Our 15 little girls just had their first week birthday. Little did we know when they arrived on May 31 how much our lives would change over the next seven days - nor did we realize how much our books didn't tell us about raising baby chickens.
I've wanted chickens for a very long time. It was one of the things that drew me to rural living. I don't know what it is, but somehow, chickens are the epitome of self-sufficient living. So when we finally decided to take the plunge and order our chicks, I was excited... and a bit freaked out. I hadn't had a pet for years for a reason - I didn't want the responsibility or limitations of being 'tied down'. Weirdly, I didn't have the same fears about having a child. Go figure! That said, you can take your baby on holiday. Chickens? Not so much.
So it was with much excitement that our friends picked up our babies one evening after their long trip from Alberta to our coastal home and we welcomed them to their nursery. In order to relieve the burden of caring for that many birds ourselves, and the constraint of being limited in our weekend outings and such because we have to care for livestock, we decided to 'co-parent' with friends who also wanted the benefits of having chickens, minus the limitations. That helped a lot with my fear of being committed to these fuzzy little dinosaurs.
And as is usually the case, what we've learned in the last 7 days could fill a book - a book about the things no one tells you about raising chicks! Or at least, things that the books gloss over.
Here are a few of those things...
There are as many ways and opinions about how to raise chickens as there are chicken breeds.
We're only a week into this venture, and I'm amazed at how passionate people are about their chickens and how they raise them. Chicken tractors vs. stationary coops, free range vs. paddock systems, deep litter vs. cleaning weekly, true free range vs. predator protection worthy of a federal prison, commercial feed vs. completely wild feed - they all have their die-hard supporters and people who think the whole idea is ridiculous. There are the hardcore free range fans who just accept that they'll lose a few birds a year to predators and those who consider one loss to a coyote bird abuse. I love the variety of opinion and experience, but it's all a bit confusing for anyone just starting out. So I'm reading a lot, and we'll experiment a lot and see what works for us. Bottom line, I think, is that each situation is so unique that a one size fits all approach to raising chickens isn't realistic, or advised. Depending on your climate, the predators in your area, how much time and money you want to spend, the lay of your land, and so many other factors play into the methods any one person will use to raise their chickens.
The takeaway: As long as the bases are covered, and your chicks are getting adequate nutrition and safety, the rest will be a grand experiment.
Some say grit, some say don't.
One of the confusions we had the first week was whether to supply grit to the chicks or not. Chickens need grit in order to digest their food - just like dinosaurs (my son loves that factoid), and our book suggested introducing it around Day 5. So off we went to get some 'official' grit. But as the week wore on, I came across some references to the fact that chicks being raised on commercial chick feed do not need grit, as it's included in the food, and that their crops can become impacted if they take in too much. Some obviously experienced chicken raisers on the forums suggested just adding a sprinkle of playground sand to the surface of the chicks' food, others said to sprinkle purchased chicken grit around the bedding, and the odd few recommended putting dirt in a dish and let them pick at that. So many ways to do it, so confusing for newbie chicken raisers! We ended up going with the recommendation of our local farm store and used the purchased grit, with a small handful sprinkled around the bedding once a day, but along the way I discovered that there were other ways to accomplish the same goal.
The takeaway: Check with your chick feed supplier to see if grit is required with the food you're feeding the babies. If yes, I personally would err on the side of caution and use grit from your local farm store. On our next go around raising chicks, I'll probably get a bit more adventurous, but for our first experience, I want to play it safe. You might decide to use sand or even clean dirt - according to the research I've done, it's totally up to you. Just don't give them too much (though what exactly that is, I've yet to figure out - I'll let you know when I do).
They transform right before your eyes.
In 7 days, our girls have gone from tiny little fuzzy fluffballs to almost full-winged with the beginning of crests and tail feathers - and they've grown a whole lot bigger. You can literally see them changing day to day. One day they had no wing feathers, and the next day they had visibly sprouted. A couple of our little ones now have full wing feathers (well, as full as they can be at a week old) and two that are just sprouting their first layer. So fascinating how different the individuals in a group can be - all the same breed, the same hatchery, the same food and conditions, and all so different. Just like children!
The takeaway: take pictures every day or two - you'll be amazed at how fast they change and develop.
If there's any way they can poop in their food, they will.
We knew we'd have to change their food and water a couple of times a day, but wow, can they make a mess quickly! Scratching and walking all over everything, let me just say that checking the babes a few times a day is absolutely necessary - don't think you can skip a check.
The takeaway: The food and water containers need to be cleaned each and every time with mild soap and water, though it would be super easy to just rinse them (though I'd advise against it as you're learning the art of chicken raising).
They love lullabies.
I'm amazed at how these little creatures just know how to care for themselves. Instinct is an amazing thing - here they are, no mama to show them how to 'live', and they just know what to do, or they figure it out quickly. What we've really noticed is how they respond to quiet, musical sounds. I assume this would be because mama chickens would cluck and coo at them, and they're just set up for that. Check out this little video of my son humming a lullaby to one of our mellower babies.
We've learned so much the last week, but most of all, we've learned that baby chickens are so much sweeter than I could have ever imagined. I can see now why people get so attached to 'their girls'.
I'm sure there will be more occasions over the coming weeks where we look at each other and say, 'How come no one told us that?'. I can almost guarantee it. And we'll be ready for our minds to be awed by the wonder of nature once again. And the need to clean the feeder out once again...