This month’s newsletter is a follow up to June’s newsletter on backyard chickens—which prompted many of you to stop by and meet the girls in person. With my daughter having developed a great love of chickens over the past several years (thanks to our girls Amy, Jenny, and Nancy (and our dear departed Sally)), she wanted to see what it would be like to incubate some of her own. So we did some research at one of our favorite sites, www.mypetchicken.com, and we decided to incubate Easter Egg layers (“Easter Egger Chickens”). There are many, many breeds of chickens you can choose from; we just decided that the blue/brown/green eggs were just way too cool! You may be thinking, “this gal already has a dozen pets, is she crazy?” and maybe I am. But we thought we’d give this a try and, as Elena puts it, “experience the miracle of life”. This newsletter is to answer any questions you might have about our experience incubating chickens. Please feel free to post any additional questions under the comments section.
Questions we will address in this newsletter about our chicken incubation experiment:
1. If we already have chickens, why did we order fertilized eggs online?
2. What kind of gear did we need to take care of the fertilized eggs?
3. What care did the fertilized eggs require during the 21-day incubation period?
4. What kind of set-up did we get in anticipation of our eggs hatching?
5. What is it like to care for newly born chicks?
More about Question #1: If we already have chickens, why did we order fertilized eggs online?
I have been asked this question a lot…or versions of the question around how you know if an egg is for eating or for hatching. It is a great prompter for a brief discussion with your kids about the “birds and the bees.” Hens (girl chickens) lay eggs according to their cycle. If there is no rooster (boy chickens) around, the eggs are not fertilized and there will be no babies. If there is a rooster around, the eggs could be fertilized and babies could be born. That is how I explain it to any kids that ask, and this answer is quite sufficient for them and also introduces a biological concept that they will learn more about later.
More about Question #2: What kind of gear did we need to take care of the fertilized eggs?
Since we could not be sure that our own hens would be “broody” (have the motherly instinct to sit on the fertilized eggs for the full 21-day incubation period), we decided to go with the route of using an incubator. This little gadget, which we bought from the Museum Tour company online, had a heater which kept the eggs at the required range of temperature (around 99 degrees). My daughter chose to keep the incubator in her room, where she enjoyed checking on her eggs frequently. If you choose to incubate eggs with your kids, I would definitely recommend putting the incubator in a well-travelled/visited spot in the house, since you will need to check on it frequently (see next question).
More about Question #3: What care did the fertilized eggs require during the 21-day incubation period?
Besides needing to be kept at a very constant temperature (which requires a lot of monitoring) and humidity, the eggs must be turned three times a day. There are incubators that can do this for you, but we went with a good old fashioned do-it-yourself approach, which I thought created a lot more ownership and sense of responsibility for our daughter. You can do this with your kids using a chart, or just assigning each person a “shift”. In our case, my daughter did all of the morning turning, I did the mid-day turn, and she turned them a final time before she went to bed. We marked the eggs using a pencil to put an “X” on one side and an “O” on the other, so we could remember which eggs we turned. My daughter was responsible for making sure that the incubator had a little water in the humidity-creating “water pots” in the center of the incubator, and we both checked on the temperature of the incubator each time we turned the eggs. All in all, it was a simple but rewarding experience. The hatch rate for the fertilized eggs that we ordered was a reported 50%– and this turned out to be very true. We incubated seven eggs and we hatched four adorable chicks—two of them on day 22 and two on day 23. Here is a less-than-two minute video showing our very first chick hatching:
More about Question #4: What kind of set-up did we get in anticipation of our eggs hatching?
Once the chicks hatched, we needed to move them immediately to an area called a “brooder”. This was basically a play-pen type area that we heated with a (red, infrared) light that the baby chicks could run around in. When they were very little, we used a cardboard box that Elena kept in her room, but as they got bigger, we needed to move them to the basement. The chicks need about 2 square feet per chick, so with four chicks we needed an ample 8 square feet for them to run around in. We bought this Baby Chick Starter Kit from My Pet Chicken.com, which had cardboard panels to create the chick area, starter feed, a water dispenser, a feed dispenser, a heat lamp, and pine shavings to put on the ground to absorb droppings.
We added our own thermometer to this area so that we could monitor the temperature of the chicks. We also added a little bowl of sand (for grit- which helps them to digest). For the first week, we needed to keep them at a balmy 95 degrees. Each week, we raised the light (or turned it off periodically) to achieve about a 5 degree decline in temperature (90 degrees the second week, 85 degrees the third week, and so on).
By week 3, we were giving them a little bit of time outdoors, since it was really nice outside and this outdoor activity was fun for everyone. We even experimented with some introductions between the chicks and the “big hens” at this point, all monitored of course, which we think went really well. Our alpha girl, Nancy, gave each of them a few pecks to show them that she is boss, but then they all got along very well.
More about Question #5: What is it like to care for newly born chicks?
Ok, so taking care of baby chicks is a bit of work. If you are going to do this with your kids, make sure to schedule a time when you all plan on being home a lot. When we calculated the birth-date of the chickens based on the 21-day incubation cycle, we wisely scheduled the birth date on a long weekend (in our case, Memorial Day weekend) when we all planned on being home with nothing else going on. The kids invited friends over, and we spent many hours just looking at the eggs and waiting for them to hatch. Once the chicks were hatched, many more hours were spent just watching them turn from slimy little creatures into cute, fuzzy chicks. Then over the coming weeks, many more hours were spent handling them and of course, cleaning up after them. Now the chicks are just over a month old, and they are getting to be bigger birds. They can stay outside full time in their outdoor coop, which is a whole lot easier than having them in the house. We are integrating them into the larger flock, and soon we will be sending three of the chicks off to their new home. (The deal with our kids from the very beginning was that they could keep ONE of the hatched chicks, ultimately increasing our flock to four). This establishment of what is going to happen to the chicks is VERY important to handle from the very start. If you cannot keep the chicks when they grow up, you must be responsible and have a plan for them. Hatching chicks is fun and amazing, but this is not a short term experiment that should create unwanted birds. In our case, we were very lucky to meet a wonderful family from Lake Forest with lots of space, four kids, and a real desire to take our hens to start their flock. Now, we just need to make sure that the birds are hens (not roosters!). Most residential areas do not allow roosters, so you will need to have a separate plan for them. In our case, we are able to take them to Wisconsin where a friend has a farm. Finding out if you we have hens or roosters is a waiting game for us. We called many vets in the area, and we could not find a place that was able to determine the gender of our chicks for us. However, we were ultimately told that it would be very obvious if we just waited a while—a month or two—and we would start to see telltale characteristics of male vs. female. Here is an interesting chart that I found on line: http://www.ithaca.edu/staff/jhenderson/chooks/sexingchicks.html
Enjoy! Have a wonderful rest of the summer, and Healthy Kids Ideas Exchange will be back in September with our next newsletter with some promised “egg-cellent” (nutritional) information about eggs!
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Kathryn & Elena
This column is for information only, and no part of its contents should be construed as medical advice, diagnosis, recommendation or endorsement by the author. You should always ask your physician for his or her recommendation before starting any new health-related activity.