By ALANNA MOORE
This excerpt is brought to you by Book of the Week – offering you a glimpse between the pages and an exclusive discount of a new book each week. Get the Book of the Week email newsletter delivered directly to your in box! Buy Backyard Poultry Naturally by Alanna Moore here.
You may want to breed just for the sheer pleasure of observing those tiny balls of fluff scampering about, shepherded by their adoring, watchful parents. Or you might find that there is a buoyant market for selling purebred chicks or ducklings.
You may also find that you want to replace your good but old layers with their younger progeny. If so, don’t expect much in the way of breeding true to type from crossbred birds because, like hybrid plants, their characteristics have not been fixed. You’ll have more luck with purebred birds.
Alternatively, you may not “decide” to breed at all. If you leave it all up to nature you may get a nice surprise one evening when a missing hen returns from wild parts with a bright-eyed new brood, begging for dinner.
Hens begin to lay eggs at about 6 months of age, at which stage they are known as “point-of-lay” birds. The first year’s eggs are usually rather small. The hens will continue to lay eggs for several years, but after the second year, productivity drops off. If you want to maintain levels of egg production, you’ll need to breed replacement birds regularly. Every second year is a good idea.
Always provide nests that are cosy and attractive, or eggs will be laid elsewhere. The nest materials should be soft, as hens actually “lay” when standing up, so eggs can break if laid onto a hard surface. Why not line the nest with dried aromatic and insecticidal herbs?
As you gather eggs, never totally empty the nest or the hen will seek out another, more private location. Always leave a dummy egg in the nest (don’t worry–she won’t miss the others). You can buy plastic or concrete eggs for this purpose, or you could save money and simply use boiled eggs or avocado seeds.
The breeding season usually begins in late winter or spring (depending on when the hen was hatched) and continues through into summer.
When breeding heavy breeds of fowl, you will need a small rooster-to-hen ratio, about 12 hens maximum for each rooster. A lighter breed of rooster can maintain fertility with as many as 15 hens. After the second year, rooster fertility is much reduced and they are best replaced after three years. Alternatively, as roosters age, keep them with fewer hens to ensure fertile eggs.
The Mating Game
The mating game is a colorful spectacle. A vigorous cock dances, struts, and circles around hens in his flock, chortling and displaying his feathering. A young cockerel will mate 30 to 40 times a day on the range and in good weather.
The hen will also become amorous when she starts to lay, crouching down to invite the cock to mount her, her wings and tail fluttering seductively.
Some roosters cause damage to the hen when mating, as their toes and spurs gouge her back. After this, hens may end up bare-backed and much less keen, avoiding the rooster like the plague. In this situation, it’s kinder to separate the rooster and the hen to give the hen some rest and recuperation.
You can also reduce the problem by snipping, filing, or grinding off the ends of the sharp spurs and by trimming the rooster’s toenails occasionally.
When her hormones dictate it and conditions are right, a hen will go broody, sitting tight on the nest to incubate her eggs. This is usually after she has laid a good clutch of eggs, whether they are fertile or not. If you have already eaten the eggs, leaving her with just a dummy egg, sh’ll sit anyway. If it happens in springtime, all the better–the new generation of hens will be winter layers.
You can leave nature to do its work with a hen’s own eggs, or you can switch her eggs for others. If you decide to switch the eggs, check the hen’s seriousness before placing a good egg setting under her. If she stays tight on the nest and makes angry protests when approached, and if her breast is bare (because she has been plucking out her down to line the nest), she is probably well and truly clucky.
If the hen is clucky, make sure she is free of lice, which will become intolerable for her over time as she won’t have a chance to dustbathe. You could also line nest boxes with some aromatic herbs such as pine needles, dried tansy, lavender, pennyroyal and the like. These herbs deter insects.
If necessary, take the hen to a better nest site, but only ever move her at night. If possible, keep other hens from laying in the nest by isolating her. Putting a cage over the nest may be the answer. This is also a good idea if her nest is in a wild spot and vulnerable to predators.
The Unwanted Broody
The natural tendency to broodlines ensures a rest from egg laying and thus makes a healthier hen. Uninterrupted laying, as is bred for in modern laying hybrids, can lead to laying fatigue, cancer, leucosis, and increased mortality.
However, a hen sitting for long spells while trying to hatch a concrete egg can also get out of condition. If you don’t want her to hatch eggs, you will have to convince the hen to forget her broodiness. Put her in a bare wire cage in a sunny spot. As this position is neither private nor comfortable, she will not feel like nesting for long. But it may take as many days as she was broody before she gives up, so try and discover unwanted broodiness as early as possible and do something about it quickly. Feed and water as usual.
About the Author:
Alanna Moore is an Australian eco-journalist, organic farmer, master dowser, author of the books Stone Age Farming and Divining Earth Spirit, and editor of the online magazine Geomantica.
Titles of Similar Interest:
- Beyond the Chicken, by Kelly Klober
- The Small-Scale Poultry Flock, by Harvey Ussery
- Talking Chicken, by Kelly Klober