Monday, May 15, 2017

5 Surprising Facts About Chicks

Our second group of chicks were the most photogenic.

Last week our oldest chicken, Polly, turned five. This means we've been keeping chickens for five straight years, growing our backyard flock from a modest four birds to a slightly ridiculous 15. I never thought I'd be a crazy chicken lady, especially after a childhood in which the closest I got to "nature" was mowing the backyard for $5, yet here I am. It's a good place to be. 

The blame, however, can't all be placed on me. My desire - no, my need - to raise chickens was sparked by my in-laws. A few years ago they retired to a hobby farm in the midwest. During a visit I met their chickens, who looked positively idyllic as they scratched in the dirt and took dust baths in the sun. I cracked their eggs, which had the most vibrant, beautiful yolks, into a frying pan. I took one bite and saw my future laid out before me: chickens, and lots of them.

In addition to a never-ending supply of fresh eggs, chickens are also funny and fascinating creatures, and that starts from the moment they're born. Our latest additions are no different. While some of their qualities are expected (the adorable factor, for example, is very high) they have a few other quirks that I've learned through trial and error. (Mostly error.) 

Which is a good segue into the rest of this post, beginning with a conveniently pinnable graphic.

1. Chicks are loud - especially when they live in your guest room. 

During their first few weeks of life, chicks must be closely monitored. They need a clean brooder, despite their efforts to violate it immediately. They need access to fresh food and water, despite the fact that they keep pooping in their food and water. And they need to stay warm, which means you must invest in a heat lamp. Okay, you're thinking, fine. A couple balls of fluff napping cozily under a heat lamp - how hard could it be? My answer: HA. If the temperature gets even one degree too hot or too cold, the chicks will let you know - loudly.  Despite their size, they can make a racket. Plus, since they're under the heat lamp 24 hours a day, they're up at all hours of the night, which means I start to hear chicks in my dreams. An easy solution would be to move them to the shed, but I'm a nervous chicken mama and like to check on them every five minutes or so. The guest room, complete with weird chicken dreams, it is. 

2. Chicks can die from just about anything. 

I read somewhere once that cuteness is a survival strategy. I think it was related to dogs, and how puppies are so adorable early humans couldn't help but take them in. The ugly ones, it goes without saying, didn't make it. This seems like a very plausible reason for why I melt around puppies, and also explains how chicks survive long enough to become full-fledged hens. The threats to their tiny, fluffy lives are almost too many to count, but pasty butt, parasites, and predators are at the top of the list. And this is where I make a sad confession, buried deep within this post - of our latest flock of chicks, we've already lost three. It was a terrible mistake on our part. The chicks were getting too big for the brooder, and the nights were unseasonably warm. I decided to move them to the small coop, where they'll live until they're big enough to join the rest of the flock. The small coop is secure, but apparently not secure enough. Sometime in the night the chicks were attacked, and I'm 99% sure it was a rat. (Another fact of life when raising chickens is that you also end up raising rodents.) It was shocking, horrible, and a terribly upsetting thing to wake up to. Luckily, four of the chicks survived (including my silkies) but it was an awful lesson in chick-rearing. Nature does not mess around.

Silkies are apparently too cute to eat.

3. Chicks will fall asleep anywhere - even standing up.

The first time we got chicks, I was in a constant state of panic. I'd peer into the brooder, see them laying splayed out in unnatural positions, and scream "They're dead!" - which of course would startle the chicks, waking them up immediately and setting off another round of earsplitting chirps. As it turns out, chicks can fall asleep at any moment. Standing in the corner? Asleep. Having a bite to eat? Asleep. Toddling across the brooder? Asleep. It's so bad that when they're very young you have to make sure their water bowl isn't too large or deep, as they could fall asleep while taking a sip and drown. In related news, one of our new girls is named Ophelia because she kept trying to nap in the waterer, and I was planning to go with Shakespearean pseudonyms anyway.

4. Chicks go through an awkward teenager phase sooner than you think.

Enjoy that adorable fluffy nonsense while you can, because it doesn't last. Chicks' wing feathers start to come in during their first week, and most breeds are fully feathered by week six. On the bright side, this means they no longer need a heat lamp, as they can now regulate their own temperature. On the other hand, this means they look like awkward teenagers for far too long, since their feathers come in sporadically. In the meantime, they're growing taller but not wider, so you end up with this sort of scrawny, stretched out, half feathered creature which is still cute, just not in the traditional sense. (And for the record, while chicks are adorable, I think grown hens, with their gorgeous feathers and fluffy butts, are straight up beautiful.)

A face only a mother could love.

5. Chicks freak out the first time they experience darkness. 

Because chicks live under a heat map for the first few weeks, they don't know what night is. You, lucky chicken owner, get to introduce them to this concept. Some people just turn the light off and plunge the chicks into darkness. I did this with our first flock, and that was when I realized just how loud they could be. I quickly turned the light back on, did some research, and then started turning the light off for short periods of time, so they could get used to the concept of darkness. (I realize how poetic this sounds. It's only sort of poetic in real life.) As the years went on and I became less precious about my chickens (I still care for, appreciate, and spoil them, but I don't love them the way I love, for example, my dog) I dropped the helicopter parent act. I've found that keeping their brooder by the window means that night falls gradually, and is less jarring then just flipping a switch. The chicks still get a little noisy and nervous, but they settle down faster. Soon, they realize that the darkness is only temporary, and that the sun will indeed rise again tomorrow.

Birds, y'all. Who knew they were so deep?