Kate's in the Kitchen: Living the Chicken Life

These past few weeks have been a flurry of activity in our little house. As we shake off the shreds of winter to welcome in spring, the birdsong outside our window is echoed by an entirely new sound inside – the nearly constant chirping coming from a box in the corner of our living room. If you peered inside you might think we were crazy for subjecting ourselves to all that noise and mess. Sure, chicks are cute and fluffy, but why so many??

Those little beaked feather-balls are developing into mature egg-laying hens. And they’re not all ours; half of them are intended for our friend Rick’s coup. The other half are destined for Ian’s parents’ backyard. Consider us the caretakers. Foster parents.

This whole adventure began late last month when we decided to raise ten little chickens. Ian’s parents wanted their own egg-layers and our friends wanted a new flock for their coop. We saw this as an opportunity to gain some experience in urban farming: we’d raise them in Missoula and transfer them to their respective coops when they were old enough. We have no prior experience in raising children, poultry or otherwise, but what follows is an account of our education thus far.

Living the Chicken Life

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We had to make sure the chicks had a comfy place to live before we went to get them; a warm, dry place with high walls and a source of food and water. That meant building a brooder box. This step is as simple as dumpster-diving for cardboard. We wanted to give them plenty of space to grow but there were no refrigerator boxes to be found, so we put two boxes side by side, cut a large doorway in-between and taped them together. That way the chicks would have two rooms to choose from – deluxe!

Putting two 17″ x 25″ boxes side by side gave the chicks a space of 34″ x 25″ – 850 square inches or about 6 square feet for 10 chicks. Enough space so that they could move around and regulate their temperature based on their proximity to the heat lamp (which we borrowed from a friend).

We picked up some chick feed, pine shavings, and feeders for food and water. It didn’t amount to much, the most expensive thing being the bag of medicated feed. Why medicated? Non-medicated feed was available for nearly the same price, but the medicated stuff is formulated to prevent coccidiosis, a disease that commonly kills chicks. Jenna Woginrich of Cold Antler Farm (author of Chick Days and A Homemade Life) recommends starting out your chicks on medicated feed to boost their immunities and increase their chances of survival.

We lined the brooder with newspaper, topped it with a layer of pine shavings, and readied the food and water. Ian attached the heat lamp to an upright board and pointed it into the box. We adjusted it until the spot directly under the lamp was about 90 degrees – the recommended temperature for young chicks. We’ll raise the lamp to lower their temperature by 5 degrees each week.

Week 1

Time to bring them home! Although you can order chicks from a catalog or find them on Craigslist, we opted to take the easy route and get them at our local Murdochs.

We ended up taking home a total of ten chicks, accounting for the probability that several of them might turn out to be roosters or be lost to illness. Rick picked out five for his coop, and Ian and I chose five that we thought would be good layers for his parents.

There are two Black Sexlinks, one Red Sexlink (the chick is actually golden yellow), a Lakenvelder, two Golden Campines, two Silver-Spangled Hamburgs, and one Cornish Roaster (a meat bird for Rick). The last chick that Rick picked out is a mystery bird – I forgot to write down the breed and when we got home none of us could remember.

They cheeped all the way home, but once we put them in the box they settled in nicely. The chicks got to know each other and were soon taking frequent naps. One minute I’d hear them peeping like mad and scuttering about, the next it would be deadly quiet and I’d peek in to see them nestled up in a big cuddle pile.

When it came time to clean their box, the two-room system was lifesaver. Instead of transporting them into a separate box (in which they would surely poop), we just shooed them into one side, blocked the door, and cleaned the side they just vacated. The newspaper was a great idea too; it keeps the bottom of the box dry and you can roll it up with the pine shavings to easily transfer the whole mess to the trash.

During the first week we cleaned their brooder every three to four days. I’d recommend doing it more if they’re living in a tighter space; it’s important to keep their home sanitary to prevent sickness.

My biggest fear during their first week at our house was that these guys would poop their own butts shut. It’s one of the leading causes of death among chicks – they’ve got a runny sort of poo (they don’t pee) and it can get stuck in their little tail-feathers. If it dries up and they get clogged that could be the end of your chick. The first week I checked their little butts obsessively; I’d wipe of any bits of crusty poo with a damp paper towel.

They’d freak out every time and I felt especially bad when I had to snip the feathers off one of them with a little scissors. (Sterilize them afterwards!) She seemed more susceptible than the others to this butt-crustiness, but I took extra care not to snip her actual flesh. She threw a royal fit about it anyway.

Another one of them (one of the Golden Campines) was not as lively as the rest. She spent a lot of time lying with her head down and ended up getting overlooked and stepped on by the other chicks. We made sure she was eating and drinking and that her butt wasn’t clogged. There was not much else we could do but give it time and hope she pulled through.

We also provided them with a roost to experiment with. Ian took a small dowel and poked a large hole in either side of the box to fit it into. It stood just a few inches off the ground. Within a week I’d seen all of them try out the roost, and at one point I saw six of them lined up on it – so cute! They still prefer to sleep on the ground though, usually huddled in little groups on the warmer side of the box.

Week 2

One day at the end of their first week I came home and counted only nine chicks in the box. Our little Campine had passed away during the day; Ian buried her in the back yard and changed out the box with clean newspaper and shavings to prevent any disease that might spread to the other chicks. I was sad to see her go and frustrated that we couldn’t do more to help.

But it’s common to lose chicks at this age and I suppose we are lucky to only lose one. Besides, it happened so quickly that we had not had time to get too attached. We were not even sure if she may have been a rooster and have only given three of the chicks nicknames. At any rate the rest are all thriving and I look forward to seeing them develop into healthy hens.

In this photo taken during their second week, you can see how in some of these later photos their fluff is starting to be replaced with feathers. They’re also eating more and interacting more. It’s fun to see how their personalities develop – the Red Sexlink was the first to get comfortable on the roost, while one of the Hamburgs spent most of his time pecking at the side of the box as if he was trying to break down the wall.

The chicks are a lot touchier now too… I like to think of this as their angsty teenage years, or maybe their terrible twos. They’re harder to catch and when you do hold them, they are so fussy. But some are better than others and if you stroke their feathers they calm down a bit.

Now that they’re getting some feathers in on their wings, they’re starting to flap around the box a bit. In observance of this, I moved their roost to the other side and raised it a few more inches. Since the chicks are bigger and taller, they can handle a higher roost.

Their size is becoming a problem for the too as hey kick up pine shavings (and poop) into the food and water when it sits so close to the ground. So we devised an easy system for raising the feeders to their height: cut strips of cardboard a few inches wide, bend it into a circle and tape it together to provide a base for the feeders.

I happened to be in the living room the other day when I heard a lot of flapping and turned to see one of the chicks perched on the rim of the box. I was so surprised! We found an old window screen and put it over the top of the box to make sure the others didn’t get the same idea.

Week 3

These guys are getting really big, especially the Cornish Roaster. She’s nearly doubled the other chicks in bulk, and I suspect she might be eating twice as much. It makes me sad to see what we’ve done with genetic engineering… this breed is typically butchered at six months, but if we let her live longer than that, would she be able to support her own weight? At least she is happy here, while the majority of hens like her grow up on factory farms.

We’ve got to clean their box every other day now, and we’re planning on transporting half of them over to Ricks’ house soon as they’re comfortable enough at room temperature. During the day they seem fine with the heat lamp off, but when I see them huddling together I turn it back on, and we always keep it on at night, although it’s raised as much as we can raise it.

They’re going through food like mad too. After going through two (five-pound) bags of chick feed, Ian picked up a large (20-pound) bag of non-medicated feed for them. They are healthy enough now that they can handle the unmedicated, and we’ll save money besides. This new feed is a better bargain and it’s made from local grains.

Whenever I take off the screen now at least one of them will fly up to perch on the edge of the box. Sometimes we let them explore and Ian takes them out to play in the living room, but this almost inevitably ends with one of them pooping on the carpet. Still too cold to take them outside (it snowed last night) to peck around in the grass, but Ian was outside yesterday and decided to bring a treat in for them – some worms he found in the garden. He dropped one in the box and they went crazy! It was so funny to watch them running back and forth trying to steal it from each other.

That’s all for now, but I’ll be back with more updates, pictures and videos!