The Roving Rototiller

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Incubator, Take Two

At the beginning of this month, when Pea left her nest, she had five chicks.  I knew, from peering through the fence when Pea took her daily stagger up the hill to eat and drink, that she had started out with five eggs.  However, halfway through incubation, all of a sudden there were seven eggs in the nest.  So while Pea inspected the newly-tidied nursery and introduced her children to the delights of tasty mush, I took a stroll down to her nest.  A pile of broken shells greeted me . . . and among them, four intact eggs.

One of the habits of peafowl that has surprised me is this cuckoo-bird tendency to sneak in while a broody hen is off the nest, and lay an egg among the rest.  It doesn't make much sense on the face of it:  unlike chickens, peahens will not linger on the nest to hatch out more eggs.  Once the first round of chicks hatches--usually her own--she waits a day or so until they are able to walk tolerably well, and then abandons the nest without so much as a backward glance.  Any remaining eggs are ignored, and unless another broody hen just happens to plop down on them, they chill and die.

Every year there have been leftover eggs in Pea's nest, and I've agonized over their fate.  No accomodating peahen has ever moved in to save the day; not surprising as peahens tend to be territorial about their nest sites and very selective.  I've tried sticking them under broody chickens; that endeavour was not well-received.  Imagine, if you will, a bantam cochin hen teetering on top of a giant pea egg that weighs nearly a quarter what she does.  The hen in question put up with that nonsense for about three days and then unceremoniously threw the egg out of the nest box.  I've tried incubating them in an elderly, temperamental incubator given to us by a neighbor; that didn't work either.  But this year, things are different.

Back in the beginning of June, I was gearing up for another try with our incubator.  The little round beast had been purring on the kitchen table for several days, waiting for me to get my nerve up to put eggs in it.  Now--thanks to Pea--I had eggs all right.  But first I wanted to candle them, a feat made rather tricky by the fact that it was broad daylight.  In the past I've used the old furnace closet, but that practice came to a screeching halt when a spider the size of a Volkswagen bus moved in there.  As it is quite fat and happy, I have declined to kill it:  whatever it's eating, I don't want in my house either.  The spider can have the furnace closet.  Instead, I have developed an alternative darkroom:  my husband's very thick, dark blue terrycloth bathrobe.  If you drape it over your head and shoulders, it blocks light quite well.

Kneeling beside the bed with the robe over my head and the eggs and flashlight in front of me, it didn't take long to confirm that all of the eggs were still alive.  Two were about two-thirds of the way through their incubation; the other two were less than a week along.  I made some quick notes on their shells in pencil, and placed them in the incubator.  Then, feeling that I might as well take the plunge, I loaded the rest of the sections with chicken eggs.

A week later, when Pea's daughter appeared with her two chicks, I checked that nest and discovered five remaining eggs.  One had gone so far as to pip.  This one went straight into the incubator, and candling of the rest showed the same type of age distribution.  In they went.

Fast-forward to today.  The pipped egg hatched eight hours later, giving us a fine brown chick.  Over the next several days three more hatched, two more browns and a white.  Sadly, neither mother pea has shown any interest in adoption, so the chicks are being raised partly indoors and partly in the nursery, where a long-suffering Pea tolerates their tiny antics amidst her older, more dignified offspring.  Also, as of yesterday the chicken eggs began hatching.  We currently have eight hatched, two pipped, and ten sitting there looking uncooperative.

Seven of eight.  Two bantam cochin mixes, and five Easter Eggers.

So the incubator is at least partly exonerated, four peachicks that would have died are alive and whistling at each other all night long in the brooder, and our spare shower stall has once again been pressed into duty as a cat-proof brooder box site.  Life is good.  Chicks are cute.  And modern technology and I are getting along better. :)

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Mother peas

One of the signs of summer drawing near is when Pea, our alpha peahen, reappears one morning with a flotilla of fuzzy pool balls orbiting her feet.  Pea likes to nest at the bottom of the peapen, either underneath some chicken wire or in a corner that she fondly imagines is well-concealed.  About one week ago she proudly led five new chicks up to the pea coop, four wildtype browns and a white.

In a coincidence of rare good fortune, I had just finished building the two new fence panels that I needed in order to re-establish the pea nursery.  I lugged them into place and slowly shooed Pea into the coop, and then through the nursery door.  Pea sailed gravely inside, calling her chicks with gravelly gronks and squeaky-gate-hinge noises, and settled down to brood them with an expression of been-there, done-that on her face.  This brood is Pea's fourth in this coop, and she's got the system down pat.

In the past, the only two hens old enough to go broody have been Pea and Mihoshi.  Mihoshi is a year younger than Pea, and a jealous sort; she has a tendency to pick on Pea's chicks and harass them.  Fortunately for peace and tranquility within the peapen, she always goes broody several days after Pea has hatched out her clutch.  This has been a rather convenient spacing, because by the time Mihoshi hatches chicks, Pea's are old enough to be turned out of the nursery.  However, this year it was not to be so simple.  Five hens are at laying age this year, and one of them, a two-year-old daughter of Pea's, went broody just a few days after her mother.  Yesterday, she brought her two chicks up to the coop, which has caused me some anxiety as the nursery is too small for two broody hens to share.  They're very protective of their chicks.

For now, the younger hen is managing just fine with a "frontier woman" approach to mothering.  Disdaining the coop, she instead leads her chicks through the tall grasses at the bottom of the peapen, foraging for bugs and green shoots.  It's fortunate for her that the recent rains have encouraged the grasses to put up tender new growth, and multiplied the bugs.  Her methods have me flitting through the yard several times a day to keep an eye on things, because in the past we have had peachicks go missing while wandering around the pen:  they duck under the fence where the squirrels have warped the wire, or come under fire from jealous aunties.  So far, though, their mother has managed to keep them safe.  Today I did catch her eyeing the nursery with a jealous glint in her eye, though.  I think she's starting to question the status quo.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Twip.  Twip.  Twip.

Ah, the sound of chicks at play.  Chatting with one another, poking through the dish of crumbles, receiving the occasional unsolicited body-slam.  It's a lot like kindergarten at lunchtime.  Their little voices echo slightly off the blue tiled walls of the spare bathroom shower, lit 24 hours a day by the heat lamp tied to the flexi-hose of the holstered shower head, a tiny oasis of summer's warmth in our single-paned house while yet another atypical cold rainstorm patters down outside in the chilly breeze.

These are the chicks of the first incubator hatch:  two Icelandics, three Easter Eggers, and a bantam cochin.  All six are still with us; the last-hatched chick, whom I suspected of being somewhat oxygen-deprived, has shown considerable cognitive improvement and no longer has to be reminded to eat.  Chick number four--the one on the far right--an Easter Egger who came out of the shell only with assistance and stood bolt upright like a penguin for several days, has at last shown some response to our efforts to re-educate its legs.  Chick number five, the bantam cochin, had a couple of turned toes which responded beautifully to a temporary shoe.  And numbers one through three--the Icelandics and the black Easter Egger in the center of the photo--never had any problems.  One of them has already learned how to perch on the rim of the box.

There seems to be a trend with me, incubators, and orthotic chick footwear.  The last time I used an incubator--a Roll-X, the Ferrari of incubators, borrowed from a neighbor--we had an uneventful hatch of eight out of ten eggs, but two chicks emerged with turned feet.  I struggled with them for months but never did manage to correct the wayward toes; they are our two senior roosters now, Jake and Elwood.  This time around, we again had two with leg/foot problems.  The cochin, thankfully, was an easy fix:  two days of clumping around in a snowshoe contraption made of 3X5 cards and sticky tape, and the toes straightened out.  Our little "penguin" chick, on the other hand, has been another story.

The chick's first problem was contractures of the upper leg muscles, resulting in a bird that stood with its spine nearly vertical, rather than the almost horizontal posture of a normal chicken.  Two days and several bouts of physical therapy later, I noted glumly that the long tendons that run along the back of the lower leg and under the toes were starting to contract as well, arching the toes and bringing the sole of the foot off the ground.  The chick lolled comfortably on its back in my hand, waving its curved feet like a stage magician telegraphing along to "Abracadabra presto-chango."

"Seriously, kid?"

In order to stretch the tendons again, the chick needed a flat surface to bind the toes to, and also a support running up the back of the lower leg.   By a lucky fluke, the plastic casing of a double-pack of black printer ink had been molded with just the right angle.  With much measuring, and trimming--and some cursing when the chick kicked at inopportune moments, tangling the tape--we eventually got it fitted.  When stood up, the chick promptly flopped down and began pulling at the tape.  It then demonstrated that slick plastic has a distinct lack of traction.

"Peep!"  We got the massive stinkeye.

Tape treads were applied.  A piece of non-slip liner was pilfered from one of the kitchen drawers and placed on the floor of the brooder.  With these aids, the chick managed to totter about.  Later that day I discovered it sleeping on its back, bandaged feet in the air.  The tape treads had accumulated a truly shocking amount of poo.

Modelling the latest in strappy spring fashions . . . .

At the end of the third day, the chick was walking fairly well and, as an added bonus, had finally adopted a normal stance.  So we removed the braces, to the tune of much yelling from the chick:  "Sticky tape PULLS!"  Since then, it seems to have reached a plateau.  The toes haven't contracted again, and the chick hasn't gone back to standing like a penguin.  But it's not as mobile as the rest, and has a tendency to stagger and sit down suddenly.  I'm as bad as the proverbial mother hen, hovering over this kid and worrying, but at the moment there really isn't anything more that I can do, other than keep an eye on things.

And the incubator has been refilled, and set to run a second time.  Oh how I hope that things work out better this time around.  o.O

Thursday, June 2, 2011


When you've got more eggs you want to hatch than broody hens willing to sit on them, it's inevitable:  you will buy an incubator, and try your hand at setting the things artificially.  During a long dry spell recently, when none of my previously-reliable hens was going broody and "special eggs" were piling up on the counter, I too fell prey to the temptation to Do Things Myself.  I researched models, read through reviews, checked the Backyard Chickens Forum (try it, it's fun), and finally settled on one by Brower.  And so began another chapter in my book of Learning Experiences.

It's a good incubator.  I firmly believe that.  However, it and I are just not getting along.

That first round, I set a total of thirty-four eggs.  Six failed to develop, which was not too terrible a fertility rate, really:  twenty-eight out of thirty-four is just over eighty-two percent fertility, and even a broody hen can be happy with that.  The incubator whirred along, its heating light flickering on and off as needed, thermometer reading a steady 99.5 degrees F and hygrometer holding between 50 and 55%.  The automatic turner trundled, gradually shifting the eggs to and fro.  Candling at day 10 showed good development in all of the eggs, including movement.  To every appearance, everything was going along just fine.  Day 18 arrived, and I hiked the humidity, detached the turner arm, and settled down expectantly.  Day 21 dawned, the day of hatch . . . and nothing happened.

Day 22.  Nothing.  Growing edgy, I candled again.  To my dismay, ten more eggs were dead at varying points of development.  Of the rest, eight showed movement, five were fully developed, three were highly suspicious, and two--surprise!--had pipped internally.  I put the live ones back in the incubator and kept my hands firmly to myself.

The next day, two eggs hatched.  The chicks showed evidence of delayed development, but were vigorous enough.  Over the next three days, we got a slow but fairly steady hatch of four more eggs.  And that was it.  The rest were dead.  At day 30 I gave up, candled the lot, satisfied myself that they had died, and threw in the towel.

So what went wrong?  I'm putting the pieces together.  These eggs were from hens that had given us a good hatch rate before under broodies, so the problem wasn't in the eggs themselves.  Delayed hatch means delayed development, and that means that the incubator ran at too cool an average temperature the whole time.  But if a low setting was the only problem, we should have had a lot more hatch:  delayed, yes, but hatch.  The second big clue is the occurrence of scattered egg deaths at varying stages of middle to late development.  While even the best hatch will always have a few late quitters, ours were a huge percentage of the batch.  That's evidence of temperature fluctuations in excess of what the embryos could handle.  I did see temperature jumps and drops during incubation, and once or twice grew desperate enough to alter the setting.  Since the thermometers were proven inaccurate, what were the real numbers?  Did I screw things up by opening the unit too often or messing with the dial?  Why did the temperatures change anyway?

To try to answer these questions, I bought a Brinsea Spot Check, which is a digital thermometer with a probe designed to be put inside the incubator and provide a fairly accurate reading on temperatures.  It disagreed firmly with the other thermometers, reading nearly a degree and a half lower.  Based on the performance of the hatch, I am inclined to believe it.  I did some more reading and decided that another part of the problem was the cool temperatures in the house.  This incubator performs best at a room temp of 70 to 85 degrees F, and our house has been in the sixties, which could have caused it to lose too much heat.  With the help of an insulating blanket, though, the unit is rated down to 55 degrees.  We also had a heat wave and a cold snap during incubation, both of which affected the room temperature and caused it to range between 58 and 75 degrees.  That can't have helped at all, but the incubator is already in the room least affected by outdoor temperatures.  Short of putting it in the coat closet, I can't protect it further from changes in room temperature.  For now I think I'll hold off on that coat closet.

I accept that an incubator can't hold a temp at bang on the target, 24 hours a day; there is going to be some amount of temperature flux during even optimal operation.  I just wish I knew what the safe temperature range was, but that is probably something I will have to learn as I go.  The incubator is clean, disinfected, and ready to go again, now wearing a cute little insulating jacket made of a double layer of bubble wrap, and containing a small bag of water to act as a heat sink to smooth out changes in temperature.  I am collecting data points like crazy, checking temps several times a day and watching them rise and fall at unexpected times.  I am starting to think that the incubator has warm and cool spots, despite the manufacturer's best efforts.  I am also starting to think that I should have stuck with the broody hens.  You can't check their temperature twenty times a day--they bite.

So the days roll on, the incubator running empty on the kitchen table, as I search for the setting that will provide a happy middle ground and, barring unforeseen weather weirdness, get us a better hatch.  I sure hope I find it soon, because the eggs can only wait so long.  At the end of this week, I will have to cross my fingers and try again.