Three years ago, our beloved Buff Orpington, Hope, taught us the ways of a broody. We successfully “grafted” some hatchery chicks to her, one of which was our Belgian Mille Fleur d’Uccle, Pippa.
Sadly, Hope and many of her compatriots have gone on to that palatial chicken coop in the sky, and for the past six months we’ve been down to a flock of two; little Pippa and our Silkie, Luna.
When Pippa, now age three, had gone broody last summer, it was an annoyance. This year, I was praying for her to go broody so we could try to repeat the broody magic we experienced with Hope. Luckily for us, Pippa dutifully went broody a few weeks ago, growling and fussing and puffing up her feathers and refusing to leave the nest. We were thrilled!
Even though she was decisively broody, we were cautioned against giving her chicks too soon. The gestation period for hatching eggs is twenty-one days and one source we consulted was insistent that if you give baby chicks to a hen before the three week mark, she will kill the little ones. It is not uncommon for even a full-term broody hen to attack or abandon baby chicks; nature can be capricious. But we had to work around chick availability; our feed store was getting a shipment in yesterday, which put Pippa at just over two weeks in her broody cycle.
Leading up to the big day, we indulged Pippa in her broody ways. Since she refused to leave the nest, we “flipped the Pip” a few times a day, moving her from her clutch of golf balls over to her food and water. She would cluck in protestation, but she would eat and drink and take a little walk before returning to sit on her nest.
My research told me that a bantam hen like Pippa can only raise three standard-size chicks. Since both Pippa and Luna are very gentle and docile, I wanted to choose chicks from breeds known to have mild temperaments. Behavior varies greatly from bird to bird, but the three breeds we chose are known to be generally good-natured: Buff Orpington, Barred Rock and Ameraucauna.
We arrived at the feed store yesterday morning before the doors had even opened. I wanted to get first choice of chicks! I brought a shoe box to carry them home and I brought a list of the things we needed: a feeder, a waterer and most importantly, starter feed. Baby chicks cannot eat the grown hen’s diet of layer feed because it contains too much calcium. Pippa and Luna can eat starter feed along with the chicks until they are old enough to switch to a grower feed at about seven weeks of age.
Your best chance of enticing a broody hen to accept chicks is to slip the babies under her at night while she is less alert to the fact that her “eggs” have suddenly hatched into two-day-old chicks. So we set up a temporary cardboard box brooder as a way station for the day with food, water and a heat lamp. First order of business was to dip the babies’ beaks in the water and food and they all figured out the eating and drinking process right away. They ate like champs!
They ate, drank and dozed throughout the day. They also managed to get into trouble. Alarmed when I heard loud peeping, I rushed in and found that the little Ameraucauna had catapulted herself out of her brooder box and was separated from the other two. All three were frantic to be reunited. Lesson learned: make sure the sides of the brooder box are high enough!
I also did the necessary check for “pasty butt”, a common but problematic and potentially deadly occurrence with baby chicks. Stress and heat during the shipping process can cause their vents to become blocked and they must be manually cleared (q-tips and warm water) or the chicks may die. Staring at chicken vents is just part of a flock keeper’s job description; fortunately, these three had no problems.
No names yet, but we are open to suggestions!
At 10 pm last night, watches synchronized, the CE and I crept into the coop with trepidation, a flashlight and the baby chicks. Pippa stirred and ruffled herself up in indignation as we stole away her beloved golf balls, clucking angrily at us and the small intruders we had set beside her. She pecked at them and our hearts sank; was she going to reject them? We held our breath and waited. Disturbed as she was, she did not appear truly homicidal, so we let the scenario play out for a few minutes. The chicks took the lead: even though they had been mail-ordered within hours of hatching, they knew a mama when they saw one and within a few minutes, despite Pippa’s seeming reluctance, they dove beneath her. Soon, all was quiet but for a few muffled peeps beneath her.
I woke with a start at 5 a.m. this morning and rushed to the coop, mentally preparing myself for either outcome: would I find a happy family or infanticide?
All was quiet. I heard not even a peep. Pippa seemed placid enough, but seeing is believing, right? As I reached beneath her I was struck by how hot her body was where she had broodily plucked feathers from her breast in preparation for keeping baby chicks warm. I lifted Pippa up and out scurried the three chicks, happy, healthy and ready to greet the day. They darted over to the feeder and waterer and then returned to the mothership, tumbling over her, pecking inquisitively at her face and finally seeking the warmth again beneath her. Pippa cluck-cluck-clucked at them, watching their every move and accepting their attentions without protest.
There are still a few hurdles ahead – we need to re-locate mama and babies from the countertop so the little ones don’t fall off. And we need to introduce them to Luna, who is completely bewildered by the situation.
But I am claiming a preliminary success. I just peeked in on them and Mama and babies all seem happy. Congratulations, Pippa!