Thursday, March 17, 2016

Chickens - Raising Chicks

Our chick brooder
The first step to raising your chicks is to make them a brooder. Although you can make yourself a large, fancy, expensive brooder, if you'd like, a simple storage tote will work just fine. I like to use a clear tote, so that the birds can see out and get used to the "outside world." Place your brooder someplace where it will be warm and bright, but won't be drafty. Our brooder is in our dining room, close enough to the window to catch the sun, but far enough away that the chicks won't get cold. You will need some sort of bedding, I have used recycled paper bedding here, but pine shavings or some other type of bedding such as this should be fine as well.
Our chick accessories
Now that they have a place to live, they need some accessories. You will need a feeder, a waterer, a lamp and bulb, chick grit, and chick starter feed. The feeder and waterer I got are just metal bases that you can screw mason jars onto to hold the food and water. It is cheaper than buying the larger style, and if you already have the jars, you might as well use them, right? Since chickens, like most other birds, use rocks to help them digest their food, your chicks will need some grit to help them digest. Chick grit is tiny bits of rock, just bigger than grains of sand, which the chicks can ingest and use to grind their food. We already had a heat lamp from when we owned our tortoise, and we used a 60-watt traditional style bulb to keep the chicks warm. Now, please note that there are a number of people who will warn against using a regular light bulb to keep your chicks warm. The claim is that it will not keep your chicks warm enough, and they will get chilled and die. While this is certainly true if you are raising many chicks at once, or are unable to hang your lamp low enough to achieve the proper temperature, for our three chicks, in our already warm house, with the sun shining in, and the lamp hung low enough, we have done just fine. How do I know it was warm enough for them? Two words: laser thermometer. Oh, and they didn't die. That too.

The chicks in their new home
Once we put our brooder together with its accessories, we had to make a few adjustments. First, we put a pie plate under our waterer to keep wet bedding to a minimum, and we removed the hanger for the lamp which clamps to the side of the bin, and instead suspended the lamp above the brooder so that we could more easily maintain the correct temperatures.

Ruby, Pauline Headbuttington, and Papa Emeritus II.
When selecting chicks, take some time to observe them. You want to look for a chick who is eating, drinking and moving around. If a chick looks lethargic, is laying around, or doesn't seem to be eating or drinking, you should probably pass it up. Likewise, if it has cloudy eyes, dull or pale looking beak or feet, or if its breathing seems to be labored, it may be ill or under-developed. Look for bright shiny eyes, clear of mucus, clear nasal passages, good-looking down, and all the energy you would expect from an adorable baby animal. Don't let the salesperson scoop up any old bird to sell to you, show them the ones that you want. Otherwise, you may end up paying for a bird that is on its last legs.

1 week old: impressive wing and tail feathers!
Please note that these birds are eating, drinking, pooping machines and you will need to clean up after them frequently. 
2 week old chicks
This also means that they will grow very quickly, and it is quite amazing the changes that happen seemingly overnight (and sometimes literally overnight!)

My lid I added at around 3 weeks.
Eventually the time came when my chicks began testing out their now hen-like wings. It only took one time finding a chick perched on the side of the brooder before I decided that a lid needed to be a thing we had. I drilled holes all across the lid for my bin, and used a saws-all to cut a hole large enough to accommodate my lamp, but not so large that a chick could escape through it. (Though they tried.)

My 4, almost 5, week old peeping toms.
When the chicks grew large enough to stare at me through the opening in the lid when I moved the lamp, I began contemplating their release. You should always make sure that your chicks are fully feathered, and that night time temperatures don't drop too low before putting your chicks outdoors. Ruby and Papa were ready to go out, but I decided to give Pauline a few more days, because she had been sick and lagging behind the other two.

5 week old chicks look like tiny hens.
I was very nervous to put my little hens outside, and I went to all corners of the yard to "bird-proof" so that there were no gaps or spaces in my fence where tiny birds could squeeze through and escape. I also monitored their interactions with the established group of chickens and ducks. It took a day or two for them to figure out their new food and water situations, but it only took a few feathers getting plucked to tell them to steer clear of the mean old "big birds." My hens were fine to go outside after just 5 weeks, but I have heard of many people who brood them longer.