Thursday, April 7, 2011

In Search of the Elusive Silkie

JTR's infatuation with our little cream-colored Silkie, Himalaya, was growing by leaps and bounds. Every day, he'd hover around the brooder, asking if he could hold her. He'd then sit for endless minutes, statue still, his hand carefully cupped around the fluffy chick. Himalaya, for her part, loved the attention and was perfectly content to nestle into JTR's palm for some non-stop stroking and petting.

When JTR wasn't handling Himalaya, he'd talk about her, asking when her feathers would come in, what color she'd finally be, wondering how big she'd get when she became an adult, marveling at the fact that Himalaya might one day lay eggs. J and I were thrilled that one of our sons was taking such a huge interest in our chicks, but J was a little concerned about which direction JTR's interest was heading. Along with the other Silkies, Himalaya would be part of our work force as a brooding hen, surrogate mom to the fertilized eggs from our heritage laying hens. Life as a coddled pet was not in Himalaya's future.

"Honey, you do realize that Himalaya is a working chicken, right?" I gently asked the seven-year-old boy one afternoon after school and after he'd cuddled the white fluffball and fed it little bits of mealworm.

"Yes, Mommy, I know, she's going to be a Mama Hen someday," JTR answered brightly, returning the chick in question to my hands to place back in the brooder. "Can I bring her in for show and tell tomorrow?"

Obviously I had to work on my explanations a bit more.

JTR went off to school the following day not with a chick but with a binderful of photos of himself holding Himalaya and, to spread the love, holding Stefanski and Clarisse, his former favorite until she began to feather. While he seemed satisfied at this alternative, White Silkies were never far from JTR's mind.

"Hi, Mommy White Silkie!" he'd greet me upon his return from school, and "If you could be any chicken, Mommy, what would it be?" he'd ask, barely giving me any time to respond before he'd chirp, "I'd be a White Silkie!" At bedtime, JTR would give me a hug and, instead of planting a kiss on my cheek, he'd "peck" me with his nose and go "Peep."

It didn't help matters that JTR came across my laptop open to a photo of Hollywood celebrity Tori Spelling toting her pet White Silkie, Coco, around town. And it seriously didn't help that JTR remembered I'd promised he could someday name a White Silkie of his own. He already had names picked out: Altaria or Swablu, after two fluffy white-and-blue bird-type Pokemon.

"You know, people do keep Silkies as pets," I mentioned to J one evening after a full day of experiencing JTR's White Silkie love. "Remember hearing about that pet Silkie rooster that saved its owner from a house fire?"

"We have smoke alarms," J noted.

I ignored him. "When I was in the pet store the other day, I saw these bird cages made for cockatiels or macaws that would work fabulously for Silkies," I went on. "They have four levels, with ramps to walk up and perches at the very top to roost on. And there are pull-out drawers at the top and at the bottom to make cleaning up after the birds easy."

J folded his arms. "And what do these things look like, huge dog kennels?"

"No, they actually are decorated to blend in with furnishings," I told him. "In fact, the dark one would work well here once we reclaim it as a sitting room."

J leaned back against his desk. "So what are you saying? That you don't want to put the Silkies out in a coop at all?"

I shook my head. "I'm not sure, to be honest. But they are intolerant of heat and cold, and their feathers will more than likely get dirty and disheveled being outside. I'm not saying we should keep all of them up here, just the ones we treat as pets."

"And the rest would be in a special pen in the basement," J picked up the thread. "The area that's supposed to be the boys' rec room would work well. That way, we could keep track of how they're setting their eggs and keep them hand trained and clean if we want to show them."

I nodded in agreement. Good! This matter ended up easily resolved.

Or so I thought until the next morning, when, over his bowl of Cap'n Crunch, JTR made an announcement. "I know what I want for my birthday!" he proclaimed.

His brothers pointedly ignored him, as JTR's birthday was more than two months away. "What would you like, honey?" I asked, fairly confident I knew the answer.

"I want a toy stuffed White Silkie, so I can keep it with me upstairs and tuck it into bed with me and take it to school for show and tell."

A toy Silkie?

"Honey, are you sure that's what you want... a toy Silkie?" I confirmed.

JTR nodded happily. "Yep! A stuffed one, as big as my toy penguin. That way, the two of them can be friends and keep each other company when I'm at school."

Well, I didn't see that coming. Once the boys were at school and J'd left for work, and after I'd fed and watered the chicks — and given each their hand-training time — I hopped onto Google and searched for "silkie toy."

The results were nothing I would give to a 7-year-old boy.

I tried again, this time Googling "stuffed chicken" ... and ending up with myriad recipes on how to prepare Gloria and company for the dinner table. "Chicken toy" yielded a mixture of joke rubber chickens and squeaky pet toys. I was getting nowhere fast.


Shifting gears, I logged onto the online forums at Backyard Chickens and posted about my dilemma, asking for help in locating the elusive White Silkie toy. It was like calling the cavalry in; a number of chicken lovers around the country soon responded with what they'd been able to find. One had ended up the same results as I had when she'd searched for silkie toys. A different user commented about the search results she obtained for "stuffed bird." Yet another posted a photo of a toy stuffed chicken, noting it was white but it wasn't a Silkie with that comb and those feet. "Maybe a small child would think it's a White Silkie?" she hoped.

Another person posted a photo of a very cute White-Crested Black Polish she'd crocheted for a Backyard Chickens user. I'd have been tempted to order one if JTR had gone head over heels for Stefanski instead of Himalaya. Someone else posted a photo of a ... something. None of us could figure out what on earth it was. "Someone put eyeballs on an egg and then squished the yolk out!" I commented.


By the end of the day, most of my helpers had called it quits. "I'm seriously having a hard time finding plush Silkies," one wrote. "Good luck!" Another posted a URL that had stuffed toy chickens, but no Silkies. The last couple of posters managed to locate a fuzzy white plush chicken, still not a Silkie but the closest we'd come. The cost, however, floored me. I could buy 15 real live Silkie chicks for what that one toy cost.

Not that I'd buy 15 more Silkie chicks. But I might buy two. Altaria and Swablu, JTR's new White Silkie chicks, will arrive just in time for his 8th birthday. They'll be accompanied on their trip from the hatchery by a pair of Black Silkies, a pair of Blue Silkies, and a pair of Red Silkies.

Okay, I might buy eight.

Roll Call

Twenty-eight chicks plus eight chicks plus eight more chicks equals... a whole lot of chicks to try to keep track of without pulling out our collective hair. Fortunately, one set of eight — our Silkies and our White-Crested Polish chick, Stefanski — were in their own brooder and were distinctive enough to easily identify. The other set of eight — our original "Big Chicks" — were also in their own brooder and were also easily identified. But the others? That required some keen observation and a touch of creativity, something that I didn't necessarily have after two days of chick overload.

The trio of Columbian Wyandottes at first glance seemed to be the easiest to tell apart. Nigel's chickie tuxedo — his black triangular markings — distinguished him from his siblings... until we noticed that another Columbian had the exact same markings, only in a lighter gray. I immediately dubbed this chick Nigel 2, but M had other ideas.

"Reginald," he declared. "That's a proper gentleman's name."

"It's a Columbian Wyandotte, not a British Wyandotte," I pointed out.

"Roderick?"

"No."

"You can't say no to Winston," M protested. "It's a proper name for a proper little chick."

"We don't even know if Winston is a boy or girl!" I pointed out, picking up the chick in question and stroking its chubby back.

M ignored my comment, however, and laughed. "Ha! You called him Winston!" he chortled, dancing around in the limited sitting-room space. I just shook my head. I'd ordered two girls and a boy, which meant that Winston might end up being Winnie or Nigel might end up as Nigella... or both. I decided to give the third Columbian Wyandotte a female name to balance everything out. Columbia? Boring. Collie? Hmmm... poultry, not puppy. Lumbie? Sounded like a chick with back problems. My ingenuity failing me, I settled for Luella, figuring Lou would be the fallback if she ended up being a he.

No gender questions existed for our five new Ameraucana chicks — I'd specified pullets so we'd have plenty of blue and green eggs to eat and sell. The Ameraucanas' characteristic chipmunk-like markings helped me not only tell them apart but also give them some sort of name. One sweet peep with a distinctly female face had a blaze just like Blazekin's ending in a well-defined, brown triangle right above her forehead. My imagination failing me, I temporarily named her Mini-Blaze until such a time that my brain could think creatively again. A chick with a thicker blaze became Mini-Barbra, while one with a prominent auburn V on her forehead was dubbed Victoria. A fourth Ameraucana had the same homely but lovable facial coloration that Eggbert had displayed as a baby chick, except with reddish tones versus Eggbert's brown; this one I named Agatha. Finally, the fifth little fuzzball had an unusual dark-brown mark on her head but no other chipmunk striping on her body. As the shape on her head resembled an old-fashioned keyhole, I nicknamed her Keynoter, figuring I'd revisit her name in the near future as well.

The quartet of White Cochin chicks was an entirely different matter. The four appeared absolutely identical, with tiny white wingtips, white faces, and hoodies of gray fuzz. As much as I tried, I couldn't find anything to differentiate the shy, tiny chicks from each other. It didn't help that they stuck together as a group instead of exploring the brooder on their own or mingling with the other chicks. Grasping at straws, I convinced myself that the down on their heads varied in pattern. The chick with the triangular black mark became Trinity, while the one with the black dot on her forehead became Dorothy. One seemed to sport an upside-down A on the crown of her head; she became Adeline. The Cochin chick whose head down was simply a mottled gray became Matilda.

And with that, I expended the remaining reserves of my creative energy. The six Buff Orpington pullets — even more alike than the White Cochins — simply stayed Goldie One through Six after I racked my brains for variation of Gold and only came up with Goldie, Golda, and Goldilocks. I did name the male Orpington chick Arnold, much to M's chagrin. M felt that such a sunny, golden boy — and we did temporarily call the chick Goldie Boy — deserved a name like Bryan, after Beach Boy Wilson. However, I stuck with Arnold, after bodybuilder Schwarzenegger. After all, the little roo was a Buff Orpington.

I pretty much gave up when it came to the six Silver-Laced Wyandottes. The patterns made by their black-speckled faces and white-rippled down were as indecipherable as military camouflage. As hard as I tried, I just couldn't tell them apart. One chick, however, stood out, not just because of its coloration but because of its resemblance to Jimmy Durante: its pitch-black facial down contrasted severely with its creamy peach beak, making this feature far more prominent than it truly was and earning the little Wyandotte the notable sobriquet of Schnozz.


That left our three remaining Cuckoo Marans, the chocolate-brown egg layers I'd so looked forward to having in our flock. Since the breed originates from the French town of Maran, I'd planned to come up with French names for the trio of black-and-white pullets. Sadly, I only had to come up with two names. The mess more than two dozen chicks left on their paper towels became too much for J to bear, both visually and olfactorally. The offending towels were removed, exposing a sea of pine shavings just waiting to be explored and rolled in. We'd forgotten, however, that the Cuckoo Marans were several days younger than the rest of our chick battalion and therefore more prone to peck at the shavings than their older broodermates. We found one of the Maran chicks dead, her beak parted with the saliva-expanded pine shavings she had eaten. Little Una (because she was the first Cuckoo Maran to come out of the shipping carton) joined Spot and Honey out in the back, leaving Marianne and Martine behind as the only dark egg layers in our entire flock.

Which of course wouldn't do. I'd simply have to order more chicks.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Smooth as Silkies

Over the next few days, we became better acquainted with our flock and their habits and idiosyncrasies. We automatically began referring to them as three distinct groups: the Big Chicks, consisting of Gloria, Eggbert, and the older chicks; the Little Chicks, comprised of Nigel and the other newly arrived standard-sized chicks; and the Silkies, which included the little white-crested black Polish chick, which we'd decided to leave with the Silkies even after Nigel had ceased his arrival-day attacks.

The little Polish chick was proving to be quite the coquette, always cocking her head at us whenever she caught us watching her and never failing to strike a pose for the camera. She loved having her back stroked, practically quivering with pleasure from the attention. I was thrilled with the little bird. I'd read online posts by owners of white-crested black Polish, praising the breed's spunky personality and friendly nature, and I had attempted to add a pair of them to our McMurray order, only to have the addition nixed by J. Discovering one had been added to our order by the hatchery as our free rare chick delighted me and, like a proud parent, I found myself sharing photos of the fuzzy peep with family and friends.

"Meet Stefanski," I told them.

My stepsisters found the name choice hilarious. "Oh my god, you're kidding me!" exclaimed KS upon hearing what I'd named the Polish chick — their last name. "Too funny!"

AS, who'd jokingly suggested the surname when I'd first considered buying the breed, agreed. "I love it! She's got the Stefanski beak, by the way."

The boys, however, were not in agreement. "I think her name should be Ice Cream Head, because she looks like she has a scoop of vanilla ice cream on her head," JTR told me.

B had his own name choice. "Pom Pom Head," he suggested, tenderly stroking the chick's fluffy top hat.

Stefanski it was.

The black-and-white chick wasn't our only budding supermodel. The cream-colored Silkie — who turned out to be more white than cream under our lights — also was a natural in front of the camera. She'd pose by herself, with the other chicks, and with JTR as well, who quickly fell in love with the fluffy white chick. With her white down and her grey-blue face, she looked like a tiny Yeti, albeit far from abominable. I decided to name her Himalaya.

"I think we should name her Altaria or Swablu," JTR commented, referring to two bird-type Pokemon with blue skin and fluffy white feathers. I decided to make a deal with him. When and if he got his own White Silkie, JTR could name it Swablu or Altaria or whatever he wanted. This one was Himalaya. JTR readily agreed. "Remember, you promised!" the 7 year old told me as he stroked Himalaya.

Himalaya's counterpart in Silkie friendliness was one of the two partridge-colored chicks I'd purchased from VP, the local breeder. Even fluffier than Himalaya, this chick displayed the sunniest temperament, absolutely adoring not just being stroked, but being cuddled. She was so affectionate that B, JTR, and even N vied for the opportunity to nuzzle her against their cheeks. I knew that, due to the possibility of Salmonella contagion, cuddling chicks is supposed to be a no-no; I also knew that, due to the possibility of a curious chick pecking out an eyeball, cuddling chicks should be a no-no. But this little Partridge Silkie's temperament was so lovable that I found myself nuzzling the chick, too. I briefly considered Sasquatch as a name to go hand in hand with Himalaya, but I just couldn't do that to such a sweet little peep. I finally settled on Sunshine, mostly because of her sunny disposition but also because of her honey-gold belly and face.

The other partridge chick at first glance looked identical to Sunshine: same body shape, same fuzzy down. The differences, however, became noticeable the more we observed her. While docile and calm, she wasn't as outgoing as Sunshine. I could hold her for 10 or 15 minutes, softly stroking her, and she'd sit still through it all, but the second I stopped and opened my hand, she'd just look at me as if asking, "What next?" versus Sunshine, who'd hop around and rub her little face against my thumb as if wanting more. The placid little peep's face was also more golden-yellow than Sunshine's, with cinnamon-colored markings around the eyes and crown. She reminded me of a Betty Crocker® coffee cake. Coffee Cake was a pretty stupid name, however, so I went with Streusel instead.

The other chicks in the Silkies' brooder had not really shown much in the way of character or charisma yet. They were just fuzzy little eating and pooping machines. The teensie black chick that seemed runtish compared to its broodermates was chief amongst the chicks when it came to chowing down and, within two days, had filled out and was the same size as Buff Silkie #2, whom I named Turbanado after the golden-brown sugar. Although Turbanado was technically a Buff Silkie, the markings on her head and back exactly matched Sunshine's, so we reclassified her as a Partridge Silkie. Coloration and markings were the only things Sunshine and Turbanado had in common, however. Turbanado was a beardless Silkie and lacked the puffs of down on her cheeks and chin, while Sunshine's face displayed the down that served as the precursor for the trademark bearded Silkie's beard and muff. As a result, it looked like two Turbanados could fits inside one Sunshine, even though Turbanado was a few days older than Sunshine and the other Silkies.

The two gray Silkies not only showed little personality, they also looked as if they'd hatched from the same egg. They showed the same shading variations, the same-sized head pouf, the same chubbiness, even the same wing feather development, leading N to wonder if chick twins were even possible (they are, but I sincerely doubted this was the case). The only way I could tell them apart was that one chick had a darker, thicker band of skin than the other, so that at times it looked like this chick was sporting goggles. More than anything, they resembled tall Russian fur hats, so I named the goggles one Pavlova and the other Romanov, figuring I could change their names to Pavlov and Romanova if the need arose.

As for the little black one? A beardless Silkie like Turbanado, the former runt of the litter was quickly claimed by J. "The black one's my chick," he proclaimed to us one evening as he cradled it in his palm. As for its name? J dubbed it the ever-original Blackie.

We won't be letting him name any of the other chicks.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Arrivals and Departures

The buzzing of the alarm clock blasted me awake from a dream starring a cannibalistic platinum-colored chick zipping around town and swallowing people whole, Kirby style. Jamming my feet into my slippers, I hurried out to check on the little chicks I'd left sleeping in the sitting room, half afraid that I'd find one or more dead, either from shipping stress or from being pecked to bits by Nigel.

My worries were unfounded. Most of the new chicks were still huddled together in slumber, the piles of fluff expanding and contracting rhythmically with each breath. A couple of chicks were enjoying an early breakfast at the feeder, and one little fluffball was sipping at the waterer.

Nigel was one of the sleepyheads. Phew.

Over in the hospital feeder, the scene was the same. Buff Silkies Two through Four were asleep in a heap in the corner, with the little Polish chick stretched out and snoozing nearby. Satisfied, I peeked in on the big chicks and was met by a pair of glaring eyes. Apparently, Gloria felt I'd been neglecting the older birds.

"I'm sorry, girl," I told the Lavender Orpington, picking her up and nestling her in my arms. "I haven't been ignoring you. I've just been busy getting your little brothers and sisters settled in." Stroking her head, I carried Gloria over to the little chicks' brooder, letting her look over my arm at the dozens of fluffs inside. "You're going to be the Head Hen, you know," I informed her, "And all these chicks are going to look up to you. I'm counting on you to keep them in line."

Gloria's interest in her young next-door neighbors was short lived, though, especially after I held out some mealworms as a special treat. I carefully put her back inside her brooder, refreshed everybody's water, and replenished the feeders, then went to get breakfast going and M and JTR off to school; N would be dropped off later, after a doctor's check up. By 7 A.M., the house was quiet except for a gentle peeping. Too quiet, in fact. The post office hadn't called yet to notify me that the Meyer Hatchery chicks had arrived.

I knew for a fact that Meyer had shipped the chicks. Yesterday, I'd contacted the Ohio-based hatchery to inquire about the status of our order. After what had happened with our McMurray chicks — shipped earlier than expected and stuck in the post office all weekend — I'd called to verify what was happening with the three Cuckoo Marans girls and the Buff Orpington boy we were expecting. "They hatched today, and they're shipping today," the Meyer customer-service representative informed me. "They'll be there tomorrow." And tomorrow was now today.

I checked the volume setting for my ringer, then checked for missed calls. Nothing. What had come in, however, was an email from a local chicken breeder I'd met through Craigslist. SILKIE CHICKS! shouted the subject of her message. Nine had hatched yesterday and I could have my pick. Just let her know if I were interested.

If I were interested?! I didn't stop to give it a second thought. Hitting Reply, I quickly typed that I was definitely interested and would be there after my son's late-morning doctor's appointment. I'd be more than happy to take four chicks off her hands.

With Honey's death, there were three remaining Buff Silkies in the hospital brooder. "You're going to have some company soon," I told the now-active chicks, who were happily munching their breakfast. Three plus four more would make seven. Weeks ago, I'd arranged with our friend P to split our McMurray Silkie order with her, as she'd always wanted some of the puffball chickens. That meant that two of the remaining Buff Silkies would be going to her farm, leaving me with five Silkies total. Hmmm. Maybe I could convince the breeder to let me buy five chicks so I'd end up with an even half dozen.

Darned chicken math!

I spent the rest of the early morning cleaning out the little chicks' pen. When Gloria, Eggbert, Blazekin, Barbra, Dennis, Cutie, and Belle had been just days old, their brooder had been lined with paper towels. Hatchlings need a surface with traction for the first few days of their life to properly develop their leg muscles. The paper towels also keep the chicks from picking at — and eating — their bedding, which could cause digestive problems or worse. Changing soiled paper towels also takes far less time than replacing the entire contents of the brooder. The mess seven little chicks made on their paper towels in one day, however, came nowhere near the mess 24 little chicks made on theirs overnight. These paper towels were almost completely covered with droppings of assorted colors, shapes, and sizes, giving off a smell that would become miasmal if left for much longer. Using Nigel's solitary-confinement brooder, I popped the little chicks into the available space, then made quick work of exchanging clean towels for the dirty ones, giving each fuzzball a little pat and stroke before placing it back in the brooder.

I wrapped up with just enough time to grab N and dash to his appointment at the medical center a half hour away. Rushing into the clinic, I went to check N in at the reception desk, only to discover there'd been no need to hurry: N's appointment was tomorrow. Oops! At least this meant I could get out to the breeder's place a lot earlier than I'd expected. I punched the address into my car's GPS and, after about an hour and a couple of wrong turns — and having our minivan charged by a fierce attack dachsund — we pulled into VP's driveway.

I wasn't really sure what I expected a breeder's farm to look like. I definitely envisioned acreage and separate runs for the different breeds raised. I guess I just imagined something a little more professional looking than tarp-covered frames surrounded by stacked hay bales for insulation. A row of tidy coops, perhaps, or a sturdy fenced-in chicken run. Still, the hens foraging out in the yard looked very healthy and I was able to point out Silver-Laced Wyandottes, Cochins, and some sort of pheasant to N before VP came out to greet us.

"They're in my half bath," she noted, indicating the way. This only surprised me a little. From what I'd seen in the online forums, many poultry fanciers kept their brooders in their bathrooms. I suppose I was still expecting a less homegrown operation.

Inside the miniscule bathroom, two boxes sat on the floor, one directly beneath the sink and one between the wall and the toilet. I dismissed the one near the toilet after a quick glance — cat littler box — and focused on the smaller box, equipped with a tiny clip-on heat lamp. Within the box, teensy fluffy chicks huddled beneath the light, trying to keep warm. There were gray ones, buff ones, several of a mottled brown shade called partridge, and one tiny black one. I was in love.

"Go get the box from the car," I instructed N. Earlier, before heading out to the non-existent doctor's appointment, I'd placed the shipping box from McMurray Hatchery in the minivan, figuring it would make an excellent conveyance for the new chicks.

"Oh, don't worry, I've got one right here, all prepped with pine shavings for you," VP said, handing me a small cardboard carton. "Just pick whichever ones you want and put them in."

That was the hard part. How was I only going to be able to pick four? Steeling myself, I scooped up the two gray chicks and the tiny black one, then sat and watched the remaining Silkies for a moment. While they all were cute, cuteness on its own wasn't going to cut it. I wanted healthy, active chicks. After all, Silkies were crucial to my plans for FMA Farms: they were going to be the broodies. Originally an ornamental bird in Asia, Silkies were considered the best breed for brooding eggs naturally. They'd set on eggs from other hens and raise the young, regardless of the difference in size and appearance. A Silkie would supposedly set an ostrich egg, although the image of the fluffy, bantam-sized bird perched atop a humongous ostrich egg seemed utterly ridiculous to me. The male Silkies were just as capable as the females, which was good because Silkies in general cannot be sexed until they are about four months of age; their black skin camouflages any telltale boy parts, and their feather poufs hide pretty much everything else.

After a minute, I still couldn't make up my mind about which chick would be my fourth. They were all equally active, huddling together for warmth. Finally, I turned to VP. "Can I get more than four?" I asked. "I have a friend who wants two, but I don't know if you've got buyers lined up for the other chicks."

VP waved her hand dismissively. "Don't worry... if you want two more, take two more," she said.

Six Silkie chicks! Oh boy. I peered into the box a while longer, then selected two of the partridge chicks, leaving me with one more to choose once again.

"That little cream-colored one is cute," VP told me, indicating one of the lighter buff-colored chicks. "I bred her from a white Silkie and a buff. No idea what her final color will be."

I eyed the chick in question. She seemed buff to me, but my remaining choices were buff, buff, and buff, so the cream-colored Silkie joined its siblings in my box.

And then I looked at the remaining three. The poor little things had skootched into a corner, trying to stay warm without the body heat provided by the six other chicks. I felt guilty leaving them like that. Perhaps I should take them, too?

VP noticed my stricken expression and laughed. "Oh, don't worry about them. They'll have company soon. I've got 17 more eggs in the incubator downstairs due to hatch today." SEVENTEEN? My chicken-math-addled mind briefly flared in response before I squelched it. I was fine with these six little guys.

We headed to VP's kitchen to conclude the transaction, VP noting that she expected to have frizzled Cochin chicks later in the spring. I politely let her know I'd keep that in mind. Frizzling, in which a chicken's feathers curl forward instead of lying flat, can occur in any breed of chicken; the effect is due to the presence of a gene that causes the curled feathers. Frizzled chickens were uncommon, but they were not considered heritage and we had decided that FMA Farms would raise only heritage breeds.

Although, technically, Silkies were not considered heritage birds by the American Poultry Association. They might not be heritage birds in America but, considering their history, they were definitely heritage birds in Asia. A perfect match for martial artists turned chicken wranglers!

As she wrote up my receipt, VP noted that she'd had a healthy hatching of Marans chicks the previous night as well. Had I seen the chicks in the bathroom? I drew a blank. I hadn't seen anything except the Silkies.

"They were in the other box, by the toilet," she informed me. Oh. The cat-litter box. I guess the dark blobs in that box had nothing to do with cats. Well, I wasn't going to go back to take a second look. Our own Marans chicks should be arriving any minute. Literally.

Sure enough, as soon as N and I got into the car with our fluffy treasures, my cell phone rang. It was the post office; the chicks had arrived! Backing out of VP's driveway, I let N know that we had yet another stop before I'd be dropping him off at school. He'd heard the call, however, and was game to stay with the Silkies while I dashed into the post office to pick up the latest arrivals.

The blonde postal clerk from the previous day handed me the box this time. "We didn't even have a chance to play with them," she joked as I signed the paperwork releasing the live shipment to my custody. "That's okay, there's another box back there and we'll take 'em out at lunchtime!"

The chicks protested loudly as soon as the outside air made contact with the through their ventilation holes, and I hustled across the parking lot to whe minivan awaited, its heat turned on high. I carefully placed the box of peepers next to the silent Silkies, then, after dropping N off at school, made my way home, avoiding any potholes that might jostle the already-complaining chicks.

J had the sitting room set up for our weekly chick photo shoot when I walked in with the two boxes. "Nigel's been behaving well," he told me. "Not a single toe-picking incident all day. I guess he learned his lesson from his time out." He paused, then narrowed his eyes at me. "Why do you have two boxes?"

Placing the cartons on the floor next to the little chicks' brooder, I opened the SIlkie box and pulled out the little cream-colored chick. "Isn't it just precious?" I cooed. "They just hatched yesterday!"

J lifted an eyebrow. "They?"

"Don't worry," I quickly assured him. "Two of the Silkies are going to P, remember? And these others were just so adorable, I couldn't resist, and after Honey's death I couldn't help..."

J held up his hand. "Enough," he said with a sigh. "Let's have them."

I handed him the box of Silkies, and he peered inside, then shook his head. "Understand, we're not getting any more after this, got it? We were only supposed to start with six, and with these we're up to... 43?!!"

"Actually, 41, because two are going to P. No, actually, 40, because of Honey."

"Whatever. The point is we've got enough and we're not getting any more, got it?"

I meekly agreed. "Got it."

"Good. Now let's get these new chicks unpacked and get everyone's photo taken."

Perhaps it was because they hadn't suffered the stress of travelling through the U.S. postal system, but the six little Silkies were in excellent shape and responded happily to being in a well-heated environment. The also enjoyed being cuddled and stroked.

"You know, Silkies are also the top breed recommended as pets," I informed J as I placed one of the little gray ones in the brooder with the buffs and the Polish chick. "Some people keep them in the house and treat them like they would a dog or cat."

"You know, Silkies are considered delicacies in Asia," J replied, picking up the black Silkie chick. "That's because their skin and their flesh are black in color."

Drat. I really needed to stop sharing chicken factoids with him.

"Here," J added with a smile, "This one's good, too, but keep an eye on him. He's much smaller than the other Silkies."

I took the black chick from J and examined it as I stroked its fluffy head. J was right. If they hadn't all hatched yesterday, I would have said that the other five chicks were at least a day or two older than the black one. I'd failed to notice this when I'd selected it. Mainly, I'd grabbed it because it was black. Somehow, I'd managed to bring home the runt of the litter.

Once the Silkies had all been examined and placed in the brooder — now dubbed the Bantam Brooder because of the occupants' diminutive size — J sliced open the Meyer box and lifted the lid. And then gave me The Look.

"What?" I demanded.

"There are five chicks in here," J informed me.

Five? "We're only supposed to have four," I replied.

"Well, there's five in here. Look." He handed me the box and, sure enough, four pairs of eyes and one chickie tush greeted me. "I was wondering when we'd end up with a packing peanut."

I checked the packing slip. "That one's not a packing peanut. It's a 'Meal Maker' chick." Meyer had included a free chick for the purpose of its eggs being donated to a local family or food bank. The description noted that this would equal approximately 200 eggs per year going to feed the hungry. We couldn't argue with that, seeing as we'd already decided to donate eggs to our local food bank any way. "It looks like they sent us a fourth Cuckoo Marans, too!" I exclaimed, happy to have an additional rare chick.

"Hmmm," J noted. "Well, let's get going. I've got to do some things for work, so you'll probably be taking the chicks' photos without me, if that's okay."

That was okay. Heavens knew that I'd taken enough photos of our baby birds on my own! Reaching into the box, I pulled out the sole spot of gold amongst all the black — the Buff Orpington rooster I'd specifically ordered to father future flocks on Gloria and the six goldie girls that arrived yesterday.

"How are we going to tell him apart from the others?" J asked. He had a point. While he'd look different from the pullets in a month or so, right now this little boy was pretty identical to the girls.

Thinking quickly, I went into B's toy desk and pulled out a box of washable markers. "I read somewhere that you can tag chicks with washable markers," I told J as I colored a blue spot on the Orpington chick's chest. "It's non toxic and it will eventually wear off." J looked skeptical but didn't say a word and, after checking the golden chick's vent and beak, I placed him into the main brooder, where he immediately made a beeline for the waterer without my assistance.

We went through the next three chicks just as quickly. All of the little Marans were bright eyed, healthy, and just as eager to drink as their traveling companion had been. And then we got to the fourth.

"Uh oh," J said understatedly, holding out the box and giving me a solemn look. The fourth little chick — the one whose tush had been poking out from amidst its shipping buddies — was tottering around the box exactly how Honey had been staggering a few hours before her death.

"Oh, no." I lifted the chick up gently and placed it on the palm of my hand, where it collapsed more than nestled and closed its eyes. I looked up at J, stricken. Not again.

J was already getting the eye dropper out and filling it with water. It was no use. The chick refused to drink, and after a while I stopped, not wanting to drown the poor thing. It just lay there, its eyes shut, its little chest going up and down.

"What could have happened?" I cried. "There were only five in the box. How could it have gotten crushed like Honey?"

J examined the shipping carton. "It looks like they were all huddled on top of the heat pack," he said, showing me the box's interior. The hatchery's policy was to not include extra chicks for warmth but to place a heat pack in the shipping carton to provide enough warmth for the chicks in transit. "If they were all crowding each other to stay on top of the heat pack, then it's possible that they might have stepped all over that one and smushed it." He shook his head sadly. "If this had to happen again, it's best that it happen now, while the kids are at school. There's no need to put them through what happened with Honey again."

But of course it didn't happen that way. On the bus ride home, N had eagerly told his brothers about the newest chicks, and the boys had trooped into the sitting room to find me stroking little Spot, as B had named the ailing Maran chick. When Spot breathed her last minutes later, all four kids burst into tears, with little B, who at four had been home to observe what was happening with the chick, bawling that Spot had been his bestest friend.

Spot was buried next to Honey by a sorrowful procession of boys and by me. While I was not in the hysterics I found myself in yesterday after Honey's death, I still felt the same sense of guilt. If I hadn't ordered Spot, she might still be alive, I told myself. The logical side of my brain warred with that thought. Someone else would have ordered Spot, and the same thing could have happened. There was only one way to keep this from continually happening: not buy any more mail-order chicks. I could do that, I told myself. After all, we were planning on breeding the chickens any way, so we'd have our own Orpington, Ameraucana, Columbian Wyandotte, and Silkie chicks eventually. And if I wanted, I could always get more Silver-Laced Wyandottes, Marans, and Cochins from VP. Or get roosters from her so we could hatch our own of those breeds as well. I just didn't want to be responsible for any more chick deaths due to shipping.

Later that evening, after I'd photographed the chicks and after P had come to collect Buff Silkie Number 3, renamed Magic Trick, and Buff Silkie Number 4, renamed Peep, I stood by the brooders and quietly observed the antics of all our chicks. Watching them drink, eat, snuggle with each other, and, yes, poop, I decided that there was no rush in getting any more chicks. J was right. We had our hands full with these 40, and should the time come when we'd want or need more, I knew where to go. For now, it was my job to ensure these little birds thrived and grew to adulthood, so that they could lay wonderful eggs of a variety of colors.

Versus the variety of colors they were leaving all over the paper towels. If you thought 24 chicks made a miasmic mess, well, 32 had that beat, hands down.

Friday, April 1, 2011

The Picky Chickie

Twenty-nine newly arrived chicks meant that we had our hands full of fuzzy, peeping babies suddenly finding themselves in spacious accommodations — well, as compared to an eggshell or a shipping carton. While we were occupied with helping Honey in the newly designated hospital brooder, our other chicks began exploring the wonders of their roomy new home. Several chicks amused themselves at the waterer, repeatedly dipping their beaks and, occasionally, their toes, into the refreshing, clear liquid, something they'd never experienced before. Others had their heads stuffed into the holes of their feeder, busily crunching away at the tasty chick crumbles inside. A few of the more inquisitive chicks had discovered the toy I'd hung on one of the brooder walls and, heads tilted, were peering at the chicks in the mirror who were peering right back. Still others had chosen to doze now, explore later, and were snoozing in multi-colored piles of fluff. A couple of chicks were perfectly content to just walk around, stretching their legs after their three-day journey.

And then there was Nigel.

I had told myself that under no circumstances would we be naming any of our new arrivals. I knew very well that sometimes the stress of shipping was too much for newly hatched chicks and that some might not survive. I didn't want to become attached to any of the little peeps, only to have to tearfully bid it farewell in a day or so. Once we had separated out the four Buff Silkies, 25 chicks from a variety of breeds remained. J jokingly suggested calling them A, B, C, D, and so on, but I held firm, identifying them only by their breed and number. There were Ameraucanas One through Five, Cochins One through Four, Silvers One through Six (Silver-Laced Wyandotte was too much of a mouthful), Goldies One through Six (ditto on the wordiness), Polish One, and Columbians One through Three, all entertaining themselves in some fashion.

"Look at that chubby little chick go!" M exclaimed from where he stood watch over the Silkies. Sure enough, one rotund Columbian Wyandotte was zipping around the brooder, zigzagging in and out of the clusters of chicks as if it had guzzled several espressos. It briefly paused for a sip at the waterer, then sped off again, barely avoiding a collision with a group of sleepy Cochins. Around and around it went, its swift stops for food and drink and high-velocity departures surely the envy of any NASCAR racer.

"He looks like he's wearing a little tuxedo," M remarked, commenting on the chick's coloration: a black triangular back framed by pale blond head, wings, and tush. "He looks like a proper British gentleman."

I gave him a look. "It's Columbian, not British."

"I'm going to call him Nigel," M said, ignoring me.

"We're not naming the new chicks," I reminded him. "That one is Columbian Number One."

"You can call him Columbian Number One," he replied. "I'm going to call him Nigel."

And of course that was it. Nigel was stuck in my mind, so Nigel it became. And throughout the afternoon, Nigel's antics continued, causing M to wonder aloud if chicks could suffer from ADHD. Then, without warning, Nigel added a slight variation to his escapades. Instead of just careening around the brooder, he now dashed around until he located the lone white-crested black Polish chick, pecked at the poor chick's distinctive white pompom, then zoomed off for a quick circuit around the brooder before targeting the Polish chick again.

After a few minutes of this and a number of pitiful squeaks from the poor little Polish, J had had enough. "We need to put the Polish in with the Silkies," he decided, snatching the picked-on chick out of Nigel's range and plunking it in the hospital brooder.

The Silkies ignored the little Polish peep, their attention focused on the ailing Honey. The white-crested black, for its part, seemed content to have some peace and quiet for a change. After taking in its new surroundings for the second time in one day, the black-and-white chick located the feeder and headed towards it.

Nigel, however, simply changed his tactics. With the little Polish now out of range, Nigel decided to peck at everyone. In and out he zipped, attacking his broodermates' toes.

This drew my immediate notice. I'd read about toe picking. In fact, several of our poultry reference books discussed it. Considered an early form of cannibalism, toe picking involves fierce pecking of a chick's toes, which bear a striking resemblance to worms. The most common causes of toe picking include overcrowding, overheating, boredom, and lack of exercise. None of these seemed to apply, though: the chicks had more space than ever, the temperature in the brooder was just right, and Nigel was definitely not bored or lacking in exercise. More than anything, it seemed as though Nigel was toe picking because he enjoyed it.

I wasn't about to let Nigel get his jollies, knowing that toe picking can escalate into a full-blown picking and pecking epidemic often resulting in death. "Keep an eye on that," I instructed M as I returned to nursing Honey. "Let me know it he keeps it up."

"Keep it up?" M repeated. "He hasn't stopped!"

J and I exchanged looks. "We're going to have to separate him," I said. J nodded and started pulling out all the heat-lamp bulbs and medicine we'd stored in the third brooder, the one we'd partly converted into Honey's hospital brooder. He quickly lined the bottom with newspaper, added several scoopfuls of pine shavings, topped it with paper towels, and then, gesturing at M, indicated the prepared space.

M scooped up the chubby Columbian and popped him into the new brooder. "Okay, now, Nigel," he sternly told the chick. "You're in a time out. It's not nice to peck at your sisters' toes, so knock it off and you can go back."

"What makes you think Nigel is the boy?" I asked. I had ordered three Columbian Wyandottes, two pullets and one roo but, with getting all 29 arrivals settled and taking care of Honey, I hadn't had a chance to sex the chicks.

M smirked. "Are you kidding? The way he races around and shows the other chicks who's boss? He's definitely the boy. And he's dressed for it, too."

Perhaps M had a point. Checking the Columbians' gender was low on my priority list right now, though. I had my hands full with an ailing Silkie and a Wyandotte needing an attitude adjustment.

As afternoon turned to evening, Nigel was released from incarceration and returned to the main brooder, only to be sent back to solitary upon resuming his toe-picking attacks on the other chicks, their squeaks of pain alerting us to the fact that Nigel was at it again. This cycle repeated itself several times, and I started to grow disheartened. By now, Honey had died, and the last thing I wanted to do was cull the very baby rooster I had specifically ordered.

M was equally unhappy. "Come on, Nigel," he told the little chick. "You don't need to pick on the others. You're the man! You don't need to prove that through force!" M's words made me smile. I had proof that M had learned the life lessons I'd tried to instill in him through the years, even if they were being relayed to a chicken.

"Here," I told M. "Pass him to me." Holding the little Columbian securely in my hand, I sat back down at my desk chair. Opening my palm, I regarded the ball of fluff, who calmly stood his ground and gazed back. Nigel was definitely a cutie, with bright black eyes, a black dot on his beak, and oodles of fluffy platinum down. Sighing, I began to stroke the fuzzball. "You know, you've had a pretty rough day," I told him, gently running my fingers over his head and back. "You were trapped in a box for three days, then plunked into a huge space, given food you've never had and water you'd never drank, and pretty much left to your own devices. Poor little chick. You just didn't know how to react to all of this. You just got overstimulated, that's all."

But my words had just as much effect on Nigel as M's had. Or perhaps just the opposite. Nigel had fallen fast asleep in my hand. "Great," I muttered.

J put his hand on my shoulder. "Nigel's not the only one who had a rough day," he reminded me. "It's time for us to turn in, too. Put him back in with the other chicks."

"But..."

"But nothing. The others are all asleep, too," J informed me, gesturing towards the main brooder. Sure enough, more piles of multi-colored fluff dotted the interior. "The other chicks'll be fine, and you're probably right about Nigel being overstimulated. Tomorrow's another day, and we'll just have to hope that Nigel handles tomorrow better than he handled today."

I nodded, carefully placing Nigel back in with his broodermates. The little chick immediately snuggled himself up to the closest group of sleeping chicks and was fast asleep in no time. "I'm hoping a good night's rest will make everything better," I replied.

J smiled. "Let's hope you're right. Because in case you forgot after everything we went through today, the Meyer Hatchery chicks arrive tomorrow."

Gulp.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Honey

As owners of new chicks, we'd somehow managed to beat the odds when it came to the health of the newly hatched. Every single one of our 29 chicks survived shipment from Iowa to Michigan, despite the fact that all 29 of them had been crammed into one carton and had been left in a post-office warehouse for an entire weekend. None of the chicks had developed splayed legs, a musculoskeletal disorder in which a slippery surface (such as a shipping box) fails to provide a growing chick with the necessary traction for proper leg development, leading to weakened legs that do the splits instead of offering support. No crossed beaks, no crooked toes. And not a single chick suffered from pasty butt, a stress-related condition in which a chick's vent (the opening for eggs and feces) becomes plugged with poop, sometimes leading to death if not treated. None of our chicks seemed stressed at all. In the hour or so they'd been in their brooder, they'd happily scurried around, eating, drinking, pooping, and napping, enjoying their new freedom.

We found ourselves amused by their frolicking antics. The baby birds had never known spaciousness. From being confined to an egg, they went to being enclosed in a bin with other new hatches of their breed, then packed into a shipping box. All that room they could now roam in their 2' X 4' brooder? Positively palatial.

Likewise, the chicks had never in their little lives had an encounter with edibles. Since the time of conception, the chicks had survived off the yolk accompanying them inside their shell. From the moment they had pipped (pecked their way out of their egg), they hadn't had a thing to eat or drink. New hatches can survive for three days without food or water, sustained by the last bits of yolk they'd eaten inside the shell. Chick starter? It was like manna to them. We watched as they'd tentatively approach the feeder, quickly sneak a peck at the contents and dash away to sample the morsel they'd snatched, only to discover it was delicious and that they had to have more now. The feeder we'd gotten for the little chicks could accommodate 28 chicks at one time, and many of the eating openings were occupied by happily noshing peeps.

"J, check this little guy out!" I called to my husband, indicating one of the little Silkies. Silkies were bantams, much smaller in size than the standard chick, and this particular bit of fluff wasn't letting its small stature keep it from feeding. It had managed to stuff its upper body into a feeder opening, so it could eat without continually stretching.

J, however, found this disturbing. "A, I think something's wrong with that chick," he stated. "Check to see if it's stuck."

Alarmed, I gently tapped the bird's little tush with my finger. Immediately, the bird peeped and shrugged its way back out of the feeder, indignant that its feast had been interrupted. "No, it was just stuffing its little face," I remarked.

But something was wrong with the baby chick. When it took a few steps away from the feeder, it tottered drunkenly, as if we'd laced the chick starter with alcohol. J and I watched in alarm as the chick stumbled around the brooder, unable to walk in a straight line or stop in a controlled manner. As we observed, the chick's little legs seemed to slide slowly into a Russian split but, just as its little body was about to make contact with the ground, the chick would shudder, pull itself upright, then stagger off in another direction.

Uh oh.

"Looks like the start of splayed-leg syndrome," I said. J agreed. Without further ado, I got out a bandaid, snipped it in half lengthwise, then quickly reviewed how to make a chickie splint: use the absorbent pad of the bandaid as the gauge for space between the bird's legs, then wrap the adhesive sides around the chick's ankles, securing them by their stickiness to the bandaid's pad. Taking a deep breath, I reached in, picked up the chick, then proved myself totally inept by managing to stick the bandage to the poor thing's leg down, removing much of the fluff when I attempted to reposition the bandaid. After five minutes, both the little bird and I were miserable.

J shook his head. "Take it off," he instructed. I followed suit and, after removing the bandaid (and more down), the chick was free. I stroked it soothingly, as much to calm myself as to calm the poor baby bird.

"I'm going to CVS," J continued. "I have an idea how to make a better splint. Keep an eye on the little guy. We may want to isolate it so the other chicks don't pick on it."

He had a point. Although pecking order didn't usually manifest until the chicks were about a month old (or two weeks old, if we went by our older chicks), the little birds were very curious and did love to peck. A lame little bantam would be fair game to the other two dozen birds.

Gently putting the little Silkie back, I lined the third section of J's homemade brooder with extra plastic liner — just in case the bird was actually sick and not injured, I didn't want microbes infesting the wooden base — and put in a thick cardboard divider to separate the "hospital" section of this brooder unit from the storage section, where our heat-lamp bulbs, medical supplies, and newspapers were kept. I then covered the plastic with layers of newspaper, pine shavings, and paper towels to provide the chick with proper support. The spare waterer and extra feeder went in next, followed by a thermometer I magnetically attached to one of the brooder's nail heads. Finally, I clipped a heat lamp to the side of the brooder and turned it on to bring the interior to 95 degrees, the correct temperature for a newly hatched chick. Once it was warm enough, I collected the chick from the other brooder and set it inside the sick ward.

The little chick peeped, looked around, and tottered over to the feeder, then peeped plaintively. It looked very lonely.

Chickens are social animals. Owning one chicken is never recommended, because the bird becomes depressed without companionship. At least two birds are required, and three highly recommended. I didn't want to add misery to this already-struggling chick's afflictions, so after a moment's consideration the other three Buff Silkies joined it.

"What happened? Are all these chicks sick?" J exclaimed upon his return from the pharmacy.

"No, but the little Silkie was lonely," I replied.

J rolled his eyes and got to work. Trained as a combat medic, J soon had the ailing chick's legs wrapped in soft, protective foam, then encased that with an adhesive bandage. The splint complete, J propped the little bird up on its splinted legs.

The chick peeped, then fell over face first.

"The book says it can take up to 24 hours for a chick to get used to its legs being bound," I informed my distraught husband, who was doing his best to aid the chick, now flailing on its back and flapping its little wings in an effort to right itself.
"And I read about how one chick just sat on its haunches for an entire day, but was walking around the next day."

"Let's hope so," J said, having set the little chick back on its feet near the waterer.

We took turns keeping a watch on the baby bird for the next couple of hours. The splayed-leg splint forced the bird's legs closer together, to keep it erect and ensure its muscles strengthened correctly. However, the splint also severely hobbled the little Silkie so that, where it was once tottering about tipsily, it was now lurching headlong across the brooder.

But at least it was now traveling directionally. It could also now stand next to its siblings by the feeder and eat normally, as well as snuggle up with the other Silkies for the five-minutes snoozes common to very young chicks. The three healthy Silkies seemed to understand something wasn't quite right with their sibling, and they arranged themselves protectively around the splinted chick to give it physical and possible moral support. All in all, things were looking up.

By this time, four hours had passed since we'd brought the chicks home, and the chick battalion was happily ensconced in their brooder. The older chicks had finally decided the younger ones were no threat and were now carrying on in their brooder as usual, and our own four sons had awakened, had ooohed and aaahed at our new arrivals, and were now enjoying their day off from school doing who knows what. M, our oldest, had noticed the third brooder in use and knew something was wrong. Since he will be in pre-veterinary studies at college this fall, we explained what was happening with the little Silkie chick. M agreed to help us with our Silkie Watch, bringing the number of concerned humans keeping an eye on one tiny fuzzball to three.

Then J noticed that, while the chick was eating just fine, it wasn't drinking. The chick would make its way over to the waterer, but then it would just lean there, as if it were simply too exhausted to dip its beak into the water, then toss its head back to swallow. The other Silkies drank regularly, often while the sick chick stood by watching, so we assumed it had a basic grasp of how to drink. It just wouldn't, or couldn't.

"You're going to have to dip its beak again," J told me.

When chicks arrive from the hatchery, the first thing a poultry keep is supposed to do is dip the baby bird's beak into the waterer. This not only lets the chick know that there is water nearby but also serves as a wake-up call to the peep: Hey, you're thirsty, remember? Chicks dehydrate very quickly and a good source of clean water is very important for the first hour or two following their arrival. All 29 of our new chickies had had their beaks dipped before being set free in their brooder, including our Silkie friend. It couldn't hurt to refresh the little chick's memory.

Gently picking the tiny bird up, I tipped it forward until its beak touched the water, then brought it back up. No reaction from the chick at all. "Try again," J encouraged. I tipped the bird's beak back into the water and set it back down. This time, the Silkie tossed its head back and swallowed, then went back for more water on its own. J, M, and I cheered.

For the next half hour, however, the Silkie refused to drink without assistance. Somehow, I ended up being the designated drinker, so while J and M stood by watching, I'd tip and dip, tip and dip, tip and dip. Sometimes the chick would toss its head back and swallow. Most of the time, it did nothing. Finally, the little bird just sank to the floor beside the waterer, its chin and head supported by the lip of the drinking trough.

"What's wrong?!" J exclaimed, seeing the fluffy thing collapse.

I picked up the Silkie, who blinked its eyes at me, then snuggled into my palm. "It's exhausted," I pronounced. "Wouldn't you be if you'd been through what it has?" I stroked the chick's fuzzy golden back and, within seconds, was asleep in my hand.

"I'm going back to CVS," J announced, grabbing his keys. "We're going to need to eye-dropper water into her."

J hadn't been gone 10 minutes when the Silkie suddenly shook itself awake, sat up in my hand, and began to spew a thick, gooey, but clear-as-water liquid everywhere. "Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god!" I yelled, horrified even more as tiny bubbles emerged from the Silkie's beak, as if it had guzzled down a bottle of dish soap.

M came running from the kitchen, where he'd been having lunch. "What? What? What?"

"Just grab me some paper towels, quick!" I somehow managed to move the Silkie to my other hand without coating it with the clear slime, then mopped my gooed-up hand on the wad of towels M offered me.

"That's not good," he commented as a final set of bubbles emerged from the Silkie chick's beak.

The Silkie, however, didn't seem to understand that something bad had happened. It just nestled itself back down in my palm and went back to sleep. M and I exchanged worried looks. "I'll go online and see what I can find out," M told me, heading upstairs while I gently returned the chick to its brooder, where it skittered to a warm corner and fell asleep.

M couldn't find anything online about chickens, adult or chick, blowing bubbles, and although I pleaded for help about the clear goo on the online forums, nobody had any advice to give, although several chicken lovers offered their moral support. J's expression was bleak when I informed him of what had transpired. "We may need to move the other Silkies back with the rest of the chicks," he stated. "If this Silkie is sick, then it can infect the others."

"If this Silkie is sick, then chances are all the other chicks are infected," I pointed out. "This chick needs the other Silkies around right now. Look." Sure enough, the three other Silkie chicks had once again positioned themselves around the ailing chick, even though none of them showed any signs of sleepiness.

The little chick went from bad to worse over the next hour. Several times, it made its way over to the waterer, just to hang its head over the lip and not drink, an avian Tantalus unable to reach its desired goal. Each time, I'd gently dip its beak into the water, encouraging it to drink. The little bird made no effort to swallow. After a while, the chick started behaving similarly at the feeder. It would make its way over there but, instead of bending down to eat, it would just lean there, unable to get any closer.

By 6 o'clock — almost 12 hours after we brought the chicks home — we were desperate. J had run out to CVS once again, this time for Polyvisol: infant vitamin drops that a kind soul on the online chicken forums had recommended as a way to ensure the Silkie was getting the nutrients it needed. I had attempted to eye-dropper feed it, but the chick refused to open its beak, even when I touched it from beneath as our chicken-care book instructed. I'd mashed some chicken starter with water to make a thin gruel and was now attempting to get the little bird to eat dabs of it off my index finger. Things were not looking good.

I handed the Silkie Watch over to J so that I could get dinner ready for the rest of the family, all of them now very aware that one of our chickies was very sick. M then relieved J so that he could eat while I fed the younger kids and straightened the kitchen.

"Oh no, oh no!" M yelled from the other room. I dropped the towel I was using and ran over to find the Silkie bubbling again but, unlike before, when it resembled a baby that had swallowed some bubble bath, this time the little fuzzball was drooping and unable to support its head. I took the chick from M and sent him to wash up and eat, then I carefully wiped the bubble traces from the little bird's beak and let her nestle into my hand again.

"Poor little honey," I said to it as I stroked its feathers. "I'm so sorry I don't know what to do for you."

J came back over after the kids had finished their meal. "I think we've been completely wrong about what's wrong with the chick," he told me as I cradled the Silkie. "I don't think it is sick. I think it got crushed by the other chicks during shipment."

My mind flashed back to this morning, when I had unpacked the chicks one by one. Among the last five to come out of the box was a Buff Silkie chick. It had seemed fine at the time, but perhaps J was right. Perhaps the chick had been squashed by weight of 25 full-sized standard chicks over a course of three days. Perhaps it couldn't walk because of its injuries. Perhaps it couldn't eat or drink because of them, too.

J got out a pair of first-aid shears and asked me to hold the chick up. "At this point, it's not fair for her to suffer having to be hobbled, too," he told me, compassionately freeing the Silkie from the splayed-leg splint. The baby bird twitched its legs, then settled itself back down, watching J as he put the shears away.

J sent M to relieve me so that I could eat. Just as I was gulping down the last of my food, M called out to me. "She's not opening her eyes any more."


I set my fork down and, hustling back to the sitting room, took the little chick from him. The Silkie didn't open her eyes once during the transfer from M's hand to mine. We exchanged a grave look, then M left. I settled down at my desk chair, positioning the chick so that its head would be elevated should she bubble or vomit again.

"Don't worry, honey," I told it, gently stroking its back. "Just rest, just rest. You've fought so hard all day. It's time to rest."

At about 8 o'clock, J came over and knelt down beside me, watching me slowly stroke the honey-colored chick. "A, I know you don't want to hear this, but we need to discuss practicality here," he told me. "We need to discuss what we're going to do if the chick doesn't survive the night."

I looked up at him, tears in my eyes. "I don't think she's going to survive the hour, J," I replied, my voice hoarse with sorrow. I stroked the little bird. "It shouldn't die without a name," I continued. "I'm going to name her Honey."

J nodded. "Do you want to put her back with the other Silkies?" he asked, indicating the three little Buffs standing in the brooder, alert and acting as if they knew something had happened to their sibling.

I shook my head. "I don't want her to die alone."

And so I sat there, gently holding and stroking the little Silkie chick, softly telling her to rest and that she'd feel better soon as her breathing became more labored. About 10 minutes later, Honey stretched her legs out beneath her and nuzzled her head into my thumb. Before I knew it, the chick's chest had stopped rising. Honey had died.

Tears spilled down my cheeks as I held the poor little bird, and I began to sob. JTR and B heard me crying and came to investigate. Discovering that Honey was gone, B burst into tears and JTR went running for J, who found me, red-eyed and grieving, still holding the tiny chick.

"Is she...?" he asked.

I nodded. "See... her bowels have relaxed," I told him, indicating one of the main markers of death: a final bowel movement. Except that, for Honey, it had also been her first all day. "Poor little chick. At least her legs are straighter than they had been this afternoon."

By then, all four boys were standing at the entrance to the sitting room, the younger three crying to varying degrees of sadness and M with a grave expression on his face. "Watch your brothers," J instructed him as he led me out of the sitting room and out to the garage. Grabbing a spade and a lantern, he guided me out to our back acreage.

About one third of the way out from the house, J paused and set the lantern down. "I thought we could bury her here," he told me, his voice choked with emotion as Honey's death finally hit him. "This is where I was planning on building the coop. This way, she'll always be a part of our flock."

I nodded, unable to speak because of the huge lump in my throat. J dug a hole about a 20 inches deep — deep enough that none of our nocturnal predators would dig her up. Then I carefully placed Honey in, and silently J covered her back up. "There," he said, giving me a tender look. "She's at rest and she'll always be with us this way. Now let's get back to the kids and to the little chicks who need their Mama and Papa."

As we returned to the house, I cast one last glance at Honey's little grave, out in the field that would some day be home to her fellow chicks. Little did I know then that Honey would soon have some company.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

D-Day

The call came at 6:13 AM. Having given up on sleep around 5 AM, afraid I'd snooze through the phone's ringing, I quickly grabbed my cell and thumbed it open. "Is this A?" a voice asked. "They're here!"

J was sitting up in bed, wide awake, as I put the phone back on my night table. "Is this it?" he asked excitedly.

"This is it!" I responded, dashing into the bathroom to wash up and put my lenses in. J whooped and, jumping out of bed, hurried to get his clothes on. Although it only took me mere minutes to get dressed and grab my shoes, I emerged from the bedroom to find J pacing impatiently in the middle of the kitchen, car keys in one hand, camera in the other.

"Shall we?" I asked with a nervous but eager smile as I headed towards the garage.

"Ummm..." he hesitated, lagging behind. "Aren't you going to put on some makeup or something? I am going to be taking a lot of photos, you know."

Welcome to D-Day, or Delivery Day, the day we'd been counting down towards for what seemed eons. You'd think we were racing to the local maternity ward for a long-anticipated birth but instead, we were heading to the post office to pick up the chicks we'd ordered from McMurray Hatchery just three weeks ago. We'd actually selected today — Monday — as the shipping date but, for reasons unknown to us, the hatchery had sent the chicks out on Friday, three days ago. We received the emailed notification of shipment on Saturday, almost 24 hours after the chicks had started their journey towards us. Dumbfounded and horrified that the chicks were spending the weekend trapped in their box in a post office with no hope of retrieval until the work week started, we'd contacted the hatchery to ask why the shipping date had changed and why we hadn't received a timely notification.

We never received a reply.

Knowing that there was a good chance that several chicks might have perished in transit, we anxiously pulled into the post office parking lot at approximately 6:40 AM. I hopped out and rang the service bell by the employee entrance while J parked in one of the employee spaces. A brunette postal clerk I'd seen dozens of times working the service counter answered the door.

"That didn't take long," she commented. "We didn't even get a chance to play with them!" Laughing, she led me through a labyrinth of packages, bins full of magazines, and rolling carts jammed with letters until we reached a utilitarian desk set in the middle of all the hubbub. There, on the far left of the desk, sat two white cardboard boxes perforated with holes. Loud peeps could be heard emanating from within.

"Awww, we didn't even get to play with them!" a blonde postal clerk sorting mail nearby joked.

The brunette clerk scanned the boxes with a handheld gadget, then passed me a clipboard, gesturing for me to sign. "Since these are a live delivery, we need your signature to guarantee that you received them," she explained. "From all the noise they're making, they seem to be doing just fine."

I looked at the boxes and had to agree. In addition to being vocal, the chicks were also occasionally visible, with tufts of down or a tiny beak sometimes making an appearance at one of the ventilation holes. Seeing and hearing the little birds' activity put my heart at ease. With all that commotion, most of the chicks had certainly survived.

The brunette clerk set my signed forms aside and handed me the top box. "Be sure to turn the heat way up in your car if it isn't already," she advised me, turning to pick up the other carton. "That'll keep them happy until you get them under their heat lamps."

As I reached to accept the second box, the blonde clerk spoke up. "Don't give her both of those boxes!" she called out. "Only one of them's hers."

Startled, the brunette looked down at the carton in her hand. "Yipes, you're right!" she exclaimed, reading the label. She nodded her head at me. "That one's yours. This one belongs to... someone on Main Street."

"Nope, that's not me," I replied, wondering how on earth 29 chicks could possibly be crammed into the box I carefully cradled. "That would've been bad."

The brunette laughed. "You don't know the half of it! Last year, this guy on a farm just outside of town ordered something like 100 chicks, all different types. They all came in at once, so he came and signed the forms and left with his chicks. A couple of hours later, another guy came by, looking for his chicks. Turns out we accidentally gave the first guy the second guy's chicks, too. When the postal worker who'd scanned his chicks showed up at his farm to get the chicks back, she found out the farmer had already released them to free range on his property... and he had something like 20 acres! She spent the rest of the afternoon with the farmer, trying to find the other guy's chicks."

"It wasn't either of us," added the blonde.

Free-ranging day-old chicks? I was surprised that the hawks, coyotes, and raccoons didn't beat the postal worker to those chicks.

"You're all set now," the brunette told me. "Can you find your way out from here?"

I assured her that I could, thanking her and letting her know that we were still awaiting a chick delivery from Meyer Hatchery sometime within the next few days. Within a minute, J and I were zipping back towards home, a box of cheeping peeps loudly conveying their displeasure at having been outside in the cold for 10 or so seconds.

Everyone else was still asleep when we got back. This was good... not only did it mean that the boys would not have to see any chicks that were dead on arrival, but it meant we had the little birdies all to ourselves. The brooder had been prepared over the weekend, the heat lamp had been turned on prior to our departure, food and water were set inside and awaiting hungry, thirsty chicks. I set out a cloth and a little bowl of warm water, in case we had to deal with any pasty butts due induced by travel-related stress. Taking a deep breath, I nodded at J, who took a quick couple of photos, then set his camera aside in favor of box cutters.

Off came the lid, and inside, dozens of tiny little eyes blinked at the light that was suddenly streaming in. They were absolutely adorable! There were tan fuzzies, gold fuzzies, grey and black fuzzies, pale yellow fuzzies, all of them peeping with increased volume now that they could see outside their box. J and I stared in amazement at all the different colors of down.

"Let's get them settled first, then worry about taking notes on each chick later," I suggested.

"Be sure to check for pasty butt, though," J noted.

I reached in and picked up our first chick, a lovely bird whose down was a rich, all-over gold. "Buff Orpington Number One!" I declared, checking the birdie's beak to make sure it wasn't malformed, checking its toes to ascertain they were straight, and peeking at its vent to make sure it wasn't pasted over. "Everything looks good!" I gently set the chick into the brooder, dipping its beak into the waterer to let it know where to find a drink. Once it took a few gulps, it shook out its down, then headed off to explore its much roomier surroundings.

We spent the next hour unpacking the carton, checking each bird individually before placing it inside the brooder. A few surprises awaited us, starting with a tiny black bird with a very prominent white pompom on its head.


"A white-crested black Polish!!!" I cried out in delight. This was the very breed I'd added to our original order, only to cancel its addition a half hour later due to J's total absence of enthusiasm for this ornamental breed. And here was a little chick with bright black eyes peering eagerly at its surroundings.

"I guess that's our free rare chick," J muttered, watching as I cradled the little cutie in my palm. The tiny chick preened and snuggled down into my hand. Awwwwww.

More awwws followed when I came across our first Buff Silkie. The only bantam breed we'd ordered, the Silkies were tiny in comparison to the standard-sized chicks, despite the fact that they were all only three days old. The little Silkie had caramel-colored down, with fuzzy legs and a tiny poof hanging cowlick-style over its forehead. I think my eraser weighed more than it did.

The brooder began to bustle with busily exploring chicks as the shipping carton emptied. There were six Silver-Laced Wyandottes, their darkly speckled faces making them rather homely but their temperaments the most docile of all; Buff Orpingtons number 2 through 6, all the same shade of golden honey and all identical to each other; three chubby Columbian Wyandottes, their pale platinum faces and black backs making them look as though they sported tuxedos; fluffy-legged blonde White Cochins, with dark grey backs and heads resembling hoodies; five Ameraucanas, each with her own individual chipmunk stripes and each already bearing wing feathers; and three more honey-tinted Buff Silkies. Twenty-nine birds total were scurrying around the brooder, dipping their beaks in water, pecking at chick starter, pooping everywhere, and having a grand old time with all that space. Not a single bird had perished on its way to us.

The eight chicks in the brooder next door sat statue still, hearing all the peeps and commotion and not having the slightest clue what to do about them.

And as we gazed down at the fluffballs waddling and tottering around their brooder, J and I exchanged a look that reflected our big chicks' confusion: Twenty-nine new chicks, with eight more already here and four more on the way. Forty-one chicks total. What the heck had we gotten ourselves into???

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Unanticipated Arrival

Sunday, March 13, 2011, about noon:

Our chicks have arrived. That's right. They're here. But not here here. They're at the post office, and they have been since yesterday evening. They weren't supposed to ship until tomorrow, but apparently the hatchery shipped them out on Friday instead... and despite the chicks being shipped two days ago, we only just received the email notification from the post office now! Yesterday was Saturday. It's Sunday now, and the post office is closed. We won't be able to pick the chicks up until tomorrow morning at the earliest, which means those poor little chicks will have been sitting there, stuffed in their shipping carton, for almost two days. I'm dashing to the post office now with the hope that some postal workers might be there, sorting mail for tomorrow's delivery, and can get the chicks for me. At least this way, more of the poor little things have a chance of surviving.


Sunday, March 13, 2011, about 12:30 PM:

No luck. I got to the post office and it was completely dark and locked down except for the self-service lobby. I drove around the loading docks. Deserted. I parked in the employee lot and rang the service bell, still hoping a postal worker would be there. No response. I walked around to the front, entered the main lobby, and rang the service bell located there. Nothing. Dejected, I went back to my car and was starting to get in when a red SUV pulled up into the postal manager's spot. As I watched, a woman got out, ran to the service door, punched in a code, and dashed in. There was hope yet! I hurried over and waited for her to come back out, thinking I'd have to back my minivan up to the door so that I wouldn't have to carry the chicks outside in the frigid cold. I rubbed my hands together and paced back and forth, trying to stay warm and trying to think positive thoughts.


Sunday, March 13, 2011, about 12:45 PM:


The woman finally came out... and turned out to be not the postal manager but a very young postal worker who was very startled to find me waiting outside. When I explained why I was there, she told me she had nothing to do with any of "that" and that she hadn't heard any peeping nor seen anything in the spot they're usually kept. She nervously explained she hadn't even been in the post office for more than 2 months. Had I not been sick with worry about the chicks, I would have more than likely followed up on her admission.

I'm afraid tomorrow's mail is going to bring a box full of dead chicks.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Hello, Clarisse

My friend N is downright cruel. Apparently a firm believer in chicken math, N texted me recently around dinner time, promising to send a little torture my way. The next thing I knew, my phone flashed with a photo of N's daughter C carefully holding a chubby little golden fluffball in her open hands.

A chubby little golden fluffball with feathered feet. A Cochin chick? Where had N gotten his hands on a baby Cochin? I peered at the picture more closely, and then I knew. Tractor Supply had finally gotten in its supply of fancy chicks.

N confirmed my guess. "They were closing as we left," he texted. "So they'll be there tomorrow..."

Did I mention how cruel N is?

For the rest of the night, my mind and my conscience warred with each other, my mind examining every conceivable excuse as to why I needed to stop at Tractor Supply in the morning while my conscience sternly reminded me that in about five days' time, I'd be inundated with chicks.

But that was five whole days away. And I really wanted a sweet little chickie now, especially since our resident flock had apparently entered pre-teen chickdom and was starting to lose its cuddly downy cuteness. I eventually fell asleep, uncertain who'd won the debate inside my head. In the morning, however, I found myself pulling my car into the Tractor Supply parking lot.

Now, I knew very well that my Tractor Supply was not N's Tractor Supply. His was the one second closest to me, a 30-minute drive from home versus a 15-minute drive. At this point, however, I was being driven purely by my degree in chicken math, and one of chicken math's key principles is that if one Tractor Supply got in fancy chicks, then all Tractor Supply chains got in fancy chicks.

"Good morning!" called out NC, one of the Tractor Supply employees, upon seeing me. "I had you on my call list for this morning. We got new chicks in... you know where to go!"

Indeed I did: straight past the clothing section, bear left at the wild bird department. Lots of loud cheeping emanated from the galvanized stock tanks set up as brooders in the middle of the store. I stopped at the farthest tank — the one that contained the adorable Khaki Campbell ducklings last week — and peeked in. Only five ducklings were left, but someone must have somehow spilled Miracle Gro into the ducklings' food, because they were about four times the size they had been just a few days ago. Reaching in slowly, I scooped one up and held it carefully. Talk about solid and hefty! I knew that Khaki Campbells were raised for their eggs, but if this was how much a week-old duckling weighed, yowza! I now understood why some poultry farmers raised ducks for their meat.

"They're happy little ducks," NC told me, having followed me back to the brooders. "We sell a couple of Camps a day, so you'll probably see something new in this tank later this week."

I love how NC stated flat out that she expected to see me in later in the week. I might as well set up a cot there.

The next tank over held a mass of tiny yellow ducklings with beige stripes, most of them gleefully kicking the contents of their waterer all over themselves. "What kind are these?" I asked, setting the Khaki Campbell back in its brooder.

"We don't know," NC replied. "I think someone might have accidentally thrown out the packing slip. We've got a call in so we can hang the right sign instead of 'Assorted Ducklings.'"

Well, whatever they were, the assorted ducklings were definitely more lively than the Khaki Campbells had been at that age. I itched to hold one, but they were having so much fun splashing I settled for just watching their antics. I eventually moved on, skipping the Cornish X tank (cute, but destined for the table in 10 weeks' time) for the Speckled Sussex brooder next door. Just like our chicks at home, the Sussex chicks were already showing feathers and losing their down. I noticed that their price had dropped accordingly. I shot an inquisitive look at NC.

She shrugged. "People like cute," she told me. "They'll sell, though. There are plenty of people out there who don't want to be bothered with the hassle of raising chicks. They prefer started pullets, so they use us to start the birds for them and then buy them really cheap."

The next tank held the Tetra Tints, pale yellow chicks for whom I had nothing but disdain, having learned they were a marketing tactic developed specifically for Tractor Supply. Just call me a poultry snob, but our birds had to have a well-established genealogy.

Next to the Tetra Tints were the "Red Pullets," a mix of Rhode Island Reds, Red Stars, and Isa Browns. Boring. The last bin, however, drew me in like a magnet. It was the "Assorted Bantams" tank and inside were at least two dozen teeny chicks, all about the size of my thumb. A good number of Dennises were ringed around the feeder, intermingling with a seemingly equal number of Belles. Had our chicks really been that tiny? I also glimpsed a few feathered legs in the mix belonging to rosy-faced, brown-bodied birdies — Mille Fleurs chicks. I sighed. Not at all what I was looking for. Mille Fleurs, or Belgian Bearded d'Uccles, as they are more correctly known, develop heavily feathered legs, or boots, as adult birds. These boots require a great deal of maintenance to keep from getting bedraggled and dowdy, which is why Mille Fleurs are typically raised by poultry fanciers who show them at competitions, not suburbanites who think they're adorable and have no idea what they're getting themselves into.

As I turned to leave, I accidentally startled the chicks, which immediately dashed for the safety of the far end of the stock tank. And there, glaringly noticeable in a sea of brown and black fuzz, stood a single yellow chick. Smaller than all the other bantams, this teensy chick was enveloped from the top of its head to the tops of its feet in fluffy blonde down, so platinum it was almost white. Bingo!

NC handed me a chick carrying carton. "Found one?" she asked as I scooped Blondie out of the bin and quickly checked her gender — female! I held her out for NC to see before placing her in the offered box. "Ah, that one. We only got a couple of those yellow ones in, and the others went yesterday. I bet she was lonely."

"Well, she won't be lonely for long," I replied as we headed to the register, the little chick peeping loudly the entire way. "She's got seven brothers and sisters waiting for her at home."

"Are you going to put her in with your older birds?" NC asked as she rang up the sale. "They might not like a newcomer in their flock. It messes up the pecking order."

Thank you, NC, for providing me with the excuse I'd give J for coming home with another chick. "She's our test chick," I glibly explained. "We've got 30-odd coming in five days, and we need to know how the older chicks will react to the newcomers."

"Makes sense," NC said, handing me the receipt. "And don't worry, I won't tell J you were here!"

Apparently I needed more practice being glib.

By the time we reached home, I'd named the little chickie Clarisse, not because she'd soon come into contact with larger birds who might cannibalize her, but because of her pale yellow down. Sitting down at my work area, I opened the carton and gently lifted her out, cooing softly to her and stroking her little back to calm her down. I calmed her down so much she nestled into my palm and fell asleep.

Great. I couldn't introduce a sleeping chicklet to seven siblings. I didn't care if they were docile or not, poor Clarisse would get trampled.

Fortunately, Clarisse slept like a baby... meaning she was awake again in about 10 minutes and peeping hungrily. Over we went to the brooder, where Eggbert and his flock gathered around, expecting my lowering hand to contain tasty treats.

Surprise! "All right, everyone, this is Clarisse," I told the chicks. "She's your new little sister. Eggbert, show her the ropes. Gloria, make her feel at home." And with that, I set little Clarisse down.

As one, the seven older chicks scooted back. You'd have thought I'd plunked a fox kit in their midst.

Clarisse peeped, shook out her down, then waddled right through the others, heading for the feeder. Seven pairs of eyes watched this interloper warily as she hopped up what we'd dubbed the bantams' stepping stool — a cement brick that allowed them to reach the chick feeder — and proceeded to stick her head into one of the holes and chow down.

After a few minutes of utter silence, Eggbert slowly made his way over to the fuzzy little chick. He cocked his head to one side — possibly wondering where Clarisse's head had gone — and then he pecked her.

Clarisse fell off the brick.

Peeping indignantly, she dashed back around the feeder, squeezed through Eggbert's legs, hopped back onto the access brick, and began eating again. Eggbert stared at her. Peck.

Off the brick tumbled Clarisse. This time, Eggbert planted himself squarely in her way so she couldn't go anywhere. The male Ameraucana lowered his head to look Clarisse straight in the eye. For a moment, I thought he might peck her eye out but, instead, he gently touched his beak to hers. Clarisse held perfectly still, then scuttled through Eggbert's legs and went back to the feeder. Eggbert watched for a few seconds, then strolled off.

Clarisse had passed the first test: accepted by the Chick in Charge.

Seeing this, the other chicks slowly ventured forward, approaching Clarisse and letting her know how things stood in the brooder. Gloria came next, sidling up to Clarisse as the little chick ate and, using her beak, gently pushed Clarisse over to the next feeding hole, ie., letting Clarisse know that Gloria got first dibs on where to eat. This time, Clarisse didn't topple off the stepping stool but moved aside to make room for Gloria. This seemed to please the large Lavender Orpington chick immensely, and she stayed next to Clarisse for a while, eating side by side, until she apparently decided she was getting cramped eating from the brick and moved down to where she could feed with both feet firmly on the ground.

Belle's assertion of pecking order went even more smoothly. The dainty Old English Game chick trotted up to Clarisse as she came down from the eating brick, touched beaks with her for a few seconds, then trotted away. Blazekin followed shortly after. To be honest, I'd thought that the pretty Ameraucana chick would have been the first of the females to greet Clarisse, in part because she'd played protector and nanny to the three bantam chicks — Belle, Cutie, and Dennis — for most of the first week, but also to show up Gloria in a pecking-order sort of way. Instead, she waited for Clarisse to step away from the feeder and waterer — Clarisse's next stop — then came up behind her and pecked the little chick firmly in the tush.

Clarisse did not like this at all. Neither did Dennis. The little Seabright cockerel launched himself across the brooder, landing right between Blazekin and Clarisse and flaring his wings wide open at the Ameraucana chick. Clarisse in the meantime squeaked and dashed under a very startled Gloria, who clearly was not expecting the tiny blonde chick to hide beneath her like a frightened chick does with its mother hen. While Clarisse cowered under Gloria and Gloria stood, frozen and uncertain what to do, Dennis hopped up and down, beating his little black-and-orange wings at Blazekin. Eggbert, for his part, looked over, apparently decided Dennis had everything in hand, and went back to drinking at the waterer.

Blazekin didn't take long to understand that the menfolk were displeased with how she'd approached the baby. She slunk her head down towards Dennis' feet and backed up, letting Dennis know she accepted his position on the matter of Clarisse. Dennis ruffled what few feathers he had, peeped, then headed off to dig by Cutie, the issue at hand having been resolved. When Clarisse finally poked her head out from underneath Gloria, Blazekin was still there, her head hovering an inch or so from the ground. Clarisse peeped, waddled over to the larger chick, and pecked her in the head. Blazekin pecked Clarisse in the head right back, twice. The two had officially called a truce.

It looked as though Clarisse had found herself a champion in Dennis, a bantam knight in shining feathers. Dennis flared his wings at Belle to chase her off the feeding brick so that Clarisse had unobstructed access to food. He hovered protectively behind her as she waddled around the brooder, discovering her new home. And then Clarisse encountered Barbra.

Barbra was the low-rung chick of the brood, the bottom-ranked bird not only amongst the males but amongst all seven chicks. I never quite understood why. Sure, Barbra was klutzy and occasionally toppled off the roost or bonked into one of the other chicks, and yes, as a new hatch Barbra had required a couple of bottom baths to deal with his pasty-butt problems, but to me these didn't seem like enough of a reason to be considered the pariah. Then again, perhaps chicks were like schoolkids, immediately condemning a classmate to ignominy for wearing the wrong color or bringing a sandwich prepared on the wrong bread. Or having a girl's name when you're a boy.

For whatever reason, Barbra was the outcast. And either through birdie telepathy, birdie body language, or birdie vibes, Clarisse sensed this. Halfway through her first day in the brooder, Clarisse waddled straight up to where Barbra was sitting off by himself and firmly pecked the older chick twice in the head.

Barbra didn't peck back.

The upheaval in the chick hierarchy was instantaneous and alarming. The new kid was not at the bottom of the pecking order, like she should be. Instead, Clarisse had firmly established herself as being of a higher rank than Barbra, a chick almost three times her size. Clarisse's climb up a rung immediately posed a threat to Cutie, who was the lowest-ranked female. Normally diffident and withdrawn, Cutie sprang to life, furious that the young upstart had advanced to just below her own position. From that moment on, whenever Cutie had a chance, she'd dash over to Clarisse and peck her repeatedly on the wing, back, vent, or head, showing the tiny bantam that she was the superior bird. The first few times this happened, I wagged my finger at the little Old English Game chick, warning her in a stern voice that this behavior towards the baby was not acceptable. I might as well have been talking to the wall. I therefore decided to let Dennis defend Clarisse from Cutie, leaving this matter to the birds.

Wrong assumption. Dennis had seen that Clarisse had risen above the lowest-ranked male. This was only one notch down from the second-ranked male: himself. Dennis immediately changed from Clarisse's champion to her antagonist, teaming up with Cutie to pester and torment the poor little chick. Clarisse cowered so many times beneath Gloria — and, on a couple of occasions, under Eggbert and under Belle — that I started looking for the larger chicks, expecting Clarisse to be peeping out from between their legs.

After this had gone on for several hours, I stepped in again and gave Dennis and Cutie time outs, separating them from the other six chicks. Poor Dennis looked utterly miserable at being reprimanded. He hunkered down and drooped his little head, sitting silently without so much as a peep. Cutie seemed to care less. She carried on as she had before, wandering around and feeding quietly. Upon their return to the brooder a half hour later, Dennis hopped onto the roost and went to sleep, while Cutie immediately sought Clarisse out and pecked at her again. Down went Clarisse, between Gloria's legs. Out came Cutie, back into isolation.

I'd like to think that her time alone taught Cutie to get along with Clarisse, but in all honesty I have no idea what finally led Cutie to accept Clarisse. When it was time for bed, I expressed my worry to J about leaving Clarisse in the brooder with Cutie overnight; I was afraid that Cutie would injure or possibly kill the poor little fluff. J, however, felt that the chicks had to sort this out on their own. After all, wasn't Clarisse supposed to be the test chick? What better way to test how the older seven would accept new chicks than to see how Clarisse fared overnight?

Man, I hated having my words thrown back at me. Especially when they weren't originally my words. Making certain the chicks' water supply was free of pine shavings and tidying up the feeder, I gave each chick their night-time hand time, spending a little extra time with Clarisse, stroking her soft down and watching her sleepily blink her eyes. With one last pat, I placed her back inside the brooder and went to bed.

The next morning, I found Clarisse asleep, snuggled between Dennis and Cutie. Crazy chicks.

Thus ended my unintended experiment about how an established flock would react to a new arrival. It took our chicks approximately 24 hours to fully accept Clarisse as one of their own. Gloria had a new baby, and Blazekin eventually resumed her nanny role and helped keep an eye on Clarisse. Barbra was still the outcast, and Clarisse found herself ranked equally to Cutie for the time being.

I could only hope for as smooth an adjustment when the chick battalion arrived. There'd be major differences, of course. Clarisse was just one tiny bantam chick. We were expecting 33 more — 29 from McMurray Hatchery and 4 from Meyer Hatchery — to ship out in just two days' time. And these chicks wouldn't be cozily settled in at a store just a short drive away from home, as Clarisse was at Tractor Supply. Instead, they would be stressed out from being hatched, sexed, and packed into a carton, then shipped via the U.S. Postal System for two or more days without food or water.

It seems cruel, but it's the only way chicks can be shipped: fresh out of the shell, while their bodies are still nourished by their egg sac. That egg sac can sustain a chick for up to three days without additional food or water, allowing hatcheries to mail chicks out to clients. FedEx and UPS refuse to ship live baby chicks, so hatcheries use Priority Mail, provide buyers a shipping date and a tracking number, so folks have an idea when to expect their chicks. When the chicks arrive at the local post office, a mail worker calls the customer, requesting a chick pick-up. There's no delivery service; the chicks are already stressed enough from the shipping, and having them rattle around in the back of a mail truck on morning or, worse, afternoon rounds is pretty much the same as signing their death warrant.

I'd read several chick-shipping horror stories in online forums: chicks being shipped over federal holidays or being lost in the mail, chicks arriving dead because they were in transit for more than three days. I'd also seen posts on Facebook by post offices that could not reach customers and needed someone to adopt the chicks they'd received ASAP. I had to acknowledge, with relief, that there were many more safe arrivals than there were horror stories, so I didn't really have to worry about opening a carton of dead or dying chicks. Still, J reminded me that we'd ordered that many chicks not only because of that blasted chicken math, but also because we knew to expect that some chicks would not recover from the stress of shipping and would die.

I think I'd rather have Cutie peck continuously at all 33 chicks than have to watch a tiny baby chick die upon arrival. I fervently hoped that all our chicks would follow in Clarisse's footsteps and become part of our happy FMA Farms flock.

I'd find out in four days.