Late Hatches of Chicks - Coping with Chickens in Cold Weather - Tips and Strategies 1

Two weeks ago I produced a film entitled 'The Last Chicks of Summer', showing my part-Cochin, Cuckoodora and her twelve new chicks, well I was being presumptuous because this morning I found a mother hen, 'ZaZa' (below) and four little chicks scratching away in the garden. Sure enough, on further investigation I found the neat little nest with four empty egg shells under the rose bushes nearby. The following article looks at raising chicks in cold weather, planned or not, so if you are in the former case then maybe skip the first paragraph.

Chicks hatching in cold weather

FIRST THINGS FIRST - FIND THE NEST


In the colder months in particular, a hen may cut her losses, as it were and leave the nest before everyone has hatched. In a forest garden several hens may use a single nest and continue to lay even after a specific hen has started to sit. Thus hatching may be protracted over several days. Faced with the possibility of the earliest hatched chicks wandering off in the cold to find food, the hen may have to make some difficult choices. It is therefore incumbent on us to find the nest and check for remaining eggs. Only once have I failed in my attempts to locate the nest immediately after finding a hen with chicks. Uncovering it under nettles some hours later, was one of the saddest experiences I've had in keeping chickens, the finding of a single part-pipped egg.

Frizzled Cochin chick
Frizzled Cochin Chick hatched two weeks ago with Cuckoodora

With the weather being so capricious at the moment, the hens are risking late hatches, so I'm sharing some of the strategies I use to get the best outcome for the chicks and the Mother hen. I'm trying to make this as comprehensive as possible, based on my experience over fifteen years of keeping hens in a forest garden, so I'm splitting it into two parts, so it doesn't get too unwieldy. In Part Two I will also include a film, which will illustrate the topics discussed in both articles.

QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS


Perhaps the easiest way to do this is to break it into a series of the things I ask myself every time this happens.

What do I know about this hen as a mother?


Everything, I believe starts with observation and if the answer to the above question is 'nothing', then you will need to spend an hour or so assessing the situation. With the above two hatches I know these mothers reasonably well as they brought up my Polish chicks this Summer. However, Cuckoodora was not as good as I would have liked, she had a tendency to stick closely to ZaZa and the chicks kept getting mixed up, which was acceptable at the beginning but became confusing for everyone when it continued. She also was very concerned with scratching for food but not very good at interpreting from the chicks when they were tired and wanted her to sit down.  Clementina below, who hatched twelve chicks last year, knew exactly how to listen to her chicks, this photo exudes the air of a confident mother.

Caring for chicks in cold weather
Being constantly on the move is not a great problem in the Summer when chicks can just find a patch of sunlight and go to sleep but in October with sudden drops in temperature and drizzle, this trait can be fatal. Now suddenly Cuckoodora has twelve chicks of her own, so for the first couple of days I was wondering how she would get on.  In the event she did very well, I noticed she listens to the chicks at all times and can differentiate between the voices, this is very important as she has a couple of frizzled chicks, who are more likely to feel the cold.
 
Quail chicks in a run with mother henCreating a run for cold weather chicks
SOLUTION If your hen is not sitting down enough i.e. covering the chicks on demand, then you will need to intervene quickly. This you can do quite simply by using a small, lightweight, moveable run, either a purchased one or a home-made one like the designs on the left. This will have a two-fold function, in that the Mother hen can not physically get too far away from the chicks but can still be actively finding them food. These runs have polythene covered lids, a draught guard around the bottom and one solid or polythene covered wall.  In addition, by using a small run, you also cut down too much movement by the chick. In cold weather, if they are not being covered enough by the hen, this can result in them using up food resources for keeping warm rather than in creating plumage. Top left shows this set-up being used for quail chicks, who are particularly susceptible to cold weather and because precocial, are liable to stray away from the mother hen if in too large a starter run or when I free-range them.

Pallet wood run for chicks

The above design has a door, which means an experienced Mother hen can use her own judgement as to when to take the chicks out and can also use the run as a rain shelter and or a feeding station. (More of this later).

 

What sort of chicks do I have?

 

Frizzled mother hen and chicks In my case I have many fine feathered and frizzled races in the  genetic make-up of my flock. Certain races of chicks feel the cold much more than others, I've already mentioned Frizzles but there are also different degrees of frizzling and different races that have frizzled plumage. Sebrights and their crosses, both frizzled and 'regular', feel the cold as chicks a great deal, so I am always on the look out for these in late season hatches. Any pure bred or crossed bird with fine plumage may be more susceptible to cold or wet weather. Luckily Sebrights and to some extent Frizzles are very vociferous and I hear them when they are cold!


You can see from his looks in this drawing from 1599, that the original Frizzle was a fair-weather fowl, although in many breeds, the Polish and Cochin for example, the present day Frizzle is well-equipped even for snow. How an individual chick fares will very much depend on the mother hen, as I mentioned above, she needs to be able to distinguish individual voices from the brood. Our priority is, through observation, to identify those chicks at risk.

SOLUTIONS Troubleshooting the problem before it happens by making sure chicks know where to come to for help. As you are the person with the food bowl, chicks usually cotton on pretty quickly that you are the 'go-to-guy' when they get in trouble and this includes being left behind by their mother. In tandem with this, a regular tour of the garden should inform you of potential problems.

How to keep chicks warm in winterI have found a temporary sojourn in a warm kitchen and preferably amongst friends, like this little huddle of Sebright crosses, works well. This, in particular if in conjunction with some extra food. Here I'm using one of the grain buckets to create a mini solarium on a south facing window sill. However, if this doesn't work then I have a third solution which has been a real success for this little lavender Sebright cross peeking out below.

Mother hen covering chicks on a cold Autumn day


..and baby makes three
However, this seemingly draconian solution only works if you have another set of chicks or another broody hen. Above you see my hen Eleanor with three chicks; her own, a Polish cross, is a month old and a week after her chick hatched, she took on another similarly well-upholstered Cochin cross who was under a serial broody, who didn't want a chick. The little lavender chick, is two months old but was having difficulty keeping up with her own mother Clementina, an excellent hen but who was having real difficulties balancing five large hungry mouths with one small cold chick. Working on the principle that hens can count to three but apparently can recognise up to eighty individual faces, I took a chance on purloining this chick. As Eleanor was still sitting on her own chick, then only a few days old and in a small run, I judged the lavender chick would be constantly kept warm and have a chance to put on some more feathers. It quickly became obvious to me that Eleanor was a mother who listened and so I could allow her to free-range in the knowledge that she would sit down when called upon to do so by any of her three chicks.

The above extreme solution works, when the previous one fails.  It is because I had constantly had to have the lavender chick in the house, trying to warm her up, that neither she nor her biological mother, suffered from the change in situation. I would never consider doing this if I suspected this would in any way cause stress to any of the parties concerned. In Part Two, here I will look at my position within my flock and how this impacts on the above issue. Also covered will be temperature, growth and nutrition and any other situations which have arisen. in past or present hatches.

.. and if you'd like to, sit back and watch, our penultimate one!


Thanks for dropping by and if you have enjoyed this piece and found it useful think about sharing it and also maybe about joining this blog. Please also feel free to ask questions or make comments in the section below.

All the very best,
Sue

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How to cope with chicks in cold weather. Part 3

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Some times people comment in surprise on my films that a hen will raise anything but her own eggs but this is only half the story...read more



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