Preparing for Those Fuzzy Bundles of Peepitude
When last we kibbutzed, we had set up the accommodations for mature hens to live and love in your backyard and, in return, provide you with fresh eggs, velvety, tasty, colorful, pert-like-teenage-breasts fresh eggs. Yet, unless you want to quest for mature hens to bring home and take the risk of someone else raising them like they’re chickens instead of pets, part of caring for chickens is nurturing them through their early days and months until they can fend for themselves. Let’s do another bullet list, shall we? They make me feel all professional inside.
You’ll Need (as an expecting chicken parent)
- Heat lamp
- Food and water dispensers
A brooder or nursery can be a deep-sided cardboard box, a wooden one, or even a small animal cage. I prefer a wooden box with at least 18” sides outfitted with a chicken wire cover. Chicks get jumpy and house pets get curious so an attached lid keeps the former in and the latter out. Fitting the lid is a simple matter of stapling it on one side and inserting nails every few inches on the other three sides to pull the chicken wire over before bending it down to secure it. With a secure lid, everyone can watch Chick TV safely as a family.
Line your brooding box with the same wood shavings we spoke of yesterday for the nesting boxes. A layer of newspaper underneath the shavings makes for easier clean-up. Chicks, like their less adorable adult versions, will instinctually scratch the ground and need some purchase when they do so. You can even add a little clean sand if you are feeling like a doting mother hen.
Perching and roosting are also instinctual behaviors that need to be encouraged to strengthen their talons and aid their balance. Add at least one small raised ½” dowel to the brooding box. Alternate places to roost will also help keep your chicks from perching on their food trays and getting poo in the food (chickens have no sphincter and let it all hang out, yes, downsides do exist). Something as simple as a preschooler’s Tinkertoy project can become a perch. We used a 12” long dowel inserted into blocks with ½” holes drilled into them. They loved it.
Heat lamps are a mandatory addition to your chick nursery. Baby chickens are covered in down and cannot maintain their own heat until that down is replaced with true feathers. Installing an infrared light bulb over one corner of the brooding box will give the chicks an area to huddle underneath it when they are cold; but, when they are too warm, the unheated section of the box will allow them space to cool off. Why infrared? Well, the less bright the light the less chance of pecking problems. Yes, as loveable as chickens can be, they can also be brutal and cannibalistic and will kill one another under certain circumstances. And no, I have not totally figured out those circumstances other than to notice that they behave better out of bright light.
Once we had the most beautiful young chicken, a rare mottled Houdan that was severely attacked and killed by its coop-mates. To this day, I think the rest of the flock was insanely jealous of that chicken’s beauty. Woe to Angelina Jolie if somehow she becomes stranded on a deserted island with a bunch of average to below average-looking woman, She’d definitely be the first to be eaten, even before the dumb meaty one.
Food and water dispensers come in all shapes, sizes, and price points. Some are DIY projects and, like hen houses, directions are easily found on the internet. Fresh water is life blood to chicks. They are very thirsty and will try to climb into their water dispenser to discover that fully quenched feeling. Be careful though as danger lurks here. Chicks can easily drown in their water dish. It has happened to us. I felt like a schmuck and a bad chicken mom for weeks afterward. Hope exists, however, as small river pebbles in the dish still allow the chicks to drink but keep the water shallow enough to prevent drowning.
Personally, I like the water dispensers which resemble cat waterers. A gallon tank full of fresh H2O screws into the drinking dish which refills as necessary. They are not cumbersome and are simple to lift out to empty and clean. Easy peasy.
The food dispensers are even less complicated though we have always used the ones for purchase at the feed store. A galvanized metal tray holds the chick mash, which incidentally is far different than the adult food, Gerber’s for baby birds. The slide on top has a series of openings through which the chicks stick their little beaks and eat away. The top also helps to keep chick poo out of the food. A simple shallow bowl, however, will work just as well with the exception of keeping the poo and kicked up shavings out, thus increasing your maintenance time.
Chicks are available at multiple sources, feed stores, hatcheries, and farms. For a backyard chicken keeper, your local feed store is the most practical and convenient place to purchase chicks. Most feed stores carry them at least in the spring. The downside of this, however, is that the chicken breeds available will be very limited and, if you have any wishes for fancy chickens with wildly sprouting heads or highly unusual colors, you are bound to be disappointed.
If you have several friends and/or neighbors who are like-minded in their pursuit of backyard chicken husbandry, another option is to go in together on an order from a hatchery. To keep the chicks warm and alive, the employees at the hatchery pack them in tiny boxes and need a minimum amount, typically 25 to send. Believe me, that a lot of chickens. Since beginning our wee pretend farming adventure, we have exclusively used Murray McMurray Hatchery and, for the most part, have been happy with the results. The hatchery ships directly to the main post office in your area and, if you are lucky, they will call you and allow you to pick up your chicks there and then. Our first set of chicks arrived on a Sunday and we were fortunate that a warm-hearted, caring animal lover was on duty at the time. The sooner the chicks get to their new homes, out of their box, and have access to fresh sugar water (more on that tomorrow) and food, the better their chances of survival.
In more rural areas, local farms often offer chicks for sale, typically when they have a broody hen that insisted on hatching a clutch of eggs, many of which are not even hers. Broodiness, or the instinct to sit on and hatch eggs, has mostly been bred out of commercial lines but some are still out there ready and willing to sit 28 long days to prove her mother-based martyrdom.
One very important thing to consider when buying chicks, no matter from whence they come, is to insist on sexed female chicks. Determining the sex of chicks is an art form in itself and mistakes are often made but if you don’t insist on females from the get-go, you will have a bunch of rowdy, non-egg-laying roosters in your back yard fighting and crowing and at times turning aggressive on their owners. Also, roosters do not just crow at sunrise. They start around 3:30 or 4 am, depending on the time of year, and keep going off and on all day, especially if rooming with other roosters. It’s like someone hung Greek letters in your backyard and declared pledge week.
Since we live in the county, we are allowed roosters but we still have had to hasten the demise of a few of them, one who attacked us regularly, one who fought with his coopmates constantly, and one who got into rough sex (yes, the poor hens started losing all their feathers because he enjoyed plucking them out during THE ACT). And yes, they do run around once decapitated with blood spurting from their necks like Old Faithful after the Apocalypse.
Tomorrow, I will conclude this series by discussing what to do after the chickens arrive (you’ll have to wipe some butts), what to expect from your brood, and when to heat up the pan to fry that first egg.
Until next time…