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.

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