We decided this year to try our hand at raising chickens. Back in the spring of 2020, we inherited three adult layers from a neighbour who was moving house, and since then our lovely ladies have provided us with a (somewhat intermittent) supply of fresh eggs. We don’t know how old the hens are, or how much longer they’ll be laying, so we decided to increase our yield by raising our own chicks.
We borrowed an incubator from a neighbour, who also gave us 6 eggs, fertilised by their cockerel. The incubator hummed in the corner of the room for three weeks, until, on Day 20, the first two chicks pecked through the shells and emerged into the world. By the time we woke up on Day 21, four chicks had hatched. Two others had tried and we gave them a couple more days but unfortunately they didn’t make it. A 50% hatch rate is apparently successful, so we were pleased with four out of six and kept our fingers crossed that most were female.
We transferred the four lively chicks to a cardboard box laden with straw, with a bowl of water and some chicken feed. They grew rapidly, however, on the fourth day, it was clear something was wrong with one of them. Although she was feeding, she wasn’t growing as quickly as the others. On the morning of the sixth day we found her in poor condition and by midday she was gone, a heartbreaking experience for novice chicken breeders.
The remaining three chicks continued to thrive and after two weeks it was evident they had outgrown the cardboard box, so they were upgraded to the bathtub.
A few days later, they were allowed outside to experience the feel of grass under their feet. We were careful to keep the dogs well away from them, however we hadn’t reckoned with a rat burrowing a hole under the pen and making off with one of the poor souls. This was another traumatic day for us.
Following that incident we became very protective of the remaining two chicks. They were confined to the bathtub until we dealt with the rat*, but because the bathroom was starting to get rather smelly, and we wanted our bathtub back, we made the decision to transfer the young ones to the greenhouse. We soon regretted this decision, however, when their growing curiosities and hunger made short shrift of what was left of our late summer vegetables.
At eight weeks we decided it was time to introduce the chicks to their new home and fellow coopmates. We’d heard this is not a straightforward operation, as existing hens don’t always take to new arrivals, so we were curious as to how they would react with each other. It was in fact quite interesting to see the psychology of the pecking order being played out.
Of the three adult hens, two of them didn’t show much interest in the newcomers – it was the one previously lowest in the hierarchy who took it upon herself to let the chicks know their position. Fortunately there was enough space in the coop for the young chicks to steer clear of her during the day, but at night they had to share the same house. After a week of hearing the obvious disagreements going on behind closed doors, we thought it prudent to build the young ones their own home.
It’s been around three months since the birds hatched and we’re happy with how our first attempt at raising chickens has turned out. In true imprinting style, and in contrast to our hens, the young chicks have come to view us as their parents; they follow us around, they like to feed from our hands and they’ll gladly let us pick them up and handle them, which has already proven useful when one of them needed treatment for a broken toe.
All things being well, and assuming they’re both female (we still don’t know for sure!), they should start laying in the springtime. And so the cycle begins again.
*As painful as we found it to contemplate dispatching such a beautiful creature, it was necessary to remove the threat to the young chicks. A rat trap gave her a quick death. A further rat met the same fate the next day. The sighting of a third rat informed us we’d underestimated the extent of the problem. In all, we ended up eliminating two adult and eight young rats. One large rat still does visit the garden, but he’s no longer a danger to the growing chicks.