Sunday, January 22, 2012

What it's really like to have urban chickens - Part 1 - Infant chicks and how time flies

Duck at 1 week of age
Of course, I'll be speaking here from my perspective as an urban (or suburban) farmer. I grew up in the suburbs, spent most of the my life in suburbs, live in the suburbs right now. For some reason I've wanted to have chickens, well, forever. There's something so warm and homey about owning these living icons of a rural lifestyle. They're sweet, pretty, motherly and make the neatest sounds. They give you eggs.

Maybe I developed my affection for chickens as a child in New Jersey. On weekends we would drive to an Englishtown "egg farm" to get farm fresh eggs. The people that sold us the eggs were like grandparents. They lived in an old white farmhouse on a hill. While my parents were buying eggs, the wife would bring me into their kitchen and feed me date and nut bread that she made from the eggs that "needed to be used up." I might have been 3 or 4, but I still remember the warmth of that woman and her kitchen. And her bread was to die for.

As I've mentioned before, I live in the most suburban of suburbs and covenant controlled to boot. Just on the outskirts is a Murdoch's Feed and Supply Store. I'd go there in the spring and gaze longingly at the day-old chicks they'd have available for the folks that lived outside of my town limits. Then I'd come home and Google the poultry restrictions for my neighborhood. Once again, no chickens.

Nap time!
A couple of years ago I was talking with a sales person at Murdoch's and she mentioned my town had passed an ordinance allowing chickens. My day had finally come!

I researched what chickens fit our needs on a great web resource, http://www.backyardchickens.com. For us requirements were cold hardy, friendly egg-producers (as opposed to meat birds). I made my plans to be a chicken mom.

We found out what the spring delivery schedule was for chicks at Murdoch's and learned that chicks sell pretty quickly!  Chicks don't need to eat for a couple of days after they hatch, so the best time for them to be shipped is immediately after hatching. But if you want a choice, get to the store early! Our chicks came home to us in March 11, 2011.

Note: You can buy either sexed or straight run chicks. The sexed ones are determined to be, by chick private part experts, to be hens or roosters they day they hatch. Straight run means no one has looked at the "parts" and so gender is a gamble. Some neighborhoods that allow poultry--like mine-- do not permit roosters because they are too noisy. Keep that in mind.

Lap chicken Flopsy.
We set up a 3'x2' plastic storage container in the warmest room of our house, the kitchen. We used pine shavings for their bedding, a little chick feeder and waterer, and a heat lamp over one end of their new digs, all bought at Murdoch's. They were smart enough to sleep under the lamp if they felt cold, or move away from it if too warm. Chicks tend to poop in their food, water and everywhere in between. If they end up ingesting some of that, they could develop serious gastric problems. I bought chic feed containing antibiotics even though I wanted my chickens to be "organic". Chicks are tiny defenseless fuzz puffs and I wanted to protect them. A friend of mine opted to forego antibiotics in her chick feed and they got sick. After weeks of worry, lab tests, vet bills and antibiotics, she decided she should have gone preventative in the beginning. My chicks, by the way, did just fine.

In the beginning they would nap most of the time. It was not unusual to see a chick standing in the container start to drop it's head down and then just fall asleep.  Or a friend would come over to see the chicks, pick one up and suddenly the chick would go limp in her hands, fast asleep. OMG cute. Note: One of the most important things I learned about chicks was pasty butt. Sometimes a chick's poop would stick to its vent feathers (vent is another word for all purpose port -- they pee, poop and deliver eggs out of one efficient oriface). You do not want a sealed vent. If you notice poop stuck to a chick's back end you need to run some warm water over the area until it's clean. They will yell like you're killing them, but you're really saving their lives. More info can be found here.

Live meal worms, yum!
The chicks learned at an early age that humans meant food was coming and would run to us when they saw us enter the room. The napped a lot, and wanted to roost on our furniture which meant removing a rug, some cushions and putting sheets on the futon mattress. The chicks were very attracted to us and would hop on our laps and nap on us when they could.

For the first two weeks, one large storage container was fine. But the chicks grew so quickly I ended up joining two containers side-by-side. I cut out the walls separating the two containers and put a screen door over the top because they were learning how to jump up to the edges-- and out.

Chicken run goes here!
While I was cleaning out their tubs, I'd let them roam our sunroom. I'd take the screen door off their tubs and call them into the sun room. They'd all rush out, knowing there was some special treat waiting for them.  I found that chick babyhood lasts about 4 weeks.

Next, the "tweens" and outdoor living construction begins. Gasp.

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