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."


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