Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Advanced Party

"We need to test out the brooder," J told me, his eyes all innocence.

Mmm hmm. Sure. Here we were, two weeks away from welcoming more than two dozen chicks into our lives, and J was actually suggesting that we get more.

"We've invested a lot in these chicks," he explained, a halo practically glittering over his head. "You don't want to find out something's wrong when it's too late, do you?"

I narrowed my eyes at him. "Is it that hard to admit that you just want a little chick living here now?" I asked.

"That's not it!" he sputtered. Right. Having cleaned and inspected every inch of our brooder, I knew quite well that there was nothing wrong with our set up. No, something else entirely was driving J's statement. But I wasn't going to push it. There can't be too many grown men who can readily admit to being eager to hold tiny fluffballs. Fulfilling that wish, however, wasn't going to be easy. While I knew of several local people who raised chickens, none of them had any chicks. And we had already checked the chicks at our local Tractor Supply. And then it dawned upon me.

"You want to go to another Tractor Supply!" I accused.

J hung his head sheepishly. "It's to test out the brooder," he murmured.

In addition for being known for its farming equipment and selection of animal feeds, Tractor Supply Company is renowned for its annual Chick Days. Every spring, between March 1 and May 1, stores around the country stock dozens of baby chicks and ducklings and, at some locations, poults (baby turkeys) and goslings. Chick Days had been advertised heavily at our local store for almost a month, and, curiosity getting the better of us, we'd popped in and fortunately had not found chicks of the breeds we wished to raise. But there were two other Tractor Supplies nearby... and I could tell J's resolve was crumbling.

"It's just two more weeks," I replied. "That time will fly by."

Apparently, not quickly enough. "The Saline store has Ameraucanas," J informed me over the phone the next afternoon. "They just got them in."

Ameraucanas. Developed in the United States from the Chilean Araucana, the Ameraucana also lays green and blue eggs but, unlike its Latino ancestor, the Ameraucana sports a tail and regular facial features. It was one of the breeds I'd been willing to buy if Tractor Supply carried them. Nuts.

"They also have bantams..." J's voice practically sang. He knew — he just knew — that bantams, miniature breeds of chickens, were my weak spot. Silkies were bantams and hatcheries often hatched bantam versions of Cochins. Well. If there was even a remote chance of getting a couple of Silkies, bantam Cochins, or Ameraucanas, then it was my obligation as Head Chicken Wrangler to ensure that our brooder was fully and utterly tested out by an advanced party of chicks.

Shortly after I hung up the phone, I filled the waterer with fresh, cold water, scooped chick starter into the galvanized feeder, set these both into the brooder, and turned on the heat lamp to start warming the unit up. Satisfied with my handiwork, I packed B into the car and headed off towards Saline, a 40-minute drive away. Forty minutes to chickdom.

It would have been a good idea to check how much gas I had left before I'd headed out. Much to my friend L's amusement, I found myself on unpaved country roads, far from what urbanites would call civilization, with approximately 11 miles left in the tank. The Jeep finally coughed and spluttered into the Saline Speedway, its out-of-gas alerts beeping furiously. Gratefully, I filled the tank and was screwing the cap back on when my phone rang.

"Where are you?" J demanded.

Uh oh. "Ummm, why?" I asked cautiously.

"Because I called home and nobody answered," he replied. "I was wondering where you were."

I, however, was wondering about the background noise coming over the receiver, noise that suspiciously sounded like traffic. "Are you driving?" I asked, starting up the car and pulling back out onto Saline's main road.

"Yes, I didn't really get a chance to eat, so I'm heading out to grab a bite," J replied.

Hmm. I supposed that was plausible. Letting him know I'd see him later, I hung up just as I pulled into the Saline Tractor Supply. B and I hurried into the store, sailing right past a door greeter and straight to the brooders set up in the middle of the store.

One brooder held "Red Pullets," its sign claiming these could be Red Sex Links, Ida Reds, Rhode Island Reds, or Buff Orpingtons, which were not known for being red. Another tank held Tetra Tints, pale yellow chicks that the online poultry grapevine claimed had been specially bred for Tractor Supply. One brooder was empty, and yet another held Cornish Rocks -- meat chickens. I walked past these and came to the far brooder, its sign clearly labeled "Ameraucana and Buff Orpington Straight Run."

Uh oh. Straight run. That meant that these chicks had not been sexed -- gender identified -- at the hatchery. It'd be my luck of the draw as to whether I picked only females or got a mixture of females and males. Or -- ack! -- just males.

While B cooed and waved at the chicks, I got two containers from the showcase near the brooders, then knelt down to watch the chicks carefully. I wanted to make sure that the chicks that would be coming home with me could eat and drink without any problem. A good number of the Ameraucanas were huddled in a corner with the Buffs, but an equal number of both breeds were happily chowing down at the feeder. One pale gold chick with a brown lightning-bolt stripe down its head and back caught my eye. Just as I slowly reached in to grab it, softly calling "Chick, chick, chick..." under my breath, I heard a booming voice shout.


Getting a bite to eat, my Aunt Fanny. There was J, striding over with a huge smile on his face.

"What do you call this... stepping out for some chicken?" I asked.

J grinned. "Let's pick out some chicks!"

In a matter of minutes, my container held the lightning-bolt chick, plus a chipmunk-striped chick and a dark brown chick, all supposedly Ameraucanas (given that Buff Orpingtons are an all-over buff color). I also nabbed a big, fluffy chick with grey down sporting a darker grey saddle mark on its back. I wasn't sure what that chick was, but it didn't look like either an Ameraucana or an Orpington.

"We need two more," J told me, wiggling his fingers at the chicks in the container. I nodded and strolled over to the last brooder, one I hadn't yet checked. There they were, the bantam chicks, positively peewee in size compared to the ones I'd just held. A quick glance told me that none of these bantams were feather legged; in other words, none of them were Silkies or Cochins. Disappointed, I started heading back to pick out two more Ameraucanas when a teensy pair of bantam chicks caught my eye. Nestled together, they were simply sitting on the pine shavings, watching my every move very carefully. I tilted my head to look at them, and they tilted their heads right back.

A moment later, they were in my second container, along with a cute little brown bantam with a white ascot of fluff at its neck.

"The minimum is six," J complained half-heartedly, still waggling his fingers at the standard-sized chicks as he carried the containers to the register to pay.

And thus arrived our advanced party of seven chicks, all approximately two days old. Once we had checked each one over and made sure they were settled in, I hit the books and the Internet, my faith in Tractor Supply's ability to identify chick breeds pretty much shot to pieces by the generic "Red Pullets" sign and by Buff Orpingtons being lumped in with those red-down chicks. Who knew what the supposed Ameraucanas were, much less that grey-fluff chick. And the bantams? They were just labeled "Bantams," and there are plenty of bantam breeds. It took just over a day of almost non-stop research, including checking every single breed's chick picture at the McMurray Hatchery site, but we think we've finally nailed down what comprises our little group:

Eggbert: Probably an Ameraucana, although the resemblance to an Egyptian Fayoumi (auburn head and brown body) is striking. Named by JTR, Eggbert is turning out to be the leader of our mini-flock. J is betting that Eggbert is a boy chick, while I'm hoping Eggbert is just an assertive little pullet at the top of the pecking order.

Blaziken: The lightning-headed chick, named by M partly because of the markings on its head and also because M is a fan of Pokemon. Blaziken, or Blaze, is very adventurous but also loves being held and will quickly snuggle into my hand and fall asleep. We're pretty sure Blaziken is an Ameraucana. We're also pretty sure Blaze is a she, because she continually mothers the bantams, gathering them around her when she nestles down to sleep.

Barbra: The chipmunk-striped chick, also most likely an Ameraucana. Barbra so far is turning out to be the low chick on the totem pole, the one the others peck at or ignore. For the first few hours with us, Barbra was nicknamed Klutzo because of her clumsy movements. Barbra has also had to be treated for pasty butt (don't ask) a few times and has managed to get a foot caught in a feeder as well. Klutzo became Barbra because of the very loud peeps emanating from the chick during her midadventures and misfortunes.

Gloria: This grey fluffball caught my eye almost from the start. Not a Buff Orpington, not an Ameraucana, her identity remained a mystery longer than those of the other chicks. I finally observed how docile she is -- always happy to come to my hand and nestle -- and compared her size to the six others, all smaller than her to one degree or another. A few searches on Google Images and bingo! I'd had the incredible dumb luck to come across a recessive-trait Orpington. You guessed it: Gloria is a Lavender Orpington, exactly the kind of Orpington I'd wanted to raise. N named her Gloria, after the female lead penguin in Happy Feet, because of the grey -- lavender! -- color of her down.

Cutie: An adorable little bantam with distinct facial and back markings, Cutie turns out to be an Old English Game, an ornamental breed that is very popular to show. Cutie seems to be one rung up the pecking order from Barbra. She seems content to stay back and watch what the other chicks do. B named her Cutie. Then again, he had the name picked out before we even got the chicks.

Dennis: Dennis was the first of the seven to be named, being dubbed Dennis within an hour of arriving home. Although one of the tiniest chicks -- Dennis is a Golden Seabright bantam -- Dennis showed prodigious jumping abilities, continually hopping over the larger chicks if they got in his way. Dennis was also the last chick we selected; his little red face, white chest, and brown feathers were too adorable to resist. J thinks Dennis is a boy, but I'm prepared to switch to Denise if necessary.

Belle: Belle is the little beauty queen, the tiniest of all the chicks but the most demanding of notice. Eating at the feeder is not good enough for her; she has to eat in the feeder... and she is tiny enough to make this possible. Whenever she finds something of interest in the brooder, or whenever she feels she is being ignored, Belle will peep loudly until everyone, chicks and humans, are focused on her. She seems to pose for photos, and she spends much time preening her down and incoming feathers. Like Cutie, Belle is an Old English Game, and she and Blaziken are next in the pecking-order hierarchy after Eggbert. We think Belle's a she. We hope so, at least. It'd be odd calling this dainty little bird Beau.

I think it's not the brooder we had to break in with an advanced party of chicks. I think we had to break ourselves in before the main battalion arrives. Two weeks and counting...

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