The Peeps and the Sammies were our first foray into hatching our own birds. When Bessie went broody, we decided that we would let her hatch some eggs. We planned to raise the bubs to around eighteen weeks, then eat the boys and sell any girls. Or maybe keep one – Jo had been hankering to add a Dorking to the flock for a while, and as well as being an interesting rare breed, they were supposedly very good eating.
We got half a dozen Dorking eggs from Dorking guru Liselle Wood in Dunedin. We also got half a dozen eggs from Precious Poultry in Thames – three White Rock (classic old fashioned meat chook) and three Gold Laced Wyandotte (big, handsome, and good to sell or eat).
Both sets of eggs were couriered to us on the same day, by the same courier firm. The Dorking eggs arrived first thing next morning. The eggs from Precious Poultry … didn’t. They completely disappeared from the system, and the company could only confirm that they had been collected, but had no idea where they had ended up. Bessie had already been sitting for two weeks, and we were worried that she’d stop being broody. Added to that, fertile eggs become less viable over time. So we couldn’t afford to wait around. We gave the Dorking eggs the recommended 48 hours post-transport resting time (turning them twice per day, to make sure the embryoes didn’t stick). Liselle had sent us a couple of extra eggs in case some were damaged in transit, so nine Dorking eggs were carefully tucked under Bessie on Thursday morning.
The other eggs arrived that evening – three days after being sent. A few were too badly cracked to be worth setting, and they’d all obviously gotten thoroughly rattled in their mysterious journey around the country. We set the undamaged ones under Bessie, but on candling at 7 and 14 days, it was obvious that they were not developing. We cracked them open to check how far along they’d made it, but they all looked as though they had died either en route or after only a few days of incubation.
So approaching hatch day, we knew we were only going to have a maximum of seven chicks, and that only if they all hatched out safely. (We’d removed the two smallest Dorking eggs from Bessie to make room for the eggs from Precious Poultry.) Assuming a 50/50 split in sex, that meant we were likely to only have three or four boys to raise as meat birds, so we decided to try and get some day-old chicks to add to those Bessie hatched out. As luck had it, a local Rare Breeds enthusiast, Daniel Pengelley, was selling day-old chicks from interesting breeds (including Dorkings), and said he would have chicks hatching at the right time, so we arranged to buy half a dozen extra bubs to slip under her.
Enter The Peeps!
Wednesday morning (10th October 2007) I went out to take breakfast to everyone, including a small dish of mash and grain for Bessie. When I lifted the lid of the broody, I could hear high pitched peeping. The first egg was pipping! By midday, we had our first Peep! (“Peep” being the collective noun for a group of chicks.) She’d hatched out of the second biggest egg.
By early afternoon, there were two more definitely pipping. The second chick hatched out of the smallest egg at around 4:15 pm. A third (third biggest egg) was virtually out, and two more sounded like they were pipping.
By the following morning, we had five chicks pipped, and a sixth (fifth biggest egg) struggling. By 3 pm that afternoon it was obvious that he wasn’t going to make it on his own, so I carefully chipped some of the egg away from him. He managed to kick the remaining shell off by himself, so I had to cross my fingers and hope he’d make it to the next morning.
Bessie kept him warm, and he’d dried off by the morning. But he was barely moving, and certainly not strong enough to stand on his own. By midday Bessie had given up on him (and the remaining egg) and had taken the five Peeps for an explore of the broody house. He died shortly after. There was nothing we could do – sometimes the chicks deplete their energy trying to hatch, and then they simply die. As you can see from the photo below of the eggshells (first two chicks), hatching takes quite a bit of work.
The irony is that he was the only male chick we had … we may well be the first chicken keepers in history to say “damn! All girls!”
Enter The Sammies!
Saturday afternoon we headed out to Rangiora, to meet Daniel Pengelley and choose six (hopefully male) chicks to add to Bessie’s brood. He had a number of different breeds that had hatched on the same day as our girls – Australorps, Dorkings, Sussex, Rhode Island Reds, Holland Blues, New Hampshires, Welsumers, and Pekins. We’d planned to get Dorking boys, maybe one Holland Blue or Welsumer girl to keep, and/or a couple of Rhode Island Reds (boys to eat, girls to sell – they always seem to be easy to sell). Unfortunately by the time we arrived Daniel had sold all the Dorkings from that hatching. We ummed and ahhed a bit, and decided to get three RIRs and three Welsumers. (Neither of which breeds are easy to sex at that age, but what the heck.)
We’d deliberately timed things so that we would be getting back home with the extra chicks just on dusk, so that we wouldn’t have to worry too much about keeping them warm before we could slip them under a snoozing Bessie … which we did. She made her little bok-bok noises to them, and added them to the brood. We went to bed feeling pretty hopeful!
When I went to feed her, all eleven bubs were beetling around merrily. Bessie was doing all the right motherly things, and we were feeling pretty good. They were five days old now, so we unpinned the curtain we’d put across the doorway, and let Bessie take her chicks out onto the grass.
About an hour later I came out again, and noticed that Bessie was not letting three of the chicks come to her. It was the three Welsumers (who looked almost identical to Bessie’s own hatchlings). I scolded her a bit, but it became pretty clear that she was not going to accept them, so I scooped them up into my pockets before she could hurt them. (It’s not uncommon for a hen to badly injure – even kill – chicks that she rejects. Bessie wasn’t hurting them, but I didn’t want to take any chances. And the poor things could chill and die very quickly without her warmth.)
It was quite a blow. We’d been congratulating ourselves on how well everything had gone. (Always a mistake.) As we later learned, four days was the outer limit of how old chicks could safely be to be added to a hen’s brood. The other piece of advice was that hens were more likely to reject chicks that were different colour or markings, so we kept a wary eye on how the three RIR chicks were. And sure enough, but the middle of the afternoon she had decided that they too were unwelcome.
We were going to have to brood them ourselves.
Brooding the Sammies
The weather was still very cold, so we didn’t have the option of keeping them in the garage. We briefly considered trying a cold brooder, but at that stage we hadn’t been able to track down good instructions for how to put one together, or how many chicks you need to have under it for it to work. So we did what countless other novice chicken rearers have done: used a cardboard box and a lamp in the spare bedroom.
Fortunately we still had plenty of the large cardboard boxes left over from moving house, and a heatpad from our homebrewing. So we divided the main box into two areas, keeping one dark area with the heatpad under it for the chicks to go and sleep in. The “roof” of the brooder was covered with old oven racks and a selection of towels, which provided the main control of heating (pull back a little if it’s too hot; pull all the way over if it’s too cold.) We installed a little food trough (they’d already learned about feeders and waterers at Daniel’s), gave them nice soft pine shavings to run around on, and used a couple of plastic chinese-takeaway containers to install porthole windows. It didn’t look too bad at all!
Watching the Sammies was utterly fascinating. They would run around, then sit down for a bit, and slowly nod forward, falling asleep on their faces. Gorgeous. We installed a red bulb for “night time” heating, and an indoor/outdoor digital thermometer to monitor the temperature without disturbing them. They developed a fondness for loud chirping and rowdy play at around 3 am …
Why “the Sammies”? A combination of very bad literary jokes. I’d been rereading Terry Pratchett’s superb Night Watch, so the reference to Sammies was already in my mind. It seemed to have its own gloriously appropriate inevitability when the other group of chicks was called the Peeps, and we kept making detailed notes about them both in a diary …