Saturday, December 11, 2010

Curious Things About Chickens

I think I've posted a few of my more spectacular chicken failures this year. The worst was the purchase of two batches of EXPENSIVE day-old Dominique chicks, only to loose them to predators.

I also lost my best hen, a Dominique named "Smudge" who was the first and only hen to successfully raise 2 batches of babies. The first batch was 3 chicks, (Sony the current rooster is the only survivor) the second was 4 and the last was 19, which was 4 of her own and 15 purchased. However, she and all the babies but 2 were killed by my own dog. Minnie and Mickie survived. Mickie is now my back-up rooster and Minnie is a very large hen.

The second big loss was "Seven" and 1 of her own, 15 purchased chicks and 4 duck-hatched babies. She was killed by either a fox or a hawk. Only 3 of the duck-hatched babies remain. They are small, but hardy, and appear to be under the protection of Minnie.

The odd thing is this - the first flock was 7 hens. The longest lived was the mother of the current rooster and all the second generation hens. The second flock was 12 Barred Rocks - an offshoot of the Dominique. I've spent all last year trying to raise a second generation of those, but only Seven and a duck managed to hatch any. Not one of 4 incubator loads had survived. 

Weird chicken fact #1, the drive to set on a nest of eggs and the ability to raise chicks has been bred out of the modern chicken. There are occasional broody hens, like Smudge, but she was too old to lay more than an egg or two. Seven was also an exception. But she's also gone to her reward.

I attempted to teach a chicken to 'go broody' during last winter when I put a half dozen chicks with a pullet. Three of those turned out to be roosters, so I gave them away, two died. One hen survived, but I've lost track of her. (Leg bands only work when you record where each hen came from.

This year, I'm going to start hatching eggs earlier. This January I'll take up a batch of eggs. Should I get a hatching, I'll put them in the tack room where there is heat. Then I'll put the youngest pullets in with these babies to get them started. The young pullets will love the food and the heat lamp. If I'm lucky they will let the little ones snuggled under their feathers.

I'm taking an odd stance between 'Nature' and 'Nurture' with a big bite of 'Natural Selection' thrown in for a good measure. If there is a way to train a hen to 'mother' it would be for her to be raised by a hen, then to have her assist in raising a brood of babies. The instinct would be reinforced.

Since the only young chickens surviving to this point are the ones hatched here, and they are all a cross between a Dominique and a Barred Rock, I'm going to suppose that hybred vigor is playing a part. I'm very sad that the Dominique (the oldest American breed) is not a hardy enough chicken to survive here. Maybe that's why it's nearly extinct - they no longer have what it takes to survive a 'free range' life.

Sony the rooster is purebred. But he's the last. There are no more Dominique hens. Only Smudge survived four years. Sampson, the original purebred rooster, died two years ago. Mickey is a hybred, but he doesn't get any hens for himself. He sneaks a breeding here and there, but Sony beats him up every chance he gets. So Mickey lives outside of chicken world, and sleeps by himself in the rafters.

It will take all winter and spring for me to test my theory. But I'm going to bet that a combination of selection and nurture is going to be the only way I increase my flock of laying hens. 'Imported' chicks don't survive long enough to lay.

I will have to rely on the faithful flock to reproduce itself. Which is going to kill my egg sales.

1 comment:

Rosanne Dingli said...

Like everything else in life (including human teenagers) a combination of natural and contrived seems to work. Humans have forgotten all their natural 'nesting and laying' habits too, and only know what to do when they are shown.
A look at any teenager's room will show you a number of things, least of which being that a mother is still needed for quite a while.
Foxes, dogs and other predators are a fact of life and sometimes useful, but putting up a barrier of some sort between the vulnerable and the determined is sometimes necessary.
I enjoyed this because it reminded me of Gladys and Carmen, two reluctant layers we had to give away.