In Memoriam; Cracking Shells, Tiny Turks and Splayed Legs; Waiting for King George, and Friends.

Rarely has one of my blog images become more poignant. The Canada geese photo on the previous post was selected by WP against my best wishes as the thumbnail feature. Little did I think that just 12 hours after taking it, my fears about fox predation would be realised. Just what had happened in that silent monochromed night?SDIM7388ab (2)

On the morning stock round, there were no geese obvious. The raised pond side nest was empty and dishevelled.SDIM7284 (2)A few feathers strewn a yard away, and then some monochrome features on the grass about 50 yards away caught my eye.SDIM7286 (2)

The remnants of a too devoted mother.SDIM7287 (2)

Small feather holding chunks of glistening skin and flesh were all that was left of this impressive bird. I’d rashly assumed that a fox wouldn’t take a mature goose, but wait to pick off the goslings, once they’d hatched. Indeed, I couldn’t find an image of a fox catching a goose on line, though there are certainly records of it occurring, and You Tube videos of geese warding off foxes with impressive wing flapping and neck stretching. But perhaps under cover of darkness, killing was swift, and a surprise snatch made from the rushes behind the nest. And where was the blood?

Later in the day, a forlorn single goose called from overhead, circled and landed in the pond, before wandering the field, with occasional plaintive single calls.S1000054 (2) Thanks to the FAQ’s section of the Coalition to Prevent the Destruction of Canada Geese website, I’m including this link (Click here) to issues relating to mourning in Canada geese, since they mate for life, and it’s quite likely that our gander will indeed have a prolonged period of mourning before hopefully rejoining a larger social group.

Apparently sometimes they don’t.

Many in the UK view these large birds as pests, but for us they have always been welcomed seasonal heralds, arriving much earlier than the swallows, and their dawn fly overs, or night-time returns from upland grazing sites, with honking synchronised to those slow powerful wing beats, have enlivened many a February sunrise, or bedtime moment.

I hope that such a large meal might give our smaller lambs a bit more growing time, before the nocturnal hunters return. And also hope that none of the urban foxes of the South Wales cities get to hear of these rich rural offerings. I read that this January, an urban fox named ‘Fleet’, was tracked unexpectedly travelling 195 miles in 21 days in South East England. SDIM7263 (2)

Just 3 days later, and the valley bottom showed little trace of the carnage. The only monochrome was an early Green-veined White butterfly which paused on my rugger shirt as I pitchforked rushes.SDIM7290 (2)

Golden splashes of celandines and marsh marigolds peeked through the moss and rush debris, and for the first time ever I’ve spotted the pale violet flowers and rounded leaves of the Marsh Violet, Viola palustris, in the wet sump barely 10 yards from the feather pile. SDIM7380 (2)Life moves on.

As I often find myself doing when in a groove of such a repetitive manual task, my mind wandered around these timeless natural survival battles which play out here, and indeed will have played out over centuries, pretty much unchanged. Technology may make it easier to record and share the observations, but one feels a bit part player in all these struggles, apart from temporarily trying to ‘manage’ the playing field. And another new image from this field is included below to interest readers (explanation later).SDIM7386 (3)

On a happier note, much of the rest of this post will focus on our turkey egg hatching experiences. Partly because I found it a fascinating steep learning curve, and partly to record our experiences for the benefit of any other would-be newbie heritage turkey rearer.

By way of brief summary, we opted to try artificial incubation of eggs this year after a miserable result of only two hatched eggs from our Ronquières hens last year, in spite of several apparently near term failed poults not making it out of their shells, with well- behaved diligent mothers.

In my last post I recorded that I’d filmed one of this year’s eggs hatch over about a 40 minute period in the early hours of Easter Tuesday. We waited patiently through the rest of Tuesday for some of the other eggs to follow suit. Nothing happened and there was little obvious signs of life. We removed the single poult around midday, since it seemed to be having problems clambering over all the remaining eggs, but by evening no further progress was evident. Most of the available information warns against regularly opening the incubator since this risks a drop in humidity levels, which need to be over 65% to keep the egg membranes soft enough for the poults to tear through.

In the end I needed double strips of terry nappy fabric, dipped into both the linear water reservoirs at the base of the incubator, to just manage to hit the magic 65%. Earlier in the incubation, and lower humidity is easily reached by trimming the length of fabric down. Fortunately the Brinsea Advance incubator incorporates a digital humidity readout, to give you something to aim for, though the precise optimum for turkey eggs is open to debate after our experiences. The Brinsea information says 40-50% for most poultry, though interestingly turkeys are the one common fowl which doesn’t get a specific mention. Several American sites have other thoughts, with 55% and 60% being mentioned. I stuck to about 50%, but may revise this after our experiences. Click here, for a useful article.

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Late in the evening one egg showed signs of progress. Wobbles, and then a tiny hole through the shell, with a flap which was periodically flipped up by a tiny, appearing beak. But no further progress after over an hour.S1000003 (2)

What to do? There remained another half dozen eggs with obvious little pips or shell breaks, but no activity. At this stage internet access allowed me to read the discussions from chicken owners about what to do in such circumstances. The consensus seemed to be that an egg with a ‘pipped’ shell should have hatched within 24 hours. There were warnings about suffocation if chicks couldn’t get out quickly. We debated for 15 minutes and then decided to have ago at releasing the poult from the egg with the obvious hole.S1000005 (2a)

Fiona quickly removed it from the incubator and whilst she held it, using my old tissue dressing/cat spey forceps I started to break off small shell fragments enlarging the hole. This was fairly straightforward, but it quickly became obvious that the inner membranes were still largely intact and consisted of a really tough thick white layer, not dissimilar to a rubber balloon in terms of tensile strength, and a much more fragile inner membrane with an extensive network of blood vessels which had a tendency to bleed if they were damaged too much. So these different layers were peeled back from the poult which was gradually revealed.

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The packaging of this pretty precocious near mature bird is extraordinary. (Click here for a brilliant day by day series of images of chick development within an egg by Dr. Stephan Warin) The beak will have punctured the air sac at the blunt end of the egg, just a few days before, with the head being hidden beneath a wing, and the large feet tucked up either side.S1000018 (2a)

A point was reached when we felt that the poult was about to expand and completely unwrap itself and extend its limbs, so we quickly popped it back into the incubator with the last piece of egg shell attached and Fiona removed another one of the eggs with a pip. We decided at this stage to repeat the procedure for all the eggs since we found that the humidity level was rising rather than falling, (up to 80%) owing to the considerable extra moist surface area of wet feathers which were now exposed to the draught from the incubator’s fan.

It wasn’t until the penultimate egg that we came across an infertile one, with an obviously black interior.S1000022 (2)And so, just before midnight, after about an hour and a half of delicate work we had 13 soggy, but very much alive and kicking poults. As you might imagine, opening the incubator to remove the last one or two eggs, whilst a seething mass of squirming, tumbling poults, was in constant motion was a little tricky, but we finished feeling relieved that we’d probably made the right choice.S1000033 (2) Anyone who’s ever tried to break a turkey egg will realise how tough these membranes are – Fiona now always uses a knife to cut through them if using one for cooking, but in these poults’ eggs, they had really dried out and were hardening to a thin leather like consistency.S1000052 (2)S1000049 (2)

By the following morning we had considerably fluffier, drier poults and so moved them all into brooder pen Mark 1. S1000036 (2)S1000009 (2)As is often our way, this is actually a recycled wicker laundry basket Fiona inherited from her grandparents, and into which we’d fitted with a low wattage (18W) Brinsea Ecoglow heater. About a quarter of the power required by conventional infra red lamps.

A retained Vetbed covers the base, with a limited amount of chopped hay and newspaper/kitchen towel, with a simple top of enviromesh to cover it all, to aid temperature retention, minimise draughts, yet allow reasonable air circulation – and to keep the poults in! We opted to raise it off the ground at least initially, since we know there is a 2 or 3 degree C temperature drop at floor level.

The first obvious issue was that 3 or 4 of the poults had splayed legs. Stress and/or high temperatures around hatching time, or inadequate hen nutrition, seem the most likely causes in our case. Untreated, such poults would fall into what one article euphemistically refers to as ‘first week starve outs’. With the luxury of more time than commercial growers we’ve had a go at remedying the situation with soft wool or cotton yarn hobbles, and I found my retained ghillies suturing forceps handy for applying these.S1000015 (2)S1000010 (2) Some have needed re working at least once a day, but by now, 4 days later, some of the poults are walking more normally. Since an 80% hatch rate seemed a good target to aim for, we feel reasonably happy with our success thus far.

However, after this interesting and novel experience for us both, the adage “Don’t count your chickens before they hatch” seems very apt.

The next big issue was diet. Since we seem to be rearing these earlier than the conventional turkey season, our local supplier could only provide chicken starter crumb. Fortunately, my distant days of animal nutrition lectures, jogged my memory that turkeys have quite different nutritional requirements to chickens. In particular they have a higher dietary protein requirement which should be near to 26%, or some say 28% for young poults. Part of this protein is needed for feather formation, since the poults are very precocial and normally fend for themselves from really early on, unlike many native wild birds. This compares with a protein level for wheat, which forms the basis of many commercial diets, of only about 11%. In addition, all poultry have requirements for two specific essential amino acid components of protein (lysine and methionine), which are difficult to find in plant materials at high enough levels.S1000002 (2)

I did a quick check of some dairy products in the family fridge for additional insight into just how high a protein requirement this is. Whole milk clocks in at 3%, Marscapone cream cheese at just 6%, Sheep’s milk Feta cheese is up to 16%, matured Manchego cheese is 22%, but it’s not until you reach Parmesan at 33% protein that this turkey poult requirement is surpassed. A food’s water content is obviously playing a big part here as well, and this got me thinking about the whole appeal of the beige dry granules of ‘starter crumb’ feed. Is it any wonder that many articles say how tricky it can be to get young poults or chicks eating well? And having studied turkey, and turkey poult feeding behaviour a bit last year (and in particular their ability to hunt flies); movement, colour  and INTEREST seemed to be dramatically lacking in the conventional starter diet.

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Much of the above confirms the perhaps interesting conundrum that whilst most poultry are omnivores, commercially they are largely fed as herbivores, but they will have to receive some animal protein, or even synthetically manufactured methionine, in their diets.

In the natural environment much of this high protein, and the specific essential amino acids, will come from insects, worms and molluscs, which they catch – even from day one. But where do the feed companies source it? Again, I recall an optional module I took at university which even back in the ’70’s gave an insight into how animal feed companies trawl the list of available food ingredients. Many of their options being by-products of human food production like spent brewer’s grains; blood, fish and bone meal; whey powder and using a computer, they’ll put together a ‘mix’ which satisfies the target levels of a prescribed dietary formula. The typical small poultry keeper really has little knowledge of what actually makes it into that bag of unappetising crumb. The required label simply giving the bare bones of oil, protein, ash and carbohydrate levels it contains.S1000030 (2)From first principles, we thought our turkeys should have a diverse range of fresh material to supplement this. Providing green fresh leaves seems an important part of what the adults would eat, given the chance, and they seem naturally attracted to the colour green. Fiona has therefore been chopping a mix of home-grown leek, watercress, spinach, broccoli, hazel and comfrey leaves. Initially fed from hand, they’ve now learned better manners and we serve it at height from their own little table. A good practical tip I picked up, which minimises food contamination. And as you can see there is always one which lets the rest of the family down, and as their weight grows quickly, the ‘table’ will need further weighing down to prevent it tipping over. (Yet again, I seem to value the packaging of a food, in this case a Carte D’or ice cream box, almost as highly as the contents).S1000003 (2c)

But they really seem to relish this fresh material, and I can’t help feeling that it will be helpful with establishing a more normal gut flora than just the heat treated, boring crumb.

But what about the animal protein? An interesting article on nutritional feeds for organic poultry contained a chart (towards the end of the piece) which lists what would be my first preferred option.


This would create the final part of a virtuous vertical integration of my greenhouse composting system, since the insulated compost bed becomes a fantastic source of large earthworms at this time of the year, as the compost temperature on one side of the heap starts to fall. But there is a problem here.

The compost heap works so well, in part, because the chopped leaves and sawdust are rotted down with the aid of poultry manure. So the question is, will the worms contain a significant level of potential poultry pathogens after munching their way through this material?S1000058 (2)

I’ve struggled to find anything definitive on this. Obviously ‘earthworm meal’ is treated or processed in some way, probably involving heat to sterilise it. But what temperature would I need to cook worms at to ensure safety? Again I’ve so far found no definitive answers.

And would Fiona ever allow me near the stove, with frying pan and wiggly contents?

There is a particular parasite of many birds called gapeworm, Syngamus trachea, which can cause fatal damage to lung tissue and eventually block the trachea where the mature worms live. Click here for more. Its eggs are coughed up by the bird, swallowed, voided in the faeces, and then (unusually for such parasites) can infect another host after being taken in either as eggs, or infective larvae, or indirectly by a paratenic host such as a mollusc or earthworm which has ingested the eggs. It’s also been shown that an encysted infective larva can remain viable for up to 3 years in an earthworm.  So sadly fresh compost worms are always likely to be unsafe to feed without some form of cooking/processing.

So my temporary plan B (pending further thought on the earthworms) was to purchase some mealworms, Tenebrio molitor. These are the larval form of the darkling beetle. They are pretty expensive as a protein source, but I liked the idea that they were live and therefore had more of a natural interest for the birds, and being fed on plant material were free of the potential pathogen issues which earthworms present. You can even establish your own colony should you wish. So what did the poults think?S1000001 (2b)

Within 24 hours of introducing them, they were displaying the typical head shaking and vigour of dispatch that an adult bird would demonstrate, and by now any mealworms introduced to them initiate a feeding frenzy. Nutritionally, they’re similarly high in protein and those essential amino acids, to earthworms, but more particularly, I like the added interest and dimension that they are bringing to the poults’ existence. As with the greens, without these fresh dietary supplements, how does a poult ever begin to develop a normal gut bacterial flora in advance of being placed in the outside environment? Though clearly many commercially reared turkeys never take that step and are permanently housed.

Astute readers will have noticed the interesting juxtaposition and anguished comment about the goose’s demise at the start of this post, with the care and focus devoted to baby birds, most of which will eventually suffer a similar fate with a dramatic end to their lives. I have no trite answers to this dilemma save that as one omnivore writing about another in this wild, life-on-the-edge environment, that forms the backdrop to this blog, the way a life is lived and ends does seem worth recording.

Sadly in the time it’s taken me to finish this post, 2 of the hobbled poults have indeed succumbed to the ‘first week starve out’ or other unseen problems.

We’re down to a whistling dozen.

For now.S1000018 (2)

Finally, whilst all this animal activity has clearly preoccupied us, in the garden there are exciting developments. Several of our Rhododendrons are going to flower for the first time, or at least significantly, after many years of waiting. And the most spectacular is R. ‘Loderi King George’.SDIM7278 (2)The plant has been moved at least twice, and we were despairing that flowers would ever appear, though last year a couple of buds developed and opened to show its potential. This year, perhaps because of last summer’s sunshine and managing to avoid frost damage to flower buds through the mild winter, it’s going to excel with enormous, subtle, palest pink flowers emerging from deeper rose, buds.SDIM7378 (2)SDIM7330 (2)

Elsewhere one of my self sown climbing roses which is now 10 feet up a pine has developed flower buds for the first time.SDIM7357 (2)And amongst the annual battle to suppress weeds which explode as temperatures rise, there are always a few delights to be found.SDIM7325 (2)A particularly darkly mottled leafed geranium, self sown in one of our paths, and an interesting looking grass on the top of our slate topped wall. Friend or foe? SDIM7321 (2) This only just survived, as I’m used to hoiking out Herb Robert seedlings from this spot as I walk past, and was about to pluck this ‘couch grass’ out from the mossy covering when the red tinged stems and wider leaves made me hesitate. I remember wondering last year why we never found Miscanthus seedlings in the garden, with all those feathery seed heads around. The answer is that they require temperatures well over 25 degrees to germinate (similar to Squash). And here on the slate wall, which we now use instead of a microwave for speedy defrosting, it had found the perfect spot, with just enough moss and debris for the roots to spread out and establish a small plant.SDIM7337 (2) Potted on into a tyre, we await to see how it matches with any of its potential parents.

Strong winds and rain brought the tulip display to an end with an image of disheveled beauty from the petals of T. ‘Flaming Purissima’, our favourite hardy tulip.SDIM7373 (2) And for the intrigued readers who’ve got this far, the challenging image in the blog above is of our lower pond. Perhaps because of the mild winter, the mare’s tail spears haven’t collapsed after an icy entrapment, but lingered and accumulated a thick algal sheath. The huge numbers of tadpoles in the pond clearly find this irresistible and so are clumping at the tips of these olive sub surface structures in multiple feeding stations, creating the black patches across the middle of the picture, beneath the reflected sky.

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7 thoughts on “In Memoriam; Cracking Shells, Tiny Turks and Splayed Legs; Waiting for King George, and Friends.

  1. I’d never have guessed how you’d arrived at the picture! It forms a lovely abstract. The goose is very sad and no realisation of “that’s nature” seems to help. The turkeys are a success despite the inevitable losses. I wonder if in nature whether the mother turkeys would run out of patience and lend a beak once the eggs started to move. Amelia

    • Hello Amelia,
      Thanks for the interesting comment. Last year we found several eggs with dead poults in, but half broken shells which had been removed to the furthest end of the turkey’s run. Initially we thought it was a predator, (rat, squirrel, etc.) but eventually we came to the conclusion that perhaps the hens were removing them from the nest after realising that they were dead. This year, next Tuesday marks the day on which any eggs that the turkeys are sitting on naturally should begin to hatch. If the weather is fine, perhaps I could set up a camera on time lapse and see if we got any images of the hens helping out… That would be a really interesting discovery if it happened. It would be fun anyway to see how much hen movement occurs as poults hatch. The only downside is that last year egg hatching wasn’t at all well synchronised, and the whole process lasted for weeks! The tadpole picture was quite special, and it was one of those rare occasions where the camera actually made the image clearer than it was to the naked eye.

    • Hello Carolyn,
      The turkeys are growing really fast, but are indeed fascinating. As for Herb Robert, its native in the wild banks and hedgerows round here, where its fine, but I agree that along with hairy bittercress, its a plant we try to keep out of the garden,or before you know it, you’re inundated. And the bees don’t seem to visit it either,

  2. I thoroughly enjoyed your story regarding the turkey hatchings. Clever pond photo!

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