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.

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