Sunday, July 11, 2010

Things You Learn From Chickens Part I

Since my last post so long ago, a lot has happened. We have increased our goat herd in quality and quantity and the wife is becoming an accomplished cheese maker (soaps are next). The disproportionate number of Billy offspring has prompted me to learn the fine art of bloodless castration (more on that in a later post). But my greatest delight has been observing the antics of the chicken population. Our flock has come to include several new species as the demand for our free-range, organic, fertile eggs has increased. We now sport, in addition to our Brown Leghorns and Rhode Island Reds, Red Stars, Black Orlicks, Barred Rocks, Wyandottes, and White Leghorns.

We have 7 roosters and somewhere around 30 hens (I gave up counting). Because the roosters don't appear to have a prejudiced bone in their bodies, the way harems are established is more a matter of chicken bluff and machismo rather than by breed. Harems range is size from one (an older one-eyed rooster has had three of his hens wooed away) to seven. The guys are constantly mixing it up trying to steal from the others. I don't have television, but I'm guessing the barnyard drama rivals the best (or worst) that the steamy nighttime broadcast fare has to offer.

Since we broke through the genetically selected 'broodiness' barrier I talked about last time, the maternal instinct has gone a little crazy around here. I am now actually trying to discourage the behavior a little bit because it is starting to interfere with my egg production. I have decided to only allow 2 hens to make the commitment at any one time. As it takes exactly 21 days to hatch a clutch of eggs (and several weeks to mother the chick to adulthood) it puts the egg layers out of commission for quite a while. The interesting thing is that the hens could care less whose eggs they are sitting on. So each clutch is a genetic potpourri of the barnyard residents and I am getting a kick out of seeing what comes out in the mix!

Last summer I invested in a batch of Guinea Fowl. These critters are somewhat akin to peacocks, though much more bland in appearance. They roost in trees, make incredible noises when anything strange appears in their territory(a real poor man's alarm system), and are voracious bug eaters. My primary purpose in obtaining them was to help with pest control, especially to cut down on the insect population that feasts on garden vegetation. Of the minimum order of 30 I purchased, only 4 survived to adulthood. Sadly, one of the dogs developed an unbreakable habit of fowl killing that required me to put her down. Of the 4 survivors, only one was a hen, so I feared I may never get to naturally replenish the flock.

Guineas have a egg-laying season which runs from late spring to early July. Fortunately, my lone hen started laying so hope sprung eternal. Her first clutch of 18 eggs, which she cleverly hid under a wood pile, was ravaged by some nocturnal critter.

She got a little smarter (which is amazing for an animal whose brain can't be much larger than a pea), and started laying in one of the nesting boxes in the chicken coop. Because a guinea will not sit until she has accumulated between 18 and 30 eggs, the growing clutch of eggs (18 at this point) was too much to resist for one of the broody hens. The perplexed guinea, who found an obstinate hen sitting on her clutch, simply moved to the next box and started all over. After another dozen of those, the same thing happened. So she starts a third nest in the next box. After about 5 eggs, another hen 'adopts' the clutch. This was too much for the guinea. She finally gave up and started a new nest in our garden, right in the middle of the watermelon patch.

I watched with daily curiosity on the progress of the chickens. Sure enough, after the 28 day period of incubation (guineas take an extra week), the nest exploded with guinea chicks - 18 in all. The frustrated mother did her best to care for the flock, wandering through the woods, her chirping 'babies' in tow. By the second day, there were only two chicks left! Other hens, who had hatched 2 or 3 eggs were experiencing the same thing. Something in the woods was grabbing the chicks. Because I did not have this experience last year, I was perplexed. I decided to take the remaining 2 guinea chicks and the one surviving chicken baby and brood them myself in the safety of the garage. The poor moms were beside themselves and immediately wanted to start sitting on eggs again, so I divided the large clutch of unhatched guinea eggs between them.

In about 2 weeks, the second clutch of guineas exploded into life. This time I immediately took them from the nest and put them in the brooder with their older sibling So now I had a garage full of peeping chicks. Eventually, I added 5 more chicken hatchlings to the mix and allowed the remaining brooder to sit on what was left of the guinea eggs.

After about 3 weeks, the two older guineas were starting to fly and I was afraid they would hurt themselves or their brooder mates with the mad, crashing momentum their strong wings were generating. So I decided to put them in with the rest of the chicken flock and hope for the best. To my amazement, they immediately recognized the hen who had hatched them and bonded to her like white on rice. Delighted at the reunion, she picked up where she left off, teaching them to forage and leading them back to the roost at night.

Another two weeks elapsed and it was time to release the next phase of guinea chicks. I was interested to see what they would do. A week earlier I had released a mature hen chick, whose hatch mother would have nothing to do with her. She was all out of sorts, scared of the other larger chickens. She just stayed in the relative safety of the coop. When I released the guineas, they remembered her as an older sister in the brooder box and immediately bonded to her. So now they follow her around like a roaming blob of peeping feathers. Strange stuff. But really cool!

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