord of the Universe as 'IT' - get over it you PC freaks!) I got a strong sense that all the technology in the world could not eliminate the 'strife for life' that is built into all us living creatures. The social engineering wonks have all but made human regeneration a glorified STD, but plenty of women still keep having (and wanting to have) babies. One guy on the web mused that the 'inbred' distaste or inability to brood would probably be overcome by instinct, given time. I mean, even if you are a strict Darwinist, you gotta believe even a grant-fed orthinologist could not convince a species to go extinct without human assistance! This guy on the web reasoned that since the bio-engineers 'designed' the chickens to be egg-laying machines for no more than six months and then...(where do you think those little chunks in Campbell's Chicken Noodle Soup come from?), he figures if you let the poor things live out their normal life span of 5-7 years, they might come to their senses.
A bright young (home-schooled) fellow who shared my misgivings confided that he was able to 'coax' a willing hen to sit out the 21-day period by locking her in the pen with a clutch of eggs, keeping it nice and dark, and letting nature take its course.
Heartened by this news, I decided to build a second coop. (Since the other hens were already trained to lay in the nesting boxes, I certainly did not want to shut them out and make every day an Easter egg hunt!). While procrastinating from the task of devoting an entire weekend to the building project, my favorite hen started, well, acting 'broody'. That's right. She sat and sat and would not leave the coop. She eventually collected 18 eggs, turned them, pecked if you tried to pet her, all the typical mother hen behavior. Lo and behold, after 21 days, my granddaughter Ava announced that there was a little bird peeking out from under the mother hen. Turned out to be four of them, peeping away just like the store-bought day old chicks!
Not sure why, but she thought four were enough. She bounced them out of the nest and became a devoted mom that would put some homo-sapiens to shame. Out of curiosity, we examined the abandoned eggs. Many had fully formed chicks, some were at various stages of development. But this is just something more to muse on. My dad informed me that hens can only handle 6 to 8 chicks so it's not smart to allow the dozen and a half that I did. Next time, I think I will limit the clutch to 8, mark each egg with a black 'x' and remove any additional ones. This city boy still has lots to learn!