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.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Leader of the Peck

In 1921, Norwegian zoologist Thorleif Schjelderup-Ebbe described a hierarchical behavior in which individuals in a group would demonstrate their dominance over fellow group members. Challenges for leadership positions, according to Schjelderup-Ebbe, resulted in in-fighting, with those ultimately of higher rank claiming the best food, shelter, and mates for themselves, while those at the bottom submitted either of their own will or because they'd lost a challenge.

Schjelderup-Ebbe defined this behavior as establishing a "pecking order." Ninety years later, the pecking-order theory is well known to sociologists and those whose lives are spent in the corporate sector. When Schjelderup-Ebbe defined it, however, pecking order was connected not with humans but with animals. Chickens, to be specific; Schjelderup-Ebbe wrote his PhD dissertation based on his observations of the hens and roosters in the flocks he'd raised since age 10. According to Schjelderup-Ebbe, chickens begin to exhibit pecking-order behavior at about four weeks of age, with males challenging each other to determine the dominant males, likewise for females, and with the lead males and females duking it out to determine who ruled the roost.

Apparently, our chicks must have skipped the part about age.

From the start, we'd described our brown Americauna chick, Eggbert, as "likes to peck." Eggbert went around, pecking the other birds on the back, at the vent, on the wing, on the head. We were concerned when we saw this, because we'd read that pecking at each other continuously could lead to cannibalism. To prevent this gruesome condition from happening, we'd spent the extra money on red heat-lamp bulbs; red light supposedly disguises injuries and molting skin by casting a rosy glow on everything. Despite this, here was Eggbert, happily going around, pecking at his brooder mates.

Now that we knew he was male, everything fell into place. Eggbert was simply letting the others know he was the cock of the lot. The only ones who ever pecked back at Eggbert were Dennis, Gloria, and Barbra. Mind you, none of these pecks were malicious intents to cause injury. The chicks were just determining their leader and their own place in the flock.

Barbra caused the most surprise for us. For two weeks — since we brought the chicks home — we'd wondered why on earth Barbra, the klutzy chick, kept pestering Eggbert. Barbra was gawky, uncoordinated, had suffered from two cases of pasty butt, and all the other chicks seemed to leave her alone. Every now and then, however, Barbra would dash, kamikaze-style, at Eggbert, peck him a couple of times, then retreat. Eggbert, for his part, just seemed to glare at Barbra like she was a minor annoyance and not worthy of his attention. Now that we knew Barbra was a he and not a she, we understood the motives behind the sneak attacks: Barbra was challenging Eggbert... and failing miserably.

Dennis, however, was another story. Tiny little Dennis had been happily digging through the brooder's bedding for days, scattering pine shavings everywhere and on everyone. I began to notice that Dennis only began his massive excavations when one of the females — Cutie, Belle, or Gloria — was nearby. One of a rooster's jobs is to forage for his flock of hens, and Dennis was doing a mighty good job, foraging for the newspaper that lined the bottom of the brooder. Eggbert was not amused by Dennis' antics, however. Every now and then, Eggbert would purposely stroll into the middle of Dennis' dig, forcing Dennis to back down and move elsewhere. Sometimes Dennis would glare at Eggbert, who'd then hold himself fully upright, towering over the little Seabright bantam. Most of the times, Dennis would just scoot away to find another of the females and dig for her.

Ranks:
Eggbert — King
Dennis — Prince
Barbra — Jester


The ladies were no exception to the pecking-order rule. It quickly became obvious that quiet, shy little Cutie was the lowest-ranking of the four females. She was usually the last one to eat or drink, and she held back while the others ran around with bugs or mealworms. For a while, we thought that little Belle, the adventuresome little Old English Game chick, would be Head Hen. She was always the first to run over for mealworms and amongst the first four chicks — Eggbert, Dennis, and Gloria being the others — to arrive at a refilled feeder. As the days passed and the chicks began to resemble little birds instead of little fluffballs, however, Gloria made her move. She'd be right next to Eggbert when the feeder arrived, and she was the first of all the chicks to start jumping up to reach a treat held out overhead. At about six days of age, Gloria suddenly jumped in front of Belle as the little bantam chick made her way to the feeder. Belle startled, then backed down away from the larger Orpington chick. Gloria was now rightfully the First Female.

It's been a precarious reign for Gloria. Loving, gentle Blazekin, our Ameraucana pullet, suddenly began asserting herself. She stopped being the three bantam chicks' nanny and started showing up seconds behind Gloria for fresh water or food, and soon was jumping as high as Eggbert and Gloria whenever mealworm treats were offered. At one week of age, Blazekin issued her challenge. While all the other chicks stayed to the outskirts of the brooder, Blazekin jumped in front of Gloria and, stretching her neck out to appear taller, stared the lavender chick down. Gloria responded in kind, and after a tense series of staredowns, hops, and wing flaring, Blazekin backed down. Not that this settled matters. Blazekin continued her challenges throughout the day, sometimes by the feeder, sometimes by the pecking block, sometimes by the toy bell, and sometimes by the chicks' roost. Occasionally, one of the other chicks would unwittingly get in the way of the two pullets and scramble, squawking, to avoid being pounced on. Only once did Gloria submit to Blazekin, but I think that's because the poor thing was sick and tired of the Ameraucana's challenges and just wanted a little peace and quiet, away from the constant pecking.

I'm sure Barbra could agree. At the bottom of the pecking order for the males, Barbra found himself scorned by the females, too. Even Cutie would occasionally wander by and peck at him. It seemed that Barbra's only shot at climbing higher in pecking order would be to introduce new chicks to the equation.

Which would be happening very shortly. King Eggbert and Queen Gloria would soon find themselves the rulers of almost 50 peeping, cheeping chicks, some of which undoubtedly would disagree with the local government. Anarchy, protests, and a possible coup d'etat were only four days away.

Perhaps Dennis should start digging some bunkers now.

Monday, March 21, 2011

All About Sex

When buying baby chicks, one of the many factors you'll need to consider is gender. Most people prefer to purchase pullets (female chicks), to raise a laying flock. In fact, some backyard flock owners are prohibited by local laws from owning anything but hens, classifying all roosters as noise-making nuisances.

Others, especially meat-flock keepers, choose males, or cockerels, since male chicks cost around half the price of female ones and are usually slaughtered before they're even a year old, so they're cheaper to buy and to raise. Other poultry keepers buy males for their stud services or to show them in competition. Yet others get males to complete their flock. Because the demand for males is so low, hatcheries often use males as "packing peanuts," shipped alongside the requested females in order to provide warmth during shipping.

Then there's the straight runs. Straight runs are the equivalent of chicken roulette. Straight-run chicks have not been sexed (had their gender identified). Sometimes this is due to time constraints; too many chicks means too much time required to sex them. Inexperienced poultry keepers may not know how to sex chickens or don't trust their skills enough to do so. Some times, the breed of the chicken itself prevents early gender identification. For whatever reason, no one ever knows what they're getting when they buy straight runs... which can be quite problematic for the backyard enthusiast who discovers her four beloved hand-raised chicks can crow and are therefore not permitted in her neighborhood.

We had ordered our Silkies as straight runs, as this is the only way the hatcheries sell them for some reason or another. Our advance party of seven chicks from Tractor Supply? All straight runs. Given that we had a Buff Orpington rooster and a Columbian Wyandotte rooster arriving soon, we wanted to make sure our flock wouldn't be inundated with cockerels. This was supposed to be a hen party, after all! J and I had recently viewed a video, Mad City Chickens, which included a clip of McMurray Hatchery workers sexing newly hatched chicks. The workers were so skilled, they were sexing a chick every 10 seconds or so. I might not be able to go that fast, but sexing the chicks myself couldn't be too difficult.

With a new book, Sexing All Fowl, recently arrived from the Randall Burkey Company, I prepared the equipment I would need for this procedure. Soft cloths, a Dixie cup, and disinfectant wipes — check. Seven chicks waiting to learn if they were boys or girls — check. Confidence about what I was about to attempt? Well, you can't have everything.

If you haven't guessed, sexing chicks involves looking to see if there are little private boy parts present. That's all well and good for the majority of mammal males, who strut their stuff out in the open (or talk about said stuff with proverbial male pride). Cockerels' special bits are located inside their vent. You're welcome to guess what gets vented through the vent. In order to properly sex a chick, I was to weave the chick through my left hand so its legs were held firmly between my index and middle fingers and its head was positioned between my pinkie and ring finger. Then, with my right thumb, I was to gently yet firmly stroke its belly. This supposedly would cause the chick to poop, into the waiting Dixie cup I was apparently holding with a third hand. From there, I was to wipe the vent clean (the book said use my right index finger to wipe away moisture; uh, no thanks!) and then, with my right thumb and index finger positioned on either side of the vent, I was to apply enough pressure to make the vent sphincter flare. It's flaring? Look quickly... if I saw a black spot the size of a pinhead, it was a boy. That's right. The size of a pinhead! No pinhead penis? Congratulations, it's a girl.

The chicks being sexed in Mad City Chickens were new hatches, straight out of the incubator. Our chicks were about 8 days old. I figured that, being older, those equipped with pinheads would have more prominent parts at this stage of development, perhaps the size of a thumb tack. Picking up Dennis, our happy little digging chick, I began the process of sexing my first chick.

Dennis, however, was neither happy about nor digging what I was attempting to do. The poor little thing squirmed and flapped its little wings, peeping madly and trying to escape from the hand it had previously trusted. I tried tuck-tuck-tucking to it, but it knew I wasn't about to hand over a treat. I tried reassuring it softly and, when that didn't work, I just looked Dennis in the eye, told the fuzzball this was a necessary medical procedure, and to be patient and he'd get a treat when it was over. For some reason, that seemed to work. Dennis stopped struggling, pooped on cue, and flared its little vent at me just like the book described. The lighting was off, however, so I brought Dennis' little tush closer to the heat lamp and pressed again. Bingo! A dark little pinhead appeared on the wall of the vent sphincter. Dennis was a boy!

Which I probably could have guessed, considering his love of digging: typical rooster behavior, trying to demonstrate his ability to forage for food to the females. Just how many females was yet to be determined.

I pulled Dennis back out from under the lamp and turned him back over... just to discover his eyes were shut and he was completely limp. "Dennis? DENNIS?!!" I cried out. Had I accidentally killed the poor little thing? Squeezed his little neck between my pinky and ring finger until he couldn't breathe? I panicked. I stroked his belly, stroked his head, all the while pleading with him to snap out of it, to be okay. I dipped my finger into the waterer and brought drops of water up to his little beak, encouraging him to swallow. After I'd just about given up and was wondering how to tell J I'd accidentally killed one of the chicks, Dennis finally fluttered his little eyelids open. I would have hugged the little bird if I weren't afraid that would crush him! Instead, I held him gently on my hand, gave him a little treat, and, once he seemed to have had enough of being petted, carefully placed him back in the brooder.

Phew.

Okay, I told myself. That happened because of my inexperience and also because Dennis was a little bantam. If I tried on a standard-sized chick, I'd have better success.

Gloria, however, was not at all of accord with me on that. Like Dennis, Gloria peeped madly and flapped and flailed and kicked two little chicken feet at me as I did my best to intertwine her through my fingers. Gloria would have nothing to do with this. Finally, I just gave up, turned the Lavender Orpington chick belly up, and held it under the heat lamp.

Gloria went perfectly still.

Hey... maybe I had something here. Holding Gloria carefully and speaking to it softly, I pressed down on either side of the vent and took a look. Nothing. Just to make sure, I repeated the procedure. Still nothing. Gloria was a girl.

After Gloria, sexing the remaining five went much more smoothly. Having their rears exposed to the heat of the brooder lamp caused the chicks' vent sphincters to flare, without having to wind them through my fingers and without having to make them poop. Only once, on Blazekin, did I have to repeat the procedue and apply additional pressure to make the flaring more prominent. The final result: four girls (Gloria, Blazekin, Cutie, and Belle), and three boys (Dennis, Eggbert, and the unfortunately named Barbra).

At least, that's what I think. The truth will be known soon enough, since chicks begin developing their combs and wattles (those floppy red things beneath their chins) at three to four weeks of age. In other words, just in time for a trio of roosters to start strutting for the dozens of chicks arriving shortly.

This should be interesting.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Great Eggspectations

A common misconception about chickens is that they require roosters in order to lay eggs. This is inherently wrong. Chickens need roosters in order to lay eggs just as much as women need men in order to ovulate.

No, when it comes to eggs, the only thing hens need roosters for is to fertilize their ova to create baby chicks. Perhaps hens and women have more in common than previously believed.

In fact, the ovulation process begins for both females in relatively the same way: at a specific time in the reproductive cycle, an egg is released by an ovary. If it is not fertilized, the egg eventually makes its way out the birth canal. The main difference is that hens' eggs are much larger than a woman's eggs and much, much tastier.

Hens' eggs are also released with much more frequency, ranging from about one egg per week for ornamental breeds to about six eggs per week for heavy laying breeds. Breed also determines when a hen starts laying eggs, with most breeds producing their first egg at about 22 to 24 weeks of age.

With 40 chickens, we could potentially look forward to more than 240 eggs per week. Even with keeping a dozen or two per week, we'd still be averaging about 70 dozen eggs per month in season (many breeds lay fewer eggs during the winter; some don't lay at all). Seventy dozen equals a nice chunk of egg money.

J already had plans on how we would market our eggs. Apparently several co-workers of his were already clamoring to buy them, preferring the taste of farm-fresh eggs to that of store-bought ones. J also planned to barter eggs for poultry essentials such as pine shavings, hay bales, and feed at our local farmers' supply store. In addition, he planned to hang a sign by our studio, alerting students to the fact that eggs were available for purchase.

"Why not just put a sign saying 'Fresh Eggs' out by the road?" I asked.

"Don't be ridiculous," J replied. "We don't want strangers pulling up the driveway... This is our home! Besides, most people drive too fast and would miss the sign."

I did manage to get J to agree to donate one or two dozen eggs per week to the local food bank. I also put my foot down regarding what J was calling the FMA Farms signature dozen: 11 brown eggs and one blue egg.

"The blue eggs are rarer," I reminded him, "and we'll have many more brown egg layers than blue. Besides, we could probably charge a little more for a dozen 'Easter eggs' than for the brown ones."

J couldn't find any fault with my logic. J also didn't put up too much of a fight when I proposed my plan: breeding and selling baby chicks.

"This way, we're raising the next generation of layers ourselves instead of having to order more chicks from the hatchery," I explained. "And I'm sure there are people around here who'd prefer to buy healthy, local chicks instead of getting them shipped in the mail. And have you seen how much some of the breeds sell for, and how fast they sell out?"

"Maybe some day," J replied. 

But some day was coming soon. Our hatchery chicks had been ordered and the Silkies were straight runs: gender unknown. McMurray Hatchery also adds a free rare chick with each order, and who knew what we'd be getting, genderwise or breedwise? Also, the three Columbian Wyandottes I'd added to our order? One was a male. 

I had just read a fabulously informative article about roosters and their role in a flock. I'd previously held the notion that roosters were noisy rutting machines, crowing all day and having his way with the hens. This turned out to be true, but dependent on breed. Some breeds yield quieter, docile roosters that actually coordinate and get along with their fellow males, even those of different breeds. Silkie roosters were so gently disposed that they often served as surrogate mothers.

The article also went on to describe how it was the roster's job to forage for the hens, digging and scratching the ground to uncover a tasty morsel, then summoning the hens to come eat. More than anything, however, a rooster serves as a flock's security guard, strutting the perimeter and cawing to keep animals aware of the fact that he, the rooster, was on duty. If several roosters are in a flock, they split the yard up between them, periodically relaying status reports to each other.

Roosters have been known to take on predators such as hawks, coyotes, snakes, foxes, raccoons, dogs, cats, and weasels, often sacrificing their own lives so that the hens and chicks could escape to safety.

With state woodlands and other farms surrounding us, we certainly had all of these predators and more. Roosters would keep our flock safe and protect our investment. And roosters would breed chicks. Plus roosters had stunning plumage, in a variety of patterns, colors, and tail-feather lengths.

I did my best to explain all this to J when he asked me exactly why I'd purposely ordered a male. After a few moments, however, he put his hands up in defeat. "I suppose you're going to want a rooster of each breed we want to raise," he stated more than asked.

"Well, we'll probably have at least one male Silkie," I reminded him. "The Columbian is an uncommon Wyandotte so we'll be set there. The Buff Orpington will take care of the Orpington hens..."

"What Buff Orpington?" J cut in. 

"The one that's escorting the Cuckoo Marans chicks from Meyer Hatchery," I replied without missing a beat.

J shook his head. "Well, don't go ordering any Araucanas or Ameraucanas," he told me.

"Why not?" I asked.

He pointed toward the brooder. "Because we don't know what we've got in there," he explained. "And chances are that Eggbert, Blazekin, and Barbara are Ameraucana roosters, and that Gloria might be a Lavender Orpington rooster. All of them might be roosters!"

He had a point. I hate when that happens.

If You Build It, They Will Come...

For most poultry enthusiasts, selecting a brooder — a chicken equivalent of a crib, used by chicks for their first eight weeks — is a no-brainer: Grab a cardboard box, toss in some pine shavings, cover these with paper towels, add food, water, and a heat lamp. Presto! Instant chick brooder. If the water spilled, if the cardboard seeped through with chickie poop, if the chicks grew quickly and needed more room, all you needed to do was switch to a new box and throw the old one onto the compost heap.

Having moved recently enough to our new home, we have a bumper crop of cardboard boxes growing at an incremental rate in our pole barn. We paid U-Haul good money for those boxes. Who knew when we'd need to use them again? Using them to house chicks, however, was not an option. We paid U-Haul good money for those boxes!

Besides, we'd heard all sorts of stories about cardboard-box chick brooders, from the box brooder that skittered around the room as the chicks moved it via some mass concerted effort, to the box brooder that became an impromptu oven when the heat lamp fell in and set the box and the shavings on fire. These chicks were a sizable investment for us, and we wanted to house them in something sturdy, safe, and easily cleanable so it could be reused in the future. Plus, we paid U-Haul good money for those boxes!

J and I scoured the Internet, poultry mail-order catalogs, and our local feed stores to find just the right brooder. We eventually settled on a galvanized stock tank, a 100+-pound glorified metal washtub used as troughs for horses and other large farm animals. We found just what we were looking for one snowy evening at Tractor Supply and, later that week, I went with JTR and B to get it. Note to parents: 7 year olds may insist on carrying stock tanks to the register for you. Allow this. Parents deserve all moments of hilarity directly related to their offspring.

I was quite proud of our brooder once I'd set it up. Scrubbed clean with a diluted bleach formula, it had quite the streamlined appearance, regardless of the wooden gallows J had built to support the heat lamp. It cleaned very easily, kept the chicks warm, and, at four feet in length, took up quite a bit of room in our sitting room turned office area. However, the brooder's size provided plenty of necessary space for growing chicks to roam and explore.

We'd forgotten that chickens can fly.

Dennis and Eggbert reminded us of this fact quickly enough. Dennis' leaps over the roosts, feeder, and half the length of the brooder startled us, considering the little bird was not even two weeks old. J's alarm at our chicks' housing unit's limitations grew exponentially when he saw how high Eggbert, Gloria, and Blaziken would jump, wings flapping, to grab a tasty mealworm out of my hand.

"We're going to need a bigger brooder," he informed me one evening as he watched me give the chicks their evening snack.

"This one's large enough," I replied, paying more attention to the chicks' antics than to him.

J watched Eggbert snatch a mealworm from me; he then placed his hand about an inch from the top of the tank. "Eggbert's head went this high, and he's only a week and a half old," J stated. "He's going to be able to hop out of the brooder soon enough. Do you really want to come home from running errands to find him running around the living room?"

He had a point.

"They have larger stock tanks," I noted, thinking of this immense steel feeder Tractor Supply sold that could accommodate two horses side by side. It would be a tight squeeze in the sitting room, though. And I didn't know how we'd get it home unless we strapped it to the top of the minivan.

J shook his head. "No, I'm thinking about building a more customized brooder," he told me. "I already have it all planned out. We just need to get the wood."

I wisely kept my mouth shut, but I shot a glance at the chicken gallows looming over our current brooder and hoped J's brooder wouldn't resemble a casket. Since J assured me that a home-built brooder would cost less than the larger stock tank, I agreed to let him build it.

That weekend, after a nice brunch at a favorite Indian restaurant, we headed to Lowe's to buy the wood J needed for the brooder. Not surprisingly, the kids opted to stay in the car playing handheld video games rather than accompany us to the lumber yard. We left M in charge of his brothers, handed him the keys to the minivan, and headed into the store.

I quickly learned that J had a very definitive notion of how he would be building this brooder. He kept up a running monologue about 2X3s versus 2X4s, white wood versus #2 pine, and 1X12X6s versus 1X12X8s, all the while pulling out long boards and pointing out how they were warped, then setting them aside in favor of ones that lay flat. At one point, he left me selecting 2X4s while he went to get the necessary hardware. Left to my own devices, I selected the 10 beams he'd requested, not because of their straightness, their pine content, or even their cost. My beams were pretty, without notches, splinters, cracks, knots, or sap. I didn't want an ugly brooder, after all. I piled these on our flat cart, then slowly guided the unwieldy thing to the check-out line, where J met me, a basket full of nails, screws, hinges, and who knows what in his hands.

Total cost: $260.

"Ummm, you do realize we could have bought two of those large stock tanks with that money," I felt it was my duty to point out as we made our way back to the car.

"This is better in the long run," he retorted. "It'll be customized, and we can reuse the wood when we're done with the brooder. How can we reuse large stock tanks?"

M popped the trunk open when he saw us approach. "Do you guys have any idea what time it is? You've been gone for more than two hours!!"

Ooops. Time flies when you're selecting wood, apparently.

That night, after the school-aged kids had been sent to bed and B was ensconced in front of the television, watching educational videos, J went to work. I was suffering from a massive headache brought on by spending too much time near treated lumber and complaining children, so I paid scant attention to the questions he asked me. I vaguely recall something about the size and orientation of the brooder, separation panels, and the space required. I clearly recall J wanting to put the brooder in the basement.

"No," I told him. "I'm the one that's going to be taking care of the chicks, and they need to be in a convenient location for me. If I'm going to be feeding and watering them and giving them frequent hand-time to train them, then they need to be in the sitting room."

"But you originally wanted them in the basement," J pointed out. "You even cleared out that large space for them."

"That was before I realized how intensive hand training would be," I replied. Hand training involved holding each chick for one to two minutes, letting them hear my voice up close and eating from my hand... several times a day. "It takes me a good chunk of time to hand train just these seven," I added. "In about a week I'll be hand training 40 chicks. I'm not going to spend the majority of my day in the basement."

I went to bed shortly after, having lost out to the headache and having been assured by J that we'd be able to move the brooder down to the basement when the chicks got older or smellier, whichever came first. Since I'd been keeping the brooder fresh and clean, I doubted I'd have to move the contraption downstairs for a number of weeks. I must have fallen asleep the moment my head hit the pillow, because I don't recall B coming in and snuggling with me, nor do I remember the sound of hammering or anything. I have only a vague recollection of J climbing into bed around 3 AM, kissing me, and asking me to tell him what I thought of it.

I awoke the next morning to find an enormous wooden box in the sitting room. Just over two feet in height, our new brooder had panels that would allow us to either use the brooder as one unit or divide it into two or three separate brooders, each as large as our current stock-tank brooder and each either one or two feet in height. J had lined both the floor and the first foot of the brooder wall with heavy-duty plastic sheeting to protect the wood from moisture. Four posts, one at each corner, were meant to support the beams that would hold the chicks' heating lamps. It was spectacular! It also took up most of the available floor space. And there was no way it would be moving out of the sitting room except in pieces, as it was wider than both doorways.

J had set up the first partition with a heat lamp, newspaper, shavings, and several thermometers to gauge the temperature within. These averaged about 90 degrees, perfect for our chicks. I finished the job by adding pine shavings, feeder, waterer, roosts, and chicks, then stood back to watch them discover their new home.

"Where are the chicks?" J asked from behind me, having emerged from the bedroom to find an empty stock tank.

I pointed at the wooden brooder.

J smiled. "Excellent!" he exclaimed, coming to stand beside me to take a peek at the little birds. "How do they like their new home?"

"They seem to like it just fine," I replied. Sure enough, Gloria and Blaziken were already noshing away at the feeder, while Belle, Cutie, and Barbara snuggled down for their early-morning nap and Dennis busily dug his way to the newspaper liner, covering the close-by sleepers in a coating of pine shavings. Only Eggbert seemed unhappy. He kept jumping and pecking at the thermometer, trying to get it to make his beloved KLANG! sound. Metal thermometers don't klang on wood. They thud.

"Poor Eggbert," J murmured, watching the little brown chick grow increasingly frustrated with his favorite toy. My attention wasn't on Eggbert's frustration, however. It was on the height of Eggbert's jumps. His wing-assisted leaps were taking him to within inches of the brooder's brim. I turned to point this out to J, but he'd already seen it.


"Great," he remarked, watching as Gloria and Blaziken began eyeing the brooder walls, then leaping upward to heights matching Eggbert's. "Guess I'm going to have to build a screen top now, or else everyone will be wandering around the living room."

Or jumping over the partition to visit the newborn chicks on the other side. One week and counting...

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Chick TV

Where we live in rural Michigan, television reception is non-existent. Antennas provide the fuzziest picture at best, and costs prohibit the installation of satellite dishes. Major cable-TV providers like Comcast informed us they had no timeline for cable installation in our area, while AT&T seemed surprised that they had no connectivity at our location. Subsequently, evening viewings depend fully on Netflix and our own collection of older DVDs.

But now, we have Chick TV!

Available 24 hours a day, Chick TV provides comedy, drama, action, heart-warming, and yes, even culinary entertainment. At any moment of the day, we have seven little characters exploring their world, sampling new taste sensations (suet = good, spinach = bad), bunking down together for an impromptu group nap, and performing dazzling athletic feats.

Take Dennis, for example. Our little Seabright chick earned his name -- the first of the seven to be christened -- by displaying his amazing leaping skill. By the end of his first hour in the brooder, Dennis had leapt over Eggbert, Gloria, the chick feeders, and the chicks' training roost. He may not bear any physical resemblance to the late Oscar-nominated actor — except perhaps a piercing stare — but that tiny brown bantam quickly was dubbed Dennis (Hopper).

Dennis is also the most talented scratcher in the group. By their fourth day with us, all seven chicks were scratching at their pine-shaving litter, displaying the instinctive ability to forage. Chickens use their talons to scratch at the ground and uncover bugs, tender shoots, and other outdoor edibles. Our brooder didn't hold anything interesting amongst or beneath the shavings other than old newspaper, but that didn't stop the chickies from checking things out with their tiny talons. Dennis, however, would go beyond a simple scratch and look. He scratched and clawed his way through the two inches of shavings, kicking up a cloud of dust and pine particles all over his brooder mates. We were vastly amused by this; the other chicks were not.

Dennis was not alone in his athletic abilities. Eggbert the Ameraucana chick developed a morning ritual I nicknamed "Klang." At each end of the brooder, we'd hung a thermometer to help us properly gauge the temperature within, making sure it was at the proper level for baby chicks. There was nothing special about these thermometers: they're your basic white metal rectangles with red liquid that rises with the heat. When pecked at the bottom, however, these thermometers made the loveliest KLANG! sound as they clunked against the brooder wall. Once the sun had risen and I'd refreshed the chick's water, feed, and pine shavings, Eggbert would stroll over to one of the thermometers, stare intently at it, then leap up and give the thermometer a peck. KLANG! This soon became my morning work music, as I put away the shavings, chick starter, and other chick-related items. KLANG! KLANG! KLANG! KLANG! KLANG! Only Eggbert ever truly mastered Klang; Belle, one of our Old English Game chicks, was the only other chick to manage to klang the thermometer.

Belle, however, had a different talent. She was speedy, incredibly so, especially when she'd found a choice morsel that she wanted to keep away from everyone else. We discovered this one evening when, thanks to the warmer weather, I found a housefly buzzing around in the kitchen. J was about to dispatch it when I remembered reading about chicks chasing bugs around their brooders. J caught the bug and handed it to me and, carrying it gingerly over to the brooders, I made a tuck-tuck-tuck sound (how mother hens call chicks over to food), then slowly lowered my hand towards the inquisitive chicks.

Snap! Belle quickly snatched the bug out of my fingers and tore away from the rest of the chicks, peeping madly as she ran. Most of the others immediately gave chase. Cutie, Dennis, and Gloria stood their ground and watched as Belle dashed around the brooder's perimeter, nimbly jumping through the chick roost, dodging her fellow chicks as they attempted to grab the tasty insect from her beak. Eggbert eventually made the grab and ran off in the opposite direction, also peeping as he went. A new chase started, with chicks dashing after the new leader and Belle trying to recover her prize. Blaziken snatched it from Eggbert and proceeded to sprint away but, just as the others changed course and headed towards her, Blaziken swallowed the fly. Talk about bringing the action to a screeching halt!

The chicks' lively reaction to the fly caused a scurry of action amongst the rest of us. The kids combed the house, searching for insects to feed to the babies (nothing but a couple of desiccated ladybugs), while J checked the garage for more flies. I had a better idea. I'd seen containers of dry-roasted mealworms in the hatchery catalogs touted as a hen's favorite treat. I always keep a bag of roasted mealworms for the bluebirds that live on our acreage. Now was as good a time as any to see if the chicks would like them, too. I got out one and, placing it on my palm, slowly lowered it so that the chicks could see what I was offering. After a few head tilts and curious stares, Belle reached out with her beak and grabbed it. Bug Race #2 was underway! While Belle raced away from her pursuers, I shook a few more mealworms onto my palm. Within seconds I was swamped with chicks trying to grab the worms from me. Belle eventually stopped running, ate her treat, then trotted over to see what all the fuss was about. I shook out a few more mealworms for the chicks to enjoy.

By the time J emerged from the garage, flyless, I was offering the mealworms one by one, just below the rim of the brooder, while Blaziken, Gloria, Eggbert, Barbra, and Dennis jumped up to my fingers to grab the little snacks. J watched in amazed amusement for a moment, then turned to me, a serious look on his face.

"We're going to need a bigger brooder."

Uh oh.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Doctor is In

Anybody who's ever raised a baby knows that, despite how well you care for your little ones, they are still susceptible to diseases and conditions you can do little, if anything, to prevent. Vaccinations help, if you believe in that kind of thing, but, for the most part, infant care involves a lot of love and a great deal of time and effort spent wiping baby bottoms and trying to keep your baby germ- and injury-free.

The same holds true for baby chickens.

Even before we'd placed our orders with McMurray and Meyer Hatcheries, we were presented with a medical decision that could mean life or death for our hatchlings: did we want them vaccinated against Marek's Disease?

Marek's what?

It turns out that chicks are extremely susceptible to a virus called Marek's Disease. Birds infected with Marek's suffer from leg paralysis and droopy wings; they also often die. As if that weren't bad enough, Marek's is also horribly contagious. If one chicken in a flock contracts Marek's, it's a safe bet that all the chickens in the flock will get it, too; when that happens, the recommendation is that the entire flock be isolated or destroyed. But wait, that's not all! Once Marek's has come to call, it contaminates your yard for all future chickens. Healthy chicks, roosters, and hens can pick up Marek's from infected chickens, from yards that keep or recently kept infected chickens, and from yards that kept infected chickens ages ago. That's right. The virus can lie dormant for years, until a hungry hen scratches at the ground and wakes it up. Some poultry keepers believe that Marek's can even be transmitted to healthy chicks via contact with the owners of infected birds, ie. human-to-chicken contagion.

We had no idea who'd farmed our property before we owned it. We did know that just across the street from our acreage was a decrepit, abandoned old chicken coop. Did we want to risk our chicks? No, sirree. One Marek's vaccine, please!

We had to make this decision prior to ordering our chicks because the vaccine can only be administered when chicks are one day old. When I asked the McMurray Hatchery representative why the vaccine isn't just administered routinely, I was surprised to learn that some poultry keepers don't want their chicks vaccinated. According to the rep, these farmers feel that their yards are Marek's free and/or that the vaccine is an unnecessary expense. I later learned that this belief wasn't too off the wall: the vaccine apparently only prevents the paralysis associated with the disease. Vaccinated chicks could still become infected; they just wouldn't show any symptoms.

Super. Well, better infected and living happy, egg-laying lives than dead.

The next chick-related medical issue came right on the heels of the Marek's vaccine question. Did we want the chicks vaccinated against coccidiosis? Back to Storey's Guide to Raising Chickens I went. Coccidiosis, or coxi for short, is yet another lovely chicken illness. This time, protozoa called coccidia play havoc with a chicken's digestive tract, causing slow or stunted growth, diarrhea, bloody stools, and — you guessed it — death in serious cases. Contamination occurs through direct contact with an infected chicken's droppings, which can contain millions of coccidia eggs. Prevention involves keeping a clean, dry coop, since — like Marek's — once one chicken is infected, the rest of the flock is sure to follow.

The trick with the coccidiosis vaccine is that, once administered, chicks have to eat unmedicated chick starter — essentially baby formula for chicks until they're about 8 weeks old — because medicated chick starter can cancel out the vaccine, leaving the bird open to infection. I spent one morning driving from feed store to feed store, asking about the brands of chick starter they carried. Only one store, in the town just southeast of us, carried unmedicated starter, a blend they milled themselves on site. The owner gave me a tour of his mill, then indicated the pallets of Purina medicated chick starter piled nearby. "In all honesty," he told me, "I give my chicks the medicated starter. That way, the chicks don't get coxi and they build up a natural immunity."

Got it. No vaccination for coccidiosis. Check!

Other vaccines exist that can be administered to chicks and adult birds besides these two. There are shots for Newcastle disease, a severe respiratory infection; for fowl pox, which is not at all related to chicken pox; for infectious bronchitis, which is so contagious it can spread between chickens more than half a mile apart; and for laryngotracheitis, a sort of infectious chicken asthma. My mind began to boggle at the thought of all these injections. Chicks were so tiny... wouldn't the needle just go right through them?

Fortunately, I received some excellent advice from a veterinary nurse who happened to raise chickens herself: no need to vaccinate for laryngotracheitis or fowl pox unless symptoms manifest, and combine the Newcastle and bronchitis into one vaccine, administered orally. Should I have to administer a vaccine via injection, do it subcutaneously — just beneath the skin at nape of the chicken's neck. She informed me that the Randall Burkey Company was the most reliable supplier of poultry vaccines should I need them.

I bought a set of chicken-sized syringes, just to be safe. Tractor Supply carried them and, should vaccines need to be administered due to an illness raging through our flock, I didn't want to be running like, well, like a chicken without its head, searching high and low for the right-sized syringe.

Other supplies made it into our chick first-aid kit: a bottle of apple-cider vinegar, which, when added to the chicks' water, promotes the growth of beneficial intestinal flora and helps combat loose stools; a box of Band-Aids, to use should any of the chicks display splayed-leg syndrome (going into the splits due to minimized muscle development; the Band-Aid is wrapped around each "ankle" to keep the legs parallel and the bird upright); a roll of medical adhesive tape, to combat curled or crooked toes (chicks' toes that curl under or bend in unnatural ways; the adhesive tape is gently wrapped around the toe to straighten it and serve as a "shoe" until the bone has straightened); and finally, soft squares of absorbent white cloths and Q-tips to help treat pasty butt.

Pasty butt, or sticky bottoms, is a very common condition in chicks. Stressed-out chicks, or chicks who haven't yet balanced their water intake versus their feed intake, have problems pooping. Instead of dropping to the ground, the poop "pastes" to the affected chick's bottom. It seems almost trivial but, if left untreated, pasty butt can kill a chick since it effectively seals a chick's vent (the exit hole for poop and, in adult hens, for eggs). The treatment is relatively easy: dip a Q-tip in warm water, then wipe away the paste until the vent is clear.

That's the theory, of course. The reality, as I discovered with Barbra, one of our Ameraucana chicks, is that the paste spreads into the chick's down, becoming really hard clumps that no soft rubbing with a Q-tip is going to remove. Barbra sang like her namesake while I switched from Q-tips to the cloth squares, soaking them in warm water before applying them to her hindquarters in hopes that this would loosen the matted material. When that proved futile, and when practically the entire town could hear Barbra's protests, J finally suggested dunking Barbra's rear into a chick-sized bowl of water. While I tried in vain to calm Barbra down, stroking her fuzzy neck and cooing reassuringly to her, J approached with a tiny Tupperware brimming with water. On the count of three, I dipped Barbra's tush into the bowl, expecting shrieks to emanate from the little bird. Instead, we were greeted with silence as Barbra backed her little butt into the water and sank down in seeming relief. A few moments later, her bottom was paste free and she was busily warming herself beneath the brooder's heat lamp. Crisis averted... until two days later, when Barbra developed pasty butt again. Poor Barbra. I suppose that this is what happens to chicks at the bottom of the pecking order. Good thing human babies don't have to worry about that until they're in college. Middle school? I'll shoot for kindergarten.