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Baby Chicks - our first four weeks!

We have never raised chicks before and after setting twelve fertile eggs under one of our broody hens seven weeks ago, we had no idea what to expect. Its been a learning curve...

If you are considering hatching fertile eggs under a broody hen as a backyarder, have a look at this post and see what you will be in for. Lots of really cute ""Awwww" moments, worry, frustration, fun and heartache - and that's just our first four weeks!

Here's what it was like...

We got our eggs from Dancing Bee Poultry - The more local the eggs, the more chances of hatching them. If they have to travel from interstate, they will have a rougher trip and you might not be able to see the internal damage and they have less chance of hatching. Our first attempt had eggs from interstate and we didn't hatch a single one. So my advice is to get local ones if you can source them.

The eggs need to be rested for 24 hours point down in the egg box before they go under the chicken. This is to give the eggs time to unwind and unscramble from their journey to you. Don't skip this step. The eggs can sit away from the hen for at least 12 days in a suspended animation type state - otherwise they wouldn't all hatch at once and the mama hen will be chasing 12 day old chicks as the last one is struggling to be born! I put some food and water in the nest box with Solstice as its quite hot here in Brisbane and I didn't want her to be without water and sustenance if she needed it. She seemed quite grateful for both.

You might be able to hear the "pipping" when the eggs are hatching. I saw our fist chick on the Monday but swore I heard peeping on the Sunday night as I tucked all the girls up for the night. The hatching will happen under the hen and there isn't much to see if you use a hen and not an incubator. Once the chick is hatched and dried out, it might start peeking out from under Mum to see what the world has to offer. Too much attention and they dive under Mum... and Mum gets mad at you!

The mother will sit on the nest until she is sure that all the eggs that will hatch have hatched. In our case she was off the nest with the babies in tow in about 18 hours from the first signs that the babies were thinking of hatching. In our case, Solstice, the Mama hen simply sat on the nest and wouldn't get off at all on the day before the chick were due. I had seen her off the nest quite regularly (twice a day for twenty minutes) up until the Sunday. The eggs will take 21 days from when they go under the hen to sit on, so its easy to plan the day you want them to hatch. We got ours on a Sunday and put them under Mum on the Monday morning and she hatched them on a Monday exactly 21 days later!
I took the water out of the nesting box as soon as these little ones started zooming around, I was worried that if they fell in it when I wasn't watching we would be short one chick... (they don't eat the food so don't worry about taking it out)

The first day the babies stick close to the mother and don't need to eat. They "suck" in the yolk through the umbilical cord and use the yolk as food for the first 24 hours. Mother Nature intended them to be able to go those 24 hours without food so mum can sit there and hatch the last few eggs without the babies needing anything but warmth and protection. If you can get your hand in there and pick them up, they are the tiniest scraps of life imaginable. They will peep very loudly and the mother hen will get quite agitated... Be careful!

Once the Mama hen is convinced that all the eggs that will hatch are hatched she will bustle off outside to find some food for herself in the first instance, and start teaching the chicks what to eat. Again, they stick right by her and are quite fast for their size! As you can see when I got home on Monday from work, there were four wee chicks outside with mum. I sprinkled some chick starter in the pen for them and gave the Mother some grain in a dish. The mother hen got stuck straight into the grain but kept pointing out the chick starter to the chicks. She actually picked it up and dropped it in front of them to give them the idea. They will be getting hungry after the first day - so feed 'em up. My 10 kg bag of chick stater lasted until half way through week five. I have decided not to get anymore as they are eating bugs, bacon and big bits of grain, grass and anything wiggly put in front of them by their mother and ignoring the bowl of chick starter. (The big chooks love it though!)

 Back in the nesting box I found a dead chick and four unhatched ones. (One was laid there by another chook and was never fertile!) If you are so inclined it could be quite instructive to open them and see what's inside. My personal theory is that the Mama hen knows what's what and when she is convinced that she has all the babies that she is going to get she ups and walks away. 

I then found two chicks, both alive but one quite obviously on deaths doorstep. The yellow one died about 15 minutes later. She wasn't in the nest. I don't know how she got out of the box but for what ever reason, she didn't make it. The brown one seemed very weak and small. It may have hatched after Mum left the nest...

I popped the little brown Barnevelder baby in with the others but as you can see it just sat. I took about... oooo say, 400 or so pictures (and you will too in your first 24 hours of being a proud chicken grandma!) and in practically every photo, its sitting down and not getting about like the others. I was concerned she wasn't quite right... I was really amazed at how quickly they could bumble around. I didn't want to spend a fortune on special feeders and waterers and so I filled a takeaway container with rocks and then put the water in. This stops the chicks with duck like tendencies from drowning themselves! I had to change the water at least twice a day as the big chooks threw dirt into it with their scratching.

I had put the hen and her eggs into the main pen. I had the hen in the old dog kennel in a mango box with straw in it. Then I put our isolation pen (above) up against the entrance (the big mesh opens upwards as a door) so that the hen could get some peace from the other big chooks who were laying in her nest, as the big day got closer. The isolation pen also meant that even though I wasn't home when the mama hen took her babies into the world for the first time they didn't escape or get attacked by the other big chooks. I didn't know what would happen and I didn't want to find out the hard way.
I still wanted the other big chooks to see the babies and get used to them but not to be able to harm them.

With the baby barne, I tried to feed her (I hope its a her anyway - like cars and boats, baby chicks are girls until they prove otherwise in our house!) but she wasn't so keen. In hindsight, she was still living off her yolk and didn't need the extra food when I was trying to feed her.

I took the baby barne out of the pen (very easy to catch, unlike the others) and tried feeding her again the next day. I discovered that she wouldn't/couldn't walk properly... very distressing.
First things first - if your chick is having any leg trouble at all - don't put them on slippery surfaces such as newspaper, it will only exacerbate the issue.

I have some "sick" chook food that comes as a powder from the produce shop (you can pay from $11 to $30 for a kilo of this stuff - Its great though when you need it) I made some up into a fairly watery mixture and after placing the chick on an old T-shirt I tried to give her some in the lid of a container. I discovered that if you "peck" at the food with your finger and attempt to make "mother chicken" noises, she will eat for you!! You look and sound really silly sitting at the table with your morning cuppa, a baby chick and making clucking noises while tapping your finger in chick food but thems the gigs when you are a baby chick nurse/grandmother - its what we do! She did start to eat and ate a ton of food. I gave her as much sick chook porridge as she would eat and offered her crumble as well. Sometimes I mixed the crumble into the porridge and as she ate more and more I made it thicker so she could gobble big mouthfuls. I kept her in the "hospital cage" during the day so she wouldn't get bullied and walked all over and also so she got enough to eat. At night I put her back with the others under the mother hen.

It became obvious that there was something seriously wrong with her leg. She started with it sticking straight out the side, a few days later she did stand upright on it but crossed over and could only walk backwards. After a week of this we decided to try hobbles and she got all six attempts off in less ten minutes each time. However, a day later I could kid myself she was walking better... I picked her up again and tried just stretching her legs gently one by one. Have you ever seen your chickens (big and small) do a "Ballerina" or "Yoga" pose with one leg starched out behind and one wing forward? That's what I did with the leg. I decided that it wasn't splay leg but likely to be a tendon that didn't go into place after she came out of the egg and her bones were soft. I also think that Mama Chook knew it and was happy to abandon her to her fate if she couldn't keep up. I only stretched the leg three or four times over two days and with a bit of extra feeding for a fortnight she caught up - now I just hope she is a girl!

Have a read of Poultry-pedia - its a fabulous site if you think you have a sick or hurt chook.

So week one was all about fluffy yellow chicks, cute photos and hours and hours spent watching them!

In week two I let them go into the big pen with the big chooks (with Mama chook too!) and to my surprise, they babies were ignored! They managed to escape out of the isolation pen regularly but stayed close to the wire trying to get back in. They have a magnetic force field that lets them only get so far away from mum before they feel compelled to come back. This bond stretches every week further and further away!

In week two they are more and more curious about the world and certainly more adventurous!

When let the big chook out in the afternoons into the yard for the afternoon I locked the gate and let the babies and Solstice out into the main pen for a run around. This gave them the opportunity to explore safely and for mum to show them all sorts of things. They fluttered about, jumping on and off things (which has got to be good for them) and generally having a look around the big wide world under the protection of their mom!

They still want to stay close to mum though!

Its a big world for little chooks!
Can you see the proper feathers starting to come through on the wings?

In week two we are still giving them supplements and making sure that they are getting everything that they need - and Mama chook too! She needs feeding up too.

The legs are starting to colour up as well as the main plumage starting to show.

 Sticking together - like sardines, there is safety in numbers!!
In week three they were allowed into the back yard for the first time!
By this time the big chooks are completely used to the babies and don't even look at them sideways. They still put mum in her place as Solstice is quite low on the pecking order even though she is one of my biggest chooks and the babies scatter!

Solstice spends a lot of time teaching her babies how and what to eat...

The personalities start to emerge - you can start to make guesses as to who is likely to be a rooster now...

That baby barne will be the death of me - all five babies are in this picture - can you see it? I lose her in amongst those big brown leaves all the time! By week three she has caught up to the aracana babies in size. The Marans babies are by far the biggest - they have the feathers on their legs.

As much as they have grown, they are still tiny when they are out in the yard. They tended to stick around the entrance to the main pen for the first week they were allowed out. And Mama chook doesn't let them go far. A couple of times Solstice wanted to go further but I decided that I wasn't ready to lose them in our enormous back yard - even if she was confident!

See how the wings are totally covered in big coloured feathers now? Their markings are starting to be come apparent.
Can you see the comb starting to appear already? That one is a bit bigger than the others and a bit bossier. I've seen the two biggest ones "front up" to each other like the big chooks do when they are settling some pecking order disorder... I hope that's all it is - How many roosters do you think I've got?? At least one Id say so far...

Week Four and its all systems go! They are in the big pen full time - although still sleeping with mama chook in the original box. I still have the isolation pen in place in case I need to separate them for some reason, I can just close the door and they will be stuck in there in the morning when they wake up.

Out in the yard, the big chooks arent interested them and unless the babies get to some grain first, the big chooks don't seem to care about them at all...

Little baby Barne is doing well and has some signs that she is a girl. The stripe by her eye and the one she had down her back seem to indicate she might be a girl if you read the right websites.

This is the remaining Marans chick, the other found its way under the fence in week four and lost a round with the neighbours dog... I think this one might be a rooster - very well developed and very confident.

The lighter aracuana - smaller than the others, but has no problem keeping up in any way.
And the darker Aracuana - very scruffy this one! This one is quiet and passive and is usually found hanging out with the barne baby. They are both much quieter than the other three - oh, two... Maybe this means they are girls... I hope so.

Babies hanging out under the lemon tree watching the world go by!

 All four babies at the four week mark hanging out in the backyard together - mums just out of the picture, she wasn't far away! See how they have feathered up this week? You can tell them apart now - Its probably time to name them!
And here is the four weeks in four pictures -
Take lots of pictures, they are only very tiny for a very short time!! 

So, what have I learnt in four short weeks?

  • Number one - Baby chicks can get out of any confinement!!! But they wont stray too far from mum.
  • Baby chicks with a mother hen are really easy to look after. Mine are eating with the big chooks at four weeks and Mum is telling them what they can eat and encouraging them to eat all sorts of things I wouldn't have thought they were ready for - worms, bugs, grain, bread, bacon scraps!
  • There are so many different chook calls and noises that the Mother hen will make that you've never heard before!
  • They will grow quicker than you could imagine - take those 400 photos a week - you'll need them as proof that they were small once.
  • They can run. Fast. If you want tame chookies that will sit on your lap, don't put them with a mother chook  - get an incubator. I wanted to spend time petting mine but Mum wasn't going to let me near them and although I can usually catch the brown one if I want to, she no longer sits quietly as she did when her leg didn't work so well. The others - well, IF you can catch them they act like you are about to toss 'em into batter and then pop 'em straight into the fryer. Its not calming or meditative to stroke a freaked out baby that's calling to its mother. I think if they have bonded with mum, they will be as tame as the mother but wont be cuddling up to you willingly. If you raised them without a broody hen, you might have more success in the petting department. :)
Its certainly been an amazing thing to do - watch life appear out of the shell and then rocket around the backyard a very short time later. It has been a traumatic thing to do - burying tiny tiny baby chicks wasn't fun at all. Its been a frustrating thing to do - how they get out of boxes, cages or any other vessel other than a sealed Tupperware container (No, I didn't try that but it might just work!) is one of life's great mysteries. Its been a bonding thing to do - I have at least 10,000 photos of chicks on my phone and every wants to see them! (Don't they?) Its a worrying thing to do - Do I take the little one to the vet? Do I bend its leg, straighten its leg, let nature take its course?

And I haven't got to the "what will I do if any of the four left are Roosters" dilemma yet!!!

Would I do it again??


Put links to your favourite chick places in the comment section below!

Score card:
Green-ness: 5/5 for raising heritage breed chicks and keeping small breeders in business.
Frugal-ness: Not really a frugal thing to do - Heritage chickens aren't the cheapest - just loads of fun!
Time cost: Not much time to look after them each day but you will spend a whole lot of time watching and photographing them!!
Skill level: If you let the mama chook do all the work - its easy as!
Fun -ness: One of the most fun life experiences you will ever have!


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