Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The Chick Story

Here is the story of our chicks. At the bottom I’ll give you all the details for raising your own, so if you don’t have time for my yapping about our chicks, skip right to the technical details. Sometimes it’s easier to imagine doing something yourself when you’ve heard someone else’s story.

There were lots of good reasons for bringing home six chicks. Maybe not as many “good”, but certainly understandable reasons for the dozen more that followed a month later. Technically, they are called “peeps” and their arrival in a small box resembling a Happy Meal container brought about a new adventure for our family.

We raised our chicks in a pack-n-play in our mud room with the door shut tight to keep out the two curious cats. When left alone they liked to huddle in a huge mass of multicolor feathers all clustered around the rubber duckie my daughter had given them to play with so they wouldn’t be bored. They provided unending entertainment for my younger children. Each chick was given a name and, although they all pretty much looked the same to me, my children began telling long stories of the adventures of Chickoree, Axomillie, Plum, Queen feather-a-lot, and Sami & Liam (the Rhode Island Reds named after their cousins in Rhode Island – never mind that all the chicks were girls – or so we thought).

One morning we opened the door to the mudroom to the shock of an empty pack-n-play. Had the cats finally lived out their fantasy? Another glance around the room at the chick poop everywhere and the answer was clear. They’d made their escape. For weeks they had been “flying” around their pen. It was adorable to watch. Lots of effort and frantic flapping just to rise an inch or two off the ground and one more successful chick who had taken to roosting on top of the waterer. But now they had all “flown the coop”, my husband pointed out gleefully. It was not the first time he would employ a chicken metaphor to illustrate his point. It didn’t take long to find them all – huddled together underneath the pack-n-play.

It was time for the chicks to move out. And not a moment too soon, as the stench seeping out from under the mudroom door was beginning to permeate the entire house. The chicks moved in to a borrowed “Chicken tractor” that our neighbor lent us. If you were not raised on a farm, the phrase chicken tractor might conjure up all kinds of strange ideas – as it did for us when our neighbor first suggested it. A chicken tractor is actually a giant wire cage on wheels. You move it around the yard and the chicks can peck the ground and get to know the world safely.

It was not long after the chicks first moved outside that we had our first casualty. One of the chicks was murdered in cold blood with no evidence left but a neck-less chicken embedded in the side of the tractor. We didn’t want to imagine what would have done this to our precious chick and after another call to our knowledgeable neighbor, we moved a cat carrier we could close securely at night in to the tractor.

When we moved the tractor in to the horse pasture, one of our ponies, Dolly, was delighted. She spent her days hovering over the chicks, using the corners of the tractor as her personal scratching post, nibbling the chick fed that scattered the edges of the tractor, but generally just dozing with her head positioned over the tractor. It was adorable to watch her adopt those chicks as her own. As the hens have grown she still enjoys them, allowing them to share her hay pile and peck around her when she lays down for a nap. Some animals, like some people, just have a knack for caretaking. Dolly has always been an ornery pony not to be trusted with children on her back or other pony’s food nearby. So it has been quite enlightening to see this side of her. I guess we all have our redeeming qualities.

Technical details:
You can order chicks from many feed stores and also through catalogs. Now is the time to order to get spring chicks (think Easter). When they arrive, they are called “peeps” and are about one day old. You’ll know why they’re called peeps as soon as you bring them home because that is the noise they make, literally, “peep”. Amazingly cute. If you order them from a catalog they’ll arrive at your door in a small, noisy box with air holes. Your delivery person will get a kick out of it.

Your new peeps need a small enclosure with some kind of safe bedding. We used our old Pack-n-Play leftover from when my kids were babies. You can also use a plastic storage bin with high sides or a galvanized feed tub. I covered the bottom of our pack-n-play with several newspapers and covered the paper with an old crib sheet. Then I covered the crib sheet with vermiculite and peat moss. I chose vermiculite and peat moss so that when I cleaned out the cage I could dump it on my gardens to enrich my flower beds along with the chicken manure (one of the greatest fertilizers!!). I put the newspaper in my compost and threw the crib sheet in the washing machine. This made cleaning simple which helps because it must be done at increasingly frequent intervals as the chicks grow. You can also use hamster bedding or newspaper or anything that won’t hurt them if they ingest it (chicks spent 90% of their days pecking things).

You’ll need a heat lamp, waterer and chick feeder (available at feed/hardware stores). You can’t just use a cat dish because the chicks will fall in it, poop in it, and knock it over. I use the waterers and feeders that attach to a quart size jar. They’re small inexpensive plastic do-woppys that screw on the jar and you invert it for steady food/water. We fed them non-medicated chick starter. Not all stores carry the non-medicated version, but as long as you keep their cage clean there’s no reason for the unnecessary antibiotics.

The only problem we had with our chicks was some fairly bad diarrhea which stuck to their butts. You don’t want to know about picking dried poop off chick butts, but I was only able to do this because I’ve raised three babies. Anyway, to avoid the diarrhea just add some cornmeal to their feed. Worked like a charm. We were also told to try yogurt, but that got very messy and the chicks didn’t eat much of it.

When the weather was nice we moved the pack n play (with a secure chicken wire lid my husband pieced together) outside so they could enjoy the sunshine and air. When the chicks were about six weeks old they were ready to move in to the chicken tractor outside fulltime. I don’t think a chicken tractor is completely necessary, it was just very convenient. If you have a contained, secure pen ready to go, you can move them directly to that. When our chicks were about 12 weeks old they were ready to live on the open range. We did lose one to a hawk and one to our dog early on, but since then (knock on wood) all are present and accounted for.

A book that was helpful was Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens by Gail Damerow. It has lots of information on raising chicks, chicken breeds, hen houses, and pretty much everything you could ever want to know about chicken keeping. Sometimes it had a little too much information causing me to fret over the seemingly hundreds of things that could go wrong with our chicks.

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