As one of my followers pointed out, (and I’ve heard similar stories) chickens that ‘free range’ (are allowed to forage outside of a pen for bugs and food) will sometimes disappear for several weeks and then come back into the fold with a dozen chicks trailing her.
Most people who raise chicks order them from a supply house, and they are packed into a box with holes in it. The chickens can exist on the nourishment they received from their yolk inside that box (with little moving room) for 3 or more days…no food, no water. Then, they raise these chicks in a ‘brooder’ (a box or containment that is heated by a heat lamp to replace the warmth and humidity of the mother hen.)
‘In the wild,’ the mother teaches the chicks how to forage for their own food. I’ve read of numerous people who allow broody hens to hatch and raise their chicks. There are, of course, varying degrees of ‘interference’ as far as where the mother hen and babies are kept, whether they are quarantined from the rest of the flock, etc.
This is an experiment for us, and we’ve wanted to interfere as little as is humanely possibly…humanely…not humanly. I want to keep them warm and protected from predators, but I also want Helen to take care of them as much as possible. My plan was to provide supplemental food for the chicks, as I do for my hens, but allow them to forage, too.
I was hoping that Helen would take them outside of the box to feed at the chick feeder I put just outside of the cardboard box. Today, I finally put the food inside the cardboard box. Helen is still actively sitting on eggs, protecting them and keeping them warm and still intent to hatch them, so it stands to reason that she has not gotten off the nest yet to teach the young’ns. My worry has been how long the chicks can go without food before they start to get weak.
So…I interfered and put the food and water in the cardboard box. Helen has been making little chirpy noises to direct the chicks, and the chicks went right over to the feeder and started pecking around. Helen pecked into the little feeder and made chirping and trilling noises as if to say, “Do what I’m doing. This is how it’s done.” The chicks took right to the feed, and I’m feeling much less stressed. I haven’t seen them drink yet, though.
After a while, all of the chicks went back and tucked themselves underneath Helen to get warm.
I did take a look at the eggs underneath Helen, and it looks like one egg is partially pecked through. I think the chick is dead, as I didn’t see movement. We believe Helen will either leave the nest or kick the non-viable eggs out when she instinctively knows the time for hatching is up. There is no guarantee that all of the eggs were fertilized to begin with. If she leaves the nest, I’ll candle the eggs (‘candle’ means shining a light on the egg in the dark–you can supposedly see embryos or chicks in the egg if they are fertilized and growing.) We made a homemade incubator just in case Helen aborted the brood midway through the sitting. Thankfully we haven’t had to use it. I’ll put any eggs she leaves in there for a couple of days if I see embryos in the eggs when I candle them.
So far the four chicks she has are very lively and look very healthy. Helen has not pecked me when I’ve been looking, or seeing to things…and I’ve picked her up a couple of times to look to see what was going on with the eggs a couple of times. She’s been very patient and very motherly with the chicks.
It’s amazing to see the instinct that kicks in with animals. After all, animals have been doing just fine without the rest of us for years and years.