Thursday, April 7, 2011

In Search of the Elusive Silkie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"We have smoke alarms," J noted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A toy Silkie?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Okay, I might buy eight.

Roll Call

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Smooth as Silkies

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

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

"Meet Stefanski," I told them.

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

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

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

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

Stefanski it was.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, April 4, 2011

Arrivals and Departures

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

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

Nigel was one of the sleepyheads. Phew.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Darned chicken math!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

J lifted an eyebrow. "They?"

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

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

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

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

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

I meekly agreed. "Got it."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"What?" I demanded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, April 1, 2011

The Picky Chickie

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

And then there was Nigel.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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