Hatching chicks via a broody or an incubator is fascinating. I constantly find it an amazing process both as a biological scientist and a chicken keeper, and I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve had a hatch (actually that’s not true, I’ve recorded the details of every hatch I’ve done but perhaps that’s more to do with my anorak collection than anything). In articles and talks I’ve done I’ve been an advocate of hatching birds and engaging in the whole process of rearing chicks to full grown adults; it’s a livestock experience which if well planned for, is accessible to anyone with even a small amount of garden. But by the same measure I do bang the drum on the key term – “plan”.
Before you even consider the concept of hatching little fluffy bundles to beautiful matronly egg layers you need to be aware of one key element; on average 50% of what you hatch will be male. It might sound patently obvious but it surprises me just how many people claim to be aware of that basic fact but hatch anyway, but with absolutely no idea or plan on how to deal with the inevitable surplus males.
Now you might well have spotted ‘gadgets’ that proclaim to be able to sex an egg (they do exist, I tested one and guess what, it was no more accurate than my random choices). You may even read articles about the Australian Brush Turkeys and the way these birds have the ability to manipulate the sex of the chicks that hatch through the temperature control of their incubation mound in what seems like a similar manner to reptiles. The later though are biologically different; they use temperature-dependant sex determination (TSD) whereas the turkey in question works on temperature-dependant embryo mortality meaning the heat of the mound can define to a degree which sex of chick hatches and which dies in the shell. There may well be similar technique that could be applied to the artificial incubation in chicken eggs but as yet I’ve not seen any evidence of it that could be applied successfully in a backyard situation.
And so back to the inevitable cockerels; what is your plan? Rehoming or selling on is possible but unless you have a particularly stunning blood line of a breed then those options are extremely limited. Selling them on accompanied by pullets is an option but unless you have significantly more pullets than cockerels you could end up selling stock you wanted to keep. The bottom line is that until the birds hatch you have no idea what the ratio of male to female will be, so face the reality – you are likely to need to either cull out the spare males or grow them on for the table (unless of course if you have an unlimited amount of land and housing to accommodate the extra chaps). Planning what to do is part of your responsibility when it comes to hatching and rearing chicks, as is caring for the chickens you bought on a whim when swept up in the ‘fashion’ for chicken keeping.
Ringing up your nearest breeder asking them to take on your unwanted birds is likely to be met with a polite ‘no thank you’ and many animal rescue centres are simply not geared up for poultry and could struggle to accommodate them. Worse still though is the increasing number of reports of birds simply being dumped. And if you think I’m making a storm in a teacup then speak to Raystede Centre For Animal Welfare who recently reported 12 hens and cockerel squashed into a box and dumped overnight at their premises. As their Chief Executive said, it’s not only irresponsible but also “a criminal act” as is chucking them over my fence in the hope I’ll not notice the extra three or four cockerels in the field.
So plan before you hatch and remember, with it comes responsibility for the welfare and future of every chick that appears.