I’ve had chickens for a little over a year now, from chicks through to full grown hens. When I first acquired my five “sexed” chicks, I hoped all five would be female. With an 80-90% accuracy rate, I knew it was a risk one wouldn’t be. I didn’t have any idea how to tell if one was a rooster, though. “How do you know?” There’s a lot of learning that goes on in raising any animals, and the “Well, how do you know?” is a question I keep running across and then answering.
Early on, I had one chicken that was bigger than the rest, who developed a comb and wattles early, and who, sadly, was the friendliest of the bunch. I harbored suspicions that it was a rooster, though I was hoping it wasn’t. My friend Tonya, who has dozens of chickens and is quite an expert, took one look at the photo I sent her and said, “That’s a MAN, baby.” Sigh. You “know” because of those signs, plus the fact that his legs were thicker early on and had little spots where his spurs would eventually grow. That, and he eventually did crow. Luckily, I found a woman north of me who wanted a Buff Orpington rooster to go with her hens, and who had a Rhode Island Red hen to trade. Sweet! Drove to Woodland, made a clandestine poultry swap in the parking lot of the Safeway feeling like a cop was going to bust me at any moment, and went home with “Eeyore”, as my then-three-year-old dubbed the hen.
Fast forward to now. I’ve heard of hens going broody, and I knew what it meant technically, but I didn’t know how to tell if my hens were doing it. Going “broody” means that the hen has decided she has a clutch of eggs she must hatch. For many, it’s a bad thing as it means she will stop laying eggs and do nothing but sit about on her nest all day, pecking and making noise at any intruders. I knew you could break a hen of being broody by giving her a bath, or forcing her to stay in a wire cage for several days without a nest to sit on. But I still didn’t really know what it LOOKED like.
Then I noticed that every time I opened the egg door on our coop, there was a hen on a nest. And when I reached under her to see if she had eggs there, she pecked at me and hissed. That was new. The next two days, I noticed we only had four hens in the run, and the fifth was sitting determinedly on her golf balls, trying to hatch them. Well. That’s broody.
As I mentioned in a previous post, I went in search of fertile eggs for her. Without a rooster, my girls only lay dud eggs. I found a gal through the local Chicken List (http://groups.yahoo.com/PDXbackyardchix) who had fertile eggs and came highly recommended. I’d hoped for some Buff Orpington and maybe some likely frizzle eggs, but no dice. I just had her send me a dozen basically random eggs. Didn’t know this, but apparently you can gather the eggs and not have a hen on them for days or even a week, and then incubate them and they’ll be fine. That means she can mail them to folks, and she mailed them to me. They showed up all individually wrapped in bubble wrap and packed in styrofoam peanuts, and all were safe and sound and took about 24 hours in transit because she is only 30 or so miles south of me. Getting them under the hen was a little interesting, but once she understood that I was putting something BACK, she seemed perfectly content, even happy about it.
That worked for a day, but on the second morning she went out to get some food and water with the rest of the hens, and then apparently didn’t beat one of the other hens back to the full nest. Stupid other hen laid a 13th egg in the full nest, AND made the broody hen sit on the wrong nest. Ack! This resulted in my husband having to pull out the table saw and nail gun and build an Emergency BroodyBox. It’s merely a 3’x4′ wood frame with no bottom and a wood frame lid, all screened in with chicken wire except the back, where there’s a sliding wood panel I can use to access the back of the nest to see how things are progressing. The lid is hinged with some old salvaged door hinges and held shut by a very attractive and high-tech C clamp. The reason it has no bottom is that we put it on our concrete patio and lined it with straw. Nothing can dig through concrete, and it’s too heavy for a raccoon to lift. Inside that she has her own water and food (though she of course won’t eat or drink much) and she has her own nest box located back against the wood back and sufficiently far away from wire on all sides to prevent raccoons from reaching in.
So far so good with the BroodyBox. Only hitch has been that somehow she managed to actually squash one of the eggs; I reached under her today to check it out and discovered a squashed up shell stuck in her feathers, and the other half of the squashed up shell in the nest. I’m hoping it was the one Stupid Hen laid as the 13th egg, as their shells seem to have been running on the thin side lately anyway, and it would have been an infertile egg. I won’t know for sure until 2 1/2 more weeks pass!