May 12, 2020

Ain't nobody here but us chickens

So calm yourself, and stop your fuss, there ain't nobody here but us.

Ain't nobody here but us chickens

A couple weeks ago, a friend related to me that her local feed store manager had told her “chicks are the new toilet paper.” Of course, these days, everything is the new toilet paper. But it has been interesting to observe the disruption of the local market for chicks and “ready to lay” or already laying hens.

(This spring’s original crew of seven, hatched the first full week of April.)

Current demand is off the charts. Most feed stores and the hatcheries that supply them are sold out until fall. Even local hobbyist breeders are selling out like never before.

All of the local chicken-centered Facebook animal groups I belong to are abuzz with desperate pleas for chicks and hens. Unsurprisingly, this has triggered a spate of indignant posts from longtime members lining up on either side of the debate over the ethics of selling to these folks.

(Country folk tend to *really* like to complain about feckless city folk).

With my finger ever upon the pulse of the Zeitgeist, I’m commiting to chronicling here the learnings from my own foray into poultry-keeping with a new regular series of fowl-themed posts.

Normally, I find it hard to resist my professorial impulse to frontload the background information. But part of what has been keeping me sane these past few weeks is the adorable presence of chicks in the house. So let’s just start with that.

(Fairy dogmother Harriet loves to check on the babies).

I mentioned in my last post that I had started incubating eggs from my current flock. Quite unintentionally, that first round of chicks hatched over the Easter weekend.

(First stage of hatching is the “pip.” You can actually hear a whoosh as the chick breaches the shell and the air pocket under the fat end of the egg evacuates).

Unfortunately, this group suffered from my inexperience as a proxy chicken mama. Of seven eggs, only three actually hatched. And in the end, there were only two survivors. Chicks this young are generally near-impossible to sex, so we just name them in a gender-blind fashion.

(Left: Dorothy. Right: Frida II).

Meet Dorothy Day, out of Jon Stewart, my black Jersey Giant hen and probably sired by Frederick Douglass, one of my Silverlaced Wyandotte roosters. Frida Kahlo II is named in memory of the late Frida I, who died this winter. Frida II emerged first, from one of the blue eggs of Berta Caceres, my silver Ameracuana hen. I suspect the father to be Ernesto Guevara, my Ameracuana rooster, but only time will tell.

While candling these eggs part way through the incubation period to assess fetal development (by shining my phone’s flashlight under them in a completely dark room), I dropped an egg. It was a sad lesson in embryonic chick anatomy. I also learned at that time that some of the eggs I had placed in the incubator were not developing (and possibly not even fertilized in the first place).

(Stage two is the “Zip”: the chick rotates inside the shell, cutting the membrane along the circumfrence of the internal air pocket, so that it can push the cap off when it hatches).

One chick seems to have died just before hatching—my autospy revealed a perfectly formed black bantam Cochin that just never pipped its shell.

(Once out, Frida II, just lay there exhausted. Newborn chicks take a while to dry off and develop the strength to stand. Luckily, they absorb enough nutrients from the yolk to not need to eat or drink for many hours after the hatch).

The last chick to hatch was from one of the olive eggs of Okoye, probably my oldest chicken. This little one had a very rough time hatching—very possibly as a result of the drying out of the egg membranes when I opened the incubator to remove the two chicks who hatched first. It was a kind of misshapen and sickly fellow who died in the middle of first night, despite some intensive cuddling time nestled in my bra all day.

(RIP Lil Peep. Gone but not forgotten).

Of the two survivors, Frida II, developed extreme constipation in the first few days (not unusual in very young chicks). It too was on death’s door, until I fully immersed its fluffy butt in a bath of warm water. This procedure was met with vociferous objections, but produced the desired effect.

(Not amused).

Four weeks later, this little fluffball is now in full awkward teenager stage. I’m currently inclined to believe that Frida II is indeed a pullet (young hen), but it’s still too early to be certain.

Dorothy hatched with truly incredible vigor. Hulked its way out of the shell, and barely took a rest afterwards.

This huge chick has been going full steam ahead ever since. This one isn’t looking especially roostery to me either, but given that both parents were late bloomers, who knows.

In order to give these two homegrown chicks some cuddle buddies, I brought home that same weekend four Icelandic mix chicks that were a few days older, from a farm in Kanata still selling at pre-inflationary rates ($5/chick for barnyard mixes).

Icelandics are a “landrace” breed. Most chicken breeds in North America are the product of a deliberate breeding program focused on a specific appearance or production characteristic.

Chickens that evolved more through more informal human intervention in a particular locale often favour qualities like hardiness or “thriftiness” (good foragers with more modest needs for feed).

(The new roomates soon outgrew their re-purposed Foodora delivery bag).

Icelandics have a non-descript, camo type plumage and lay boringly white eggs but they are renowned for their extremely cold hardy nature. Given the kind of winters we have here in the Ottawa Valley region, this is a quality I want to promote in my flock.

(They also all have these insane mohawks, now that they are over a month old).

A week later I picked up from a breeder outside of Maberly four Silverudd’s Blue Isbar chicks.

This breed has long been of interest to me. Created in the mid-20th century by the Swedish monk and obsessive chicken breeding genius, Martin Silverudd, they are green egg layers. Unusually, for a purebred variety, they share some of the hardy and thrifty qualities of the Icelandics.

Along with these Isbars, an impulse purchase: a Sweetgrass turkey poult! A bargain at the chick price of $10. (It was the last leftover of a test hatch).

The turkey has been a revelation. It is gentle and low-key, where the chicks are pushy, high-energy maniacs. It was subject to some bullying initially so I spent a little time mothering this discombobulated gentle giant. But now it has learned to hold its own space as an introvert trapped in a group of extroverts.

Both of these groups have been merged. Week old chicks need high temperatures and frequent checks, so they initially had the privilege of staying in the bathroom of Jesse’s office. But after a week the become stinky enough that they were exiled to a larger brooder in the basement, and finally to an even bigger one in the tack room of the barn.

With the teenagers now growing out in the barn, a new generation hatched early last week. This time five of the seven survived. Three are half-siblings to Frida II, as I have been trying to stock the flock with what are called “Easter Eggers.”

(When Frida I died, Berta became my only Ameracuana).

Ameracuanas (blue egg layers) mixed with other kinds of chickens will produce eggs of all kinds of pastel shades. Olive Eggers can be produced by crossing a blue layer with a dark brown layer (like a Black Copper Marans), and then that offspring with a light brown layer (like a Barnevelder). One of the new chicks is from Okoye, my olive egger, and the other is the tiny badass offspring of my frizzled bantam Cochin, J-Bird (Luisa).

(Okoye’s chick survived this time (top left), but interestingly, is not black-feathered, pointing to some recessive gene action at work.)

Back in the chicken coop, these two mamas have taken matters into their own hands. Both Okoye & J-Bird (Luisa) seem to have gone broody and will trying to hatch chicks the old fashioned way.

Someone (another chicken? Rodent?) keeps stealing eggs from Okoye’s clutch, so we are down from nine to four eggs. J-Bird still has her original six. We should know the results of that experiment in the coming week and a half.

In the meantime, the incubator is on again with projected hatch date of 29 May, with some new eggs from ladies whose offspring I am eager to see.

What I Learned:

Having chicks is exactly as awesome as you would expect, except the part where they die easily.

When it seems like the chick is struggling to hatch after the first pip, it’s just silently unzipping its shell from the inside.

Spring really is a time filled with new life.