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Setting fertile eggs under a broody hen... our experiance!

We love our chickens and the great variety of eggs that they lay. We have thought about breeding chickens on and off over the years and have spent time with some local breeders and envy their setups and what they can do.  However, we live in suburbia and we have great neighbours... So having a rooster hasn't been an option for us if we want to keep our great neighbours!.

Just recently I texted my husband a picture of Rain, one of our Arucana Chooks who goes broody with monotonous regularity (like every time she lays an egg!) and pointed out that our green egg supply was in danger of diminishing again as her mothering hormones had kicked in again..

 He texted back, "Why don't you put fertile eggs under her?" Why I hadn't thought of that idea before is beyond me but it took about 2.4 seconds to decide that that was a fabulous idea and I hit the internet to see who would sell me fertile eggs and get them to me as quick as possible.

We have never set eggs under a broody hen before - Here's what we did...
**Warning: This post has images of dead baby chicks that some people may find upsetting...

First I looked online and contacted a couple of companies that deal in fertile eggs. Victorian Vintage Farms down in Victoria said they could send me a dozen in the next days post if I could order and pay for them by 11am. We chose a dozen French Marans as we LOVED the dark eggs that they lay.

I made the payment of $90 plus $25 postage and they arrived at work the next day. It was very "egg-citing" to open up the incredibly well packaged eggs at my desk and admire their dark brown fertile beauty!

When you get fertile eggs you have to let them rest pointed end down for 24 hours so that the insides of the eggs can unravel themselves and the air pocket can settle down from the very bumpy ride that they will have had interstate from the farm to you. I put my eggs through a bit of a photo shoot while they were resting...

This is the French Marans egg as contrasted with a white leghorn egg just for comparison...

After letting the eggs rest for 24 hours I put Rain and her nesting box on the outside table and pulled the eggs out from under her at about 4am. Most of them weren't her eggs anyway but she is a pretty fierce brooder and wasn't happy about it at all.

Ultimately I managed to get all the old eggs out and the new eggs in and she settled down on them and seemed happy.   
Within a few days we found a smashed egg in her nest and a few days later, another. One afternoon a crow flew out of the doorway to the kennel where the nest is and we found an egg with a hole in it the size of a 10c piece but completely empty. This happened twice. We had seen the other chooks trying to lay in her nest and so we put the isolation pen around her so that they couldn't get in and disturb her and the crows couldn't eat anymore eggs. 
Fertile eggs take 21 days to hatch from when the full clutch is laid and the hen starts sitting on them. As you can see our some of our chicks were developing nicely and then were getting smashed. We wondered if  it was because she was nesting in an old lawn mower grass catcher and thought maybe there isn't enough room in there for her to move around.
When she had smashed half of her clutch I moved her nest into a nice clean mango tray/box and tucked it back into the kennel and surrounded it with other boxes so it was dark and warm but with much more head room and space. These eggs are dirty as they were sitting in the muck of the smashed and eaten eggs. I didn't want to wash them for lots of reasons so they stayed dirty...
By the time the 21 days were up she had only two eggs left. We left her with them for another week in case we were wrong with our dates and expectations but nothing came of it.
We put it all down to an experience and tried to figure out what we had done wrong.
A few weeks later Solstice our Brahma chook decided she was going to have a go at this mothering thing too and as she is a much bigger and stroppier bird, its always been harder to break her brood. We decided that if we could find some cheaper local fertile eggs, we'd give it another go,
And so twelve hours later on Sunday morning at 7am we were at Dancing Bee Poultry checking out the gorgeous chooks and once again wishing we lived on acreage. We went looking for French Wheaten Marans or maybe purebred Araucana's as mine are crosses and lay green rather than blue eggs.   

We came home with two Barnevelder eggs (light brown), six Arucana eggs (blue) and four French Wheaten Marans (dark brown)... and I was late for work. I knew I was going to be there for an hour or so. My husband had this idea that we would show up, choose eggs and be gone in 10 or 15 minutes... (Seriously??)

I had moved Solstice and her lawn mower catcher nest into the kennel the day before I got the eggs but wasn't sure how settled she was. When she voluntarily got off the nest (they usually get off twice a day for 10 - 20 minutes to eat, drink and poop) I swapped it all over. I had to swap it the day after I got the eggs as I needed to leave the eggs to settle for the required 24 hours even though we had only travelled for a short time to get home.

I set the kennel up again as when (if?) her babies hatch I want to be able to keep them separate from the big chooks by using the isolation pen to keep them safe in. We have never had babies and I don't know what the bigger older chooks will make of it and I'm not keen to come home to any more dead chicks, in or out of the shell.

She did go back and forth for a while before she decided to settle down on them. We were a bit worried that we had broken her brood by moving her nest and then changing her nest but her instinct is strong and she spent the next three weeks sitting on the nest.

The light brown egg on the left is from one of my other chooks who was using the nest to lay in when Solstice got off to eat!
With the experience of the last attempt behind us, every time I saw her off the nest I would go and check to see if she had broken any. On the second week I found the other chooks fighting over an egg shell that had blood and gore on it in the pen and discovered one Araucana egg was missing. I don't know how they got it.

Occasionally I would notice that she was off the nest for about 45 minutes. I was worried that the eggs would be cold and wouldn't hatch until I realised that one of the other chooks was laying her eggs in the nest and Solstice was using the opportunity to eat and preen for longer!!

I'm glad the fertile eggs were marked with pencil so I knew which eggs to take out and eat!

She stopped getting off the nest entirely in the last few days and so I bought the food and water to her. I think she appreciated it! The night before the chicks were due to hatch I swore I heard the peeping of a baby but when I checked the nest all the eggs were there. The next morning however...

The first baby chick made an appearance!
Followed not long after by a second!

And then the third!!

Within the first 12 hours those three chicks were zooming around Mum like bumbling little jet propelled rockets and I moved the water jar out and added chick crumble to Mums food bowl. I swore I saw four chicks at one point but couldn't get a photo.

When I came home from work that afternoon I found the nest like this. Mum was outside with four chicks! (yay) and a little brown one was fluttering around in the eggs - I think it may have just hatched and there was a dead one in the nest that looked like it had been trampled. The back light brown egg is from another chook  - its not a fertile one

I rescued the little brown one from in the eggs and then found another yellow one lying in the dirt outside. It flapped and fluttered a little but 15 minutes later died.

I'm not sure what was wrong with it but did wonder if mum had trampled it in the nest too. Can you see the "egg tooth" on the top of its wee beak? The others seem to lose theirs on about day two so I suspect she was pretty new.

I cleaned the box out and installed a new one where I folded the front down so the babies could just run in and out and not have to jump too far - I did also wonder if the little yellow one had hurt herself jumping out of the nesting box. I popped the little brown stripy one (a Barnevelder baby, I think) under Mum but it seemed to be much weaker and slower than the others. It didn't zoom around like the other four.

The second morning and Mum had taken the four yellow ones out (I think I have 2 Araucana of different types and 2 Marans - they have feathers on their legs) and she left the little brown one in the nest.

I took the chick out of the nest and tried it on some chick crumbles. It needed a fair bit of encouragement to eat and so I decided that I'd better give it a proper chance and leave it in our "Hospital Cage" for the day with crumbles, water and shelter. I hope that given a bit of time and space to eat something without competition, being bullied or stepped on by Mum it might get a bit of energy and catch up with its siblings in the zooming around department.

In the meantime, Mum had taken the four jet propelled chicks out into the isolation pen and was busy teaching them to eat crumble and what to watch out for.

I noticed that she spent a lot of time sitting on the ground and used a lot of different calls to teach them things. She picked up titbits and dropped them in front of them several times in the first day to get the babies to eat certain things. I saw her do this with a maggot on the first day when she was still sitting on the eggs in the nest and only had the two chicks running around. She pecks at the ground and clucks to them to tell them there is food and has another squawk to tell them to hide under her backside when there is danger. Yes, I have too much time on my hands. No, I don't have a TV and yes, I have a stool in the pen and have spent hours with a cuppa in hand watching them! Its amazing what you will learn from watching the mother that you won't read in a book!

Its day two now and when the big chooks left the main pen for their afternoon out in the back yard, I opened the door to the isolation pen and let them out into the main pen for an hour or so. Mum had a good feed - I gave her some greens as well and the babies ran like jet propelled foam chips all over the place.

Being a bit of a frugal greenie, I wasn't so keen on buying chick feeders and waterers. I'm figuring Mum is showing them how to eat and she seems to be doing a great job of that. I'm just popping the feed into the pen on the ground and she is finding it and feeding it to them. However the water is another issue entirely. Chicks think they are ducks and as soon as they see a patch of water - they jump straight in. And they don't know how to swim!

Instead of spending a fortune on a chick waterer that that will only need for a few months, I made this chick waterer out of a plastic takeaway container and a handful of rocks from the garden. I'm figuring that as long as they can get out if they fall in, they'll be fine! This one allows there to be deep pockets of water that they can drink out of but can't launch themselves into and drown in. The only drawback is that since its low to the ground, mum throws all the dirt in there when she is scratching and it fills it up and makes mud and it needs to be cleaned out at least twice a day - but considering I only leave my stool beside the pen to go to work and feed the family - I'm there to take care of that at the moment!

They are amazingly fast and I suspect will only get faster. My husband saw a lady pat her knee one day and a chook jumped onto her lap and she fed it. He wants our chooks to do that too - I told him to spend some time with them and see how hard and how much effort would have gone into that!!
Having said that, I have the wee brown one on my lap as I type as it still isn't able to walk properly...
See how it doesn't move in the photos...
I'm doing some research - I'll let you know what happens with the little brown one!
So is raising fertile eggs a viable way to get chickens?
My first lot of eggs cost $90 plus $25 postage ($115 in total) and the araucana hen smashed ten of them in three weeks and the last two didn't hatch by the four week mark. 
With the second lot, I paid $45 for a mixed box of eggs that I drove 40 minutes to get.
I got two Barnevelder eggs, four French Wheaten Marans and six mixed araucanas based on the bluest eggs she had. One araucana egg got chucked out of the nest on week two and was being gobbled up by the chooks in the main pen when I saw it. I assume the mama chick knew it was not viable and threw it out. So there were 11 out of 12 eggs on hatching day with the potential to hatch.
We didn't candle the eggs at any stage as we weren't confident after the first experience and didn't want to disturb the eggs unless we really had to.
I hatched (or should I say Solstice hatched) seven babies - but only five survived the first 12 hours. We ended up with five live chicks at the 24 hour mark: One Barnevelder (50% hatch rate) Two Marans (50%) and two Araucanas (33%) - I'm not sure what the two that died were as I didn't think to check the legs for feathers (the Marans have a feathered leg I think) but they were the lighter yellow and I think they were probably Aracuanas making it a 66% hatch rate but only a 33% survival rate.
Of the five surviving chicks - one is going to need extra help to get going - if it gets going. So out of twelve eggs we got four healthy chicks at the 48 hour mark and one that needs extra care.
So for $160 I have five chicks across three breeds. That's $32 per chicken at the moment and I don't know how many will be hens that will lay the eggs that I was after for competitions! But if you have never raised chicks from eggs before - the wonder and excitement is remembered long after the cost has been forgotten!
So if all I wanted was a certain hen that laid a certain egg I probably should have gone and bought a laying hen from a breeder for a decent price and I probably would have been ahead in the dollar stakes but probably not nearly as much fun!
It would have been instructive to have candled the eggs that didn't hatch - or even crack them open to see if they were all viable or not. We were so engrossed with the babies that we didn't think of it. We buried the two dead chicks with the eggs before we thought to check inside them, Next time I would at least candle them. I would have been curious to see what stage the chicks had got to but the rest of the family would have not been so keen if I was going to open the unhatched eggs.

So far raising chicks from fertile eggs for the first time has been fun but harrowing at the same time. I was looking for interesting egg layers as we enter eggs into rural agricultural show egg competitions as we can't breed and show chickens on our suburban block. I wanted French Wheaten Marans due to their dark eggs and thought they would make an interesting addition to the egg box, but finding a quality layer is hard and getting its owner to part with it, is even harder. I have been looking for a blue egg laying Aracana as well. The last few have all laid green eggs which is lovely but I really want the sky blue ones that I had previously from my Lavender Arucana before she died.
We thought this would be an interesting experience. We have never had fertile eggs before. It will probably have a similar hit rate to buying pullets at the point of lay - you simply don't know what genetics will be passed onto the eggs. This way I have at least seen the eggs so can guess at Mums genetics!
We will have to wait between two and three months to see if we have girls or boys, which will throw up the next harrowing part of the exercise, after losing chicks... what to do with the roosters. Once they start crowing they will have to leave the property. I have a few friends that could agist any roosters for a while on their acreage and the local produce place will accept them for "rehoming". I can talk to breeders and see if the roosters are any good for breeding but I'm guessing that most roosters end up in the pot... Not much fun being a male chicken...
Score card:
Green-ness:  Hmmm... Probably only a greenish exercise if you get heritage eggs from the smaller breeders who are pretty green themselves - what do you think?
Frugal-ness: Seemed like a cheap way to get 24 expensive breeds when I started. Can't put a price on the wonderment or fun though! 
Time cost: Three weeks to hatch, 24 hours to see who will make it and then 2 months of enjoyment before the hard decision on the roosters fate needs to be made...
Skill level: As long as your chicken mother knows what she is doing you should be fine.
Fun-ness: More fun than most things I have done!! 


Evi said…
Oh my goodness Kara!!! That was the loveliest chicken tale I've heard for a long time! Told through the eyes of a novice chicken 'breeder', it gave me a giggle! And all your many photos of your first chicks reminded me of the frenzy of photo taking with a first born child!! hehe!!
I think your sick baby has some sort of new born disease - we've had those sort before too. Sometimes they live, sometimes not but I'm not sure why you had so many eggs being squashed and not hatching. When our kids were little we even hatched a few in an incubator just so they could watch…..Your words are certainly true - the wonder and excitement is certainly remembered much longer than the cost!
Practical Frog said…
Hi Evi!
I think the Arucana is just to flighty to sit and hatch the eggs. There was a big difference in the attitudes of the two mothers certainly! Sostice sta in a trance for three weeks, Rain flibbertigibbtt-ed around and I think that's how she smashed them - not an egg sitter even though her instinct kicks in each time she sees and egg! I think the baby had a tendon issue. It was the walking that was an issue. Once it worked out how to eat - it was away. I may have been trying to feed it too soon after it hatched. We tried hobbles that she got off in less than 10 minutes each time but I think the manipulation of her legs may have clicked it back into place. She/he is "running" with the other chick, just much slower. Its much smaller than the biggest chick but not significantly smaller than the smallest. I am feeding it up on special chick food three times a day to make sure its getting a decent amount of food - Ill do a post in a week or so when it comes good (or not0 and let people know what happened!
I only post from my experience - im not an oracal on any subject s you will always get the "this is what happened to e" on any subject. I love reading about peoples actual experience rather than what they think they should do!
Thanks for dropping by! - K x
Evi said…
Lol, yes so true about the different personalities in chickens! We have a bossy little silkie that gets broody with regularity but on the odd occasion that she gets to hatch anything, she manages to either squash eggs, leave the eggs too early or hatch them and just forget about them for long periods! I do think that maybe it has to do with the fact that she has so much fluff on her head and therefore limited vision!!!
Happy to hear you've saved the little one.
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