Although sexual maturity is controlled by genetics for the most part, there are also environmental factors, such as feeding practices or day length, which also can impact the time when a hen reaches the ‘point of lay’. Point of lay is a term used to describe the stage at which hens will start laying - usually between 16-21 weeks of age.
When thinking about adding some fluffy chicks to the flock, you might want to use older hens from your current flock. Hens will generally lay well for the first two years from point of lay, with a gradual decrease in both the number and quality of eggs over the next 3-5 years.
Once you’ve the eggs have been fertilised by a rooster and the hen starts sitting on the eggs you’ll need to wait 21 days to see your chicks hatch from their protective shells. You’ll also need suitably broody hens for natural incubation of eggs. Due to the lack of economic benefits, broodiness is a trait which poultry breeders have chosen to selectively breed out of many species.
Generally, Sussex and Orpington are excellent brooders. Breeds such as Rhode Island Red, Leghorn or Plymouth Rock are known to be relatively poor brooders. Silkies are clucky - their broodiness makes them excellent foster mothers who will very happily incubate and raise chicks from other chicken breeds. It can be worthwhile having one or two Silkies in your flock for the purpose of raising chicks. By placing your broody Silkie on a clutch of eggs during the night she will have the best chance of settling down. As an estimate, the average broody Silkie can sit on a clutch of 8-10 eggs depending on the egg size of course. Large hens can sit on a clutch of up to 15 eggs.
A clutch size is determined by eggs which are laid on consecutive days (around 8 days uninterruptedly is normal). Any day break between laying will be result in the creation of a second clutch. The end of a one clutch and start of the next clutch is the result of the egg formation time inside the hen’s reproductive system.
Particularly broody hens will need encouraged to leave the clutch even to feed or drink! If you find your hens don’t seem to move off the clutch at all they can lose body condition quite quickly. Be aware of your hens feeding habits if you can. For around twenty minutes each day the hens should be removed from the clutch and encouraged to walk around in the yard for exercise. During this time they will most often instantly ramble back toward the coop to return to her clutch. Closing the door or hatch to the coop may be essential to ensure the hen cannot immediately return to sitting on the clutch. This again requires a small amount of management on your part. From a practical perspective, this is the perfect time for you to clean out the coop or pen or refill waterers and feeders for example.
How to Test for a Fertilised Eggs
This is a simple job which you can carry out 7 days after the hen starts sitting on the clutch.
Hold the eggs in front of a large very bright light and look carefully ‘inside’. If you see nothing, so the egg appears completely clear, you should consider that egg infertile. If however you can see a defined dark-coloured moving spot then you have a live chick! If you are unsure you should place those eggs back carefully in the clutch and check again after another 7 days. Infertile eggs should be removed from the clutch.
Hatching Chicks – The Way Nature Intended
The ideal situation is that nature takes it course which means you shouldn’t intervene. If you keep moving the eggs or checking the inside for live chicks you will interfere with the natural warmth and humidity from the hen which is needed for hatching. If you leave hen and eggs alone, the chances are you will have a clutch of chicks without a problem.
If you have a maiden mother, it can be worthwhile checking on her from a distance. She may accidently crush her chicks by sitting on them. She may have a fear reaction and kill her chicks. If you notice your mother hen kicking the eggs of hatching chicks around, assume she is not happy with the situation and be ready and prepared to remove your hatching chicks.
Once the hatchlings are out of their eggs, they may need a little time to find their feet so to speak. Occasionally their leg strength is poor so you may want to keep checking back in on the new mother and her hatchlings and again remove any into the incubator that still seem weak after a few hours.
How to Help Hatching Chicks
Ideally you won’t have any reason to intervene in the natural hatching process. In fact it is wise to cover the nesting box with a large towel or similar when the eggs start to hatch and wait 24 hours before returning. If a hen senses or notices you even watching on – she finds this distracting and off-putting and may even abandon her chicks as they are hatching.
If you find that you have chicks which don’t hatch fully you may decide to help them out of their shells. Some people will prefer not to intervene in this natural process, whereas other will be excited to help save chicks which would otherwise die without help. What you decide to do as a poultry keeper is up to you.
Before hatching even begins, it is wise to have an incubator or warmed box ready for the chicks to placed into.
Once a chick has pecked (pipped) a hole in the shell it will most often take only a few hours for the unzipping of the shell. In the best case scenario, a chick will pip and unzip in an hour. If it takes longer than this, you could assume the chick has got stuck or is struggling to continue breaking through the shell. For any chicks that need assistance you will need to remove their partially opened egg temporarily from the clutch and hen.
Tips to identify a need to help chicks out of their shells.
How to Revive ‘Dead’ Hatchlings
Hatching chicks will die if the mother has abandoned them during hatch and they are left in the cold. If you find this has happened you may be able to save the ‘dead’ chicks. Even though chicks may appear cold and lifeless, it can be worth trying to this method to save them. This is only possibly able to work for a few hours after hatching so the quicker you can do this, the greater the chances of saving the chicks. Of course this doesn’t always work which means you will have hatchlings that you need to discard of appropriately.
Introducing New Chicks to the Established Flock
This should be done gradually over a week or so. There is a natural hierarchy within a chicken flock and when you introduce numerous new birds, there needs to be a natural reordering of positions! It is recommended that you wait until the chicks are at least 6 weeks of age or older before allowing the birds to mix.
Here are some tips on how to make this transition easier for you and your birds.
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