Saturday, March 5, 2011

Fluffy Signs of Spring - Raising Chicks

For those of us who keep poultry, even those brand new to the phenomena- late winter/spring is the typical season for raising chicks.  It's an optimal time to allow for the chicks to develop in a protected place during the remaining weeks of our rather inclement weather and still provide time for them mature into egg laying before the inclemency returns.

Pistils Nursery got our first chicks of the season yesterday!  We start a bit later with chicks at the nursery than some suppliers, as we prefer them to travel to the shop when temperatures are less icy-  Please know that we don't list what breeds we are expecting on our website as sometimes there are last minute substitutions and we would rather not be a source of disappointment.  Give us a ring at the store for what's in- 503 288 4889.  If you have a breed(s) you are seeking, let any of us know and I will endeavour to acquire them.  (I try very hard to fulfill breed desires, but know that some breeds are very rare or might be hard to get at the time when you want them.)

If you are purchasing chicks from a retail outlet-- like a feed store or nursery, or directly from a hatchery, the majority of chicks are shipped through the mail.  (Be aware that while some outlets may buy their birds from a local, that local is often a "broker" who is still ordering chicks via mail.)  It seems rather bizarre, and less than ideal for little ones to come in boxes through the postal service, but hatcheries have been shipping chicks for a little over one hundred years.  How does this work?  Well, just prior to hatching, chicks absorb the yolk sac in the egg into their abdomens which provides enough food and water for about 72 hours.
Most hatcheries ask that you order a minimum of 25 hatchlings in order for them to keep each other warm.  Some suppliers are now shipping fewer than that number using heat packs instead.  (I know of one hatchery that will throw in surplus rooster chicks if you order fewer than 25 to serve as warm, living packing peanuts.)
special delivery
Raising chicks is a big delight to a lot of poultry keepers.  It can be dusty, put out 'off' odours, and there is a strong possibility of raising a rooster (a no-no in most urban environments) but few things are more appealing than fluffy little chicks (though ducklings are arguably, even more adorable).  Having birdsong emitting from the brooder is one of the charms.  Additionally, raising chicks allows you to know your flock from the get-go and to socialize with your chickens so that they will be more companionable.  Some breeds seem inclined to go with this nurture.  A few will be more with the flow of nature.  Typically, Mediterranean and some Oriental breeds can be a bit feral in temperament.  This is a good trait for them to possess as it will often predispose these birds to escape predation.  These breeds are usually calmer with hand raising, but might not develop into your best buddy as an adult.

Even a baby Naked Neck is irresistable!
When selecting your chicks, consider your goals with keeping a flock.  If you are free-ranging your birds, or have limited room you may want to consider the bantam (miniature) breeds as they do a lot less damage on the gardenscape.  Smaller chickens are great for young children as they are less intimidating and easier to hold.  Little eggs are also nice for cooking as they allow you bite size eggs for appetizers.  Feathered footed breeds, or breeds with short legs are also good choices.  (The Dorking, a British heritage breed is not such a "scratcher".)    DO YOUR RESEARCH AND UNDERSTAND YOUR SELECTED BREEDS' TRAITS-- their temperament, laying ability, adult size, tendency towards broodiness, space needs, etc.  This will insure that you don't have surprises that may make chicken keeping less than joyful for you later on.  The Henderson Breed Chart - and Feathersite - are good places to get started.  You can raise different breeds together.  If you are seeking a selection of different breeds but can't source them at the same time, you can introduce chicks to each other as long as they are within two weeks of age.  Please note that this works most of the time-- it isn't a good idea if you are raising an extremely small breed(s) like bantam Modern Games or Seramas with large breeds if the small breeds are the younger of the two.
A little too much size diversity.
Know that while many breeds of chicks come "sexed"- meaning that someone peeked in the chick's vent to determine its gender, there is a 5-10% margin of error.  ("Dirty Jobs" on the Discovery Channel had an episode on how it is done.)  Sometimes this margin can fall fully in one or two individual's chick selection.  Bantam breeds do not come sexed as they are so tiny upon hatch.  (There is one hatchery that prides themselves on sexing bantams.  I have ordered from them in the past, paying a premium for this service, and was less than impressed.)  With bantams, you will more than likely have some roosters in the mix and should consider purchasing extras to make sure you get the number of hens you want.  Have a plan for what to do with the fellows once they mature.  Some feed stores in Portland like Linnton Feed & Seed will take roosters and pass them on for free, but call them first-  I take my surfeit of roosters to Geren's Farm Supply-  They have a nice barn called the "Critter Corner" where they house unwanted farm animals.  It's sweet and spacious and gives my boys a nice place to be in the company of other birds until they are rehomed.  They give me a few dollars for each rooster which I can take in cash or farm supplies, and in turn they sell them on.  Just know that if you are a softy like me, you may come home with some other creature.  In my case, a beautiful red Mini Rex rabbit. 

 You will need a container to house your chicks with walls high enough to keep out drafts and to keep chicks in.  A range of vessels will work such as cardboard boxes, plastic recycling carriers, stock tanks, even a bathtub.  (I use a metal sheep stock tank that is 4' high, 4' long, 2' wide; the nursery uses the same.  These are handy, but are not inexpensive.  If you do a lot of brooding they are great to have.  Make sure to disinfect between brooding clutches.  They also make great planters or water features when you are done with raising chicks.  They are available at large feed stores like Wilco or Coastal.)  You will need about .3 square ft. per bantam chick; .5 square ft. per standard chick for the first week; doubling this space allotment per week.  Place your brooder in quiet, temperature stable place that is safe from predators/rodents and free of drafts.  If you are brooding in your house, choose a spot where you don't mind some dust or smells.  Kitchens or your sleeping space may not be the best choice.  Chicks chirp and cheep at all hours.  It is also a good idea to have something that you can place over your brooder when the chicks get larger to keep them from jumping out.  This typically starts at around 3.5 to 4 weeks of age. I find window screens work well and are inexpensive and easy to find at salvage places like the Rebuild Centre or Habitat for Humanity's ReStore.
I'm out! I'm out!
You will need clean, non-slippery, absorbent bedding to a depth of at least 3" in the bottom of your brooder.  Good choices are wood shavings, untreated wood pellets, or peat moss.  Straw can get moldy if it gets wet-- and it will, and is not recommended for this reason.  Sand can cause crop impaction.  Some people suggest covering the bedding with paper towels for the first few days to prevent the wee ones from eating it.  I have yet to have chicks ingest their bedding and don't personally follow this step.  There is also a lot out there about cedar shavings being harmful.  I have spoken with lots of elder poultry keepers that have used cedar for over 40 years without detriment.  My first choice is pine shavings or wood pellets, as they are more absorbent than cedar-- wood pellets are less dusty, but I have used cedar without incident.  Change your bedding as soon as you smell 'off' odours.  Once a week is a good rule of thumb.  I notice that I smell feed that gets into the bedding getting a sour funk long before dropping smells are prevalent.  Some folks raise birds on wire flooring.  While it can keep droppings clear of the brooder environment, chicks can catch their toes and bend or break them.

The babies will need heat for the first 6-8 weeks of their life.  One to seven day olds need to be kept at approximately 95 degrees fahrenheit.  You then reduce the temperature by 5 degrees each week.  If the brooder is too cold, the chicks will huddle in a dogpile under the lamp.  If too hot, they will run around manically and pant.  Adjust the height of the lamp accordingly.  Some people use thermometers to monitor temperature in the brooder.  I have yet to do so as the chicks' behaviour informs me of what is appropriate for them.
The classic heat lamp with a wimpy clamp.
The chicks will be ready to go outside when they are well feathered out (no more fluff on the heads) and temperatures are stable at 55 degrees and above.  Depending on the number of chicks you are raising, sometimes a desk lamp is sufficient to provide enough warmth.  If you are using a heat lamp with a clamp, make sure that the clamp is beefy enough to hold the light if a chick were to leap on it.  If it is not, get a strong clamp from the hardware store, so you don't burn your house down or at least don't melt your brooder if it is plastic.  It is best to use a bulb with good heat output in the red spectrum, as chickens don't see this light spectrum well and it is less stressful than having a bright light shining on them 24/7.  My own preference is for ceramic heat emitters.  They screw into a light bulb socket and put out warmth, not light.  They can be spendy- $35-45 a bulb but are cheaper to run than traditional heat bulbs.  They come with a 5 year warranty and can be found at pets shops that sell reptile supplies.  I find they are worth the up front expense since I brood frequently and they are far more durable than the red bulbs which burn out after only a few months.  They are paying for themselves in the long haul.  With the emitters I find that the chicks seem calmer because they experience a true night time just like they would if being raised with a hen.  The emitters are also nice to have as you can use them in the coop without extending daylight hours if you want to supplement heat in the winter.
My hero, the ceramic heat emitter.

Lastly, you need to provide clean food and water at all times.  Make sure these containers are set where your birds can reach them.  When you first introduce your chicks to the brooder environment, dip each of their beaks into the waterer to allow them to find it immediately.  Placing both the waterer and feeder up on blocks or hanging them at the height of the smallest chick's back can help with keeping bedding out of these vessels.  (Rabbit style waterers or bottles with nipples are good choices for keeping water clean.  Again, put the chicks beaks against the dispenser so they know where the water is.  Place a saucer below the dispenser to keep bedding dry.)  Make sure that you have enough vessels or ones that are large enough so that every chick has space to eat or drink without being crowded.

I add 1 tsp. blackstrap molasses per quart of water to provide electrolytes and trace minerals for the first week.  I then move on to using 1/4 tsp. apple cider vinegar per quart which also adds trace minerals and some acid which is beneficial to chickens' physiology.  It keeps algae/mold from growing in the waterer.  (Do not use vinegar if your water vessel is metal!  It can cause an adverse reaction and release heavy metals.)  

For feed, use a chick formula (ideally with 20-22% protein).  Chick food is traditionally crumbly in texture.  Add a cup of tiny grit (pulverized rock) for about every 6-8 cups of food or sprinkle it over the food in the feeder.  Chickens do not have teeth.  Food is ground up in their gizzards with fine rocks to aid digestion.
Using a medicated chick food for the first week or two can help prevent a Coccidiosis outbreak.  It has the anticoccidiostat amprolium in it.  (Do not feed or administer amprolium if your birds were vaccinated for coccidia.)  Amprolium restricts vitamin/mineral uptake which in turn creates an inhospitable intestinal environment for the coccidia to thrive.  Coccidiosis is a condition from protozoa (Eimeria genera referred to as coccidia) that is common; often present in even the cleanest of settings and the most robust flocks.  These protozoa produce egg capsules known as oocysts which can be ingested by chickens and then are crushed in the gizzard releasing the coccidia, known as sporozoites.  These sporozoites lodge in the bird's intestinal wall where they mature and reproduce, shedding more oocysts that get excreted out.  The life cycle is rapid and can become out of balance in small, enclosed environments which quickly get over run with oocysts, causing the birds to ingest enormous quantities which can physically overwhelm them.  Signs and symptoms of an outbreak are droopiness, huddling with ruffled feathers, loss of interest in water & feed, retarded growth or weight loss, droppings that are watery, or mucous or pasty in texture, tan or blood-tinged (diarrhea).  Chicks can perish.  Keeping your brooder clean, and the chicks uncrowded as well as stress free will help prevent outbreaks.  I use medicated feed for the first week for birds that are not hatched at my farm; organic feed for ones that are, and as feed for the remaining weeks of brooding the others.  If I have a weak, listless chick, I have had success on some occasions feeding them a minute amount of yoghurt.

Dietary supplements-  At two weeks of age I provide other goodies like finely grated carrot, finely chopped greens (chickweed is a favourite ironically- it's also very healthy), minced garlic, and crumbled hard boiled egg.  Make sure these are finely chopped so that there is no chance for crop impaction.  An impacted crop (the pouch where food is stored before heading into the digestive tract) can get clogged and cause starvation if not corrected.  At this stage I also add a grassy divot to the brooder.  It provides entertainment; a place to scratch and climb, fresh greens to nibble, and maybe some bugs, as well as getting them exposed to the earth and all its microscopic bounty of bacterium.  I recently read about feeding small of amounts of worm castings to their feed.  Since I do vermicompost, I am going to give this a try.  It has the same goal of adding beneficial microbes and sounds like a nifty thing to do!

Terminology- 'Chick' refers to a baby chicken regardless of gender.  'Pullet' is a female chicken less than 1 year old, though commonly is used to refer to a female that is considered a teenager- not yet laying eggs.  'Cockerel' is a male chicken that is less than 1 year old.  'Hen' is a female over a year old, though commonly used to refer to females once they start laying eggs.  'Rooster' or 'cock' is a male over a year old.  'Chook' is the word used for chickens in crown countries like Great Britain, Australia, and New Zealand.  'Broody' is used to describe the behaviour of a hen that wants to set/hatch eggs and is also used to refer to a hen that engages in this behaviour.
Keep a Journal- You will be pleased that you did.  Record where/when you got your chicks, what breeds they are, any vaccinations, etc.  Notate your observations, maybe keep an egg log later.  These notes will help you immeasurably with your flock keeping journey.
Social Creatures- Chickens are social creatures and you need to have more than one for them to thrive.  They require physical body contact to develop normally both physically and mentally/emotionally.  Consider getting the limit your town/city allows.  If you have future losses due to a predator and are left with one chicken, finding new flock mates at certain times of year can be a challenge.
Pasting up- this is when feces builds up on the backside of the chicks.  This is fairly common during the first week to 10 days.  Keep a watch out for it as this can block the vent, causing excreta to build up in the intestine, inducing septicemia and can cause death.  Gently remove the paste with a warm, damp clothe.
This looks restful....
Sleeping- chicks fall asleep in all kinds of incomprehensible positions and often look like they are dead.  You will not believe how many people are convinced that the chicks at the nursery are dead when they are merely asleep.  Even one of the vets I use to work with came up to the counter and whispered to me sorrowfully that all of the chicks were dead.  Boy was she surprised (and embarrassed) when I went to check and they all popped up!
Cannibalism- You will not find chicks cooking their compatriots in a little pot over a fire.  This term is used for all kinds of destructive behaviour from toe to feather picking/eating which is common if chicks are crowded or bored.
Flightiness- Be aware if you are casting a shadow when you approach the brooder.  This elicits a predator response and will freak out your wee ones.  I like to play the classical music station on the radio 24/7 for my chicks.  I think the music is beneficial & calming, and hearing human voices talking throughout the day and evening will get them used to human sounds.  Having your brooder at eye level-- if possible, seems to keep chicks from feeling intimidated by having a large being looming over them.
Roosting- Add some roosts to your brooder when your chicks hit about 3 weeks of age to get them accustomed to roosting.  This will provide some more stimuli.
Handling- I don't handle my chicks much for the first 2 weeks short of removing pastiness if necessary.  Handling when they are small can prove stressful for them and can make them more susceptible to illness.  Always wash your hands before and after handling.
Correcting 'spraddle leg'.
Illness/Injury- Chicks that are ill or injured can get trampled by other chicks.  It is important that they are in the company of their flock mates since they are social, and to keep them warm.  I use a small wire basket that I can place over the affected chick that allows them to stay in the brooder and see their companions, but keeps them safe.  Make sure they have food and water.  If you have a chick with spraddle leg (hips are splayed) or crooked toes, you can wrap toes or brace legs with band-aids or self-adhesive wound wrap cut down to small strips.  Make sure you don't wrap too tight.  Sometimes eyes will stick shut.  Gently dropping  a small amount of warm water and/or eye wash over the eyelid and rubbing lightly will unstick it.  A good site for further assistance with health issues is-  This is a forum where you can post a thread with what you are experiencing and receive feedback/resources from other poultry keepers.  You are welcome to write me for assistance as well.
If only it was this easy!
Determining Gender-  This can be tricky and there is a lot of different information out there for deducing gender from how the birds behave, to how they develop.  Every one I know, no matter how experienced, has hypothesized incorrectly from time to time.  That outgoing bird you are convinced is a rooster can mature into a strongly confident hen.  The really feminine looking chick develops into a cockerel.  Different breeds develop at different rates.  Silkies are notorious for being androgynous until they are 4-6 months old!  I have noticed that as a rule (but not fool proof), the females get their tail feathers in before the males.  Scrutinizing comb & wattle development as well as plumage colour (if there is a difference in adult colouring) can help give you some clues.