how not to raise chickens

There are five chickens in our oven. We are not expecting company, nor suffering from an intense craving for chicken roast.

There are five chickens in our oven.

We are not expecting company, nor suffering from an intense craving for chicken roast.

These are newly hatched baby chicks that have unexpectedly turned me and our propane stove into foster moms.

I have been through the ordeal of raising day-old chicks without electricity a few times in the past and although it always worked out fine, the constant quest to keep the little ones at a toasty 30 degrees is pretty wearying.

This was achieved by turning the cabin into a sauna, shuttling the chicks out into the sweltering greenhouse over the day, and supplying hot water bottles and a small insulated cardboard box for them to sleep in at night.

This time, things were going to be different. Our neighbour had asked if he could get chickens from us, and because we keep a couple of motherly bantam hens just for the purpose of hatching and raising more chickens, I felt confident that my days as a chicken foster mom were over.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

The first hitch in the plan to let the banties raise two broods was that just one of these naturally talented mother hens, Heidi, showed any inclination to sit on a nest.

The only other hen with aspirations towards motherhood was one of our nervous and hyperactive layer breed — according to my chicken book a very poor candidate for this important role at hand. But since she and Heidi were the only volunteers, I figured I didn’t have much to lose.

Over the past three weeks, high-strung Ninny seemed to do an adequate job of setting. She did spend more time off her nest than tranquil Heidi, and every now and then she would throw herself in a somewhat demented way against the chicken fencing separating the mommies-to-be from the rest of the flock.

But overall, things appeared to be progressing as they should. Heidi, who had begun setting a couple days before Ninny, hatched all of her eleven eggs right on schedule and has been displaying admirable mothering skills in keeping the little ones warm and pointing out food and water to them.

It was when three of Ninny’s eggs hatched that things started going a bit haywire. The three little chicks showed no interest in hanging out with their hectic mom and waiting for their siblings to hatch, instead they abandoned camp and joined the other brood of active little chicks.

Heidi didn’t seem to mind or notice. When I went at night to close up the chicken coop, I saw Heidi sitting next to Ninny’s nest with all of the brood, and the 14 chicks were using both hens to keep warm.

But when I expected the rest of Ninny’s eggs to have hatched, I was greeted instead by the sight of four eggs lying away from the nest on the cold floor of the coop.

The idiotic hen must have rolled them out of the nest, maybe she finds the emerging chicks scary. The shell of one was already cracked open, displaying a dead chick, and the other three eggs were beginning to pip.

What to do? I brought them into the cabin with me and after warming them up was rewarded with faint knocking sounds.

The propane stove oven was the only thing feasible for keeping them at a steady warm temperature but it’s impossible to regulate the humidity to the proper levels needed by the chicks to hatch.

Anyway, it was this or nothing for the little ones since I didn’t want to entrust them to unreliable Ninny again.

The day was spent monitoring the oven, putting steaming cups of water in it and checking on the progress of the hatch.

Yesterday, I stole the remaining two half-hatched eggs out of the unattended nest because abominable Ninny was frolicking around in the run instead of looking after her little ones.

So there I was, transformed into a chicken mom yet again, only now at an even earlier and more precarious stage, before the chicks were even out of the eggs.

Not having the right equipment made it all a nerve-wracking experience that let my former efforts of raising day-old chicks appear to be a walk in the park. With a bit of assistance that I figured was the chicks’ due after their brush with hypothermia, all five managed to come out of the shells and are now regaining strength in the oven after their ordeal.

I fervently hope to successfully smuggle them back out into the chicken coop tomorrow to escape the well-known routine of hot water bottles and sauna temperatures inside the cabin for weeks on end. But now I know why you should never count your chickens before they hatch.

Lisa Hasselbring is a writer who lives at the headwaters of the Yukon River south of Whitehorse.