Raising Chicks – Week 5

by Beth

Week 4 was about impatiently waiting for warm weather so the chicks could start going outside. This week, [spoiler] the sun came out, and so did the chicks, during the day at least.

It was great! And necessary. I’m not sure how much longer the brooder bin will work. It’s the right size to fit in our home but tight for month-old chicks. We’re nearing an important poultry-raising decision.

When Do We Move Chicks from the Brooder to the Coop?

The answer depends on the flock, your brooder setup, your coop and whether there are adult chickens in it already, and plenty of other factors. If our chicks were living in a garage or a barn (a barn that wasn’t a house), we would feel less rushed, but as they turn more chickeny than chicky, the increased dust and barnyard smell in the study are getting old.

We’d be less concerned about the move if they had a bigger brooder. Crowding can cause chicks to fight and get sick. Our birds look crowded, but they’re docile and still acting calm. Opinions about required space differ. Online, people say 1/2 square foot per chick until 2-3 weeks of age, and 1-2 square feet per chick after that. The official guidance from the county co-op was 1/2 square foot per chick until 8 weeks. We have 7 chicks and a little over 5 square feet.

I didn’t mean to cut the size requirements so close. When we brought home 7 chicks in February, we made a couple incorrect assumptions. The first was we’d heard chicks are so fragile that everybody gets “extras.” We had planned for a flock of 5 but made a semi-snap decision to get 7 chicks, in case any decided to leave the earthly plane early.

The other assumption was we could move them to the tractor full-time next week, but there’s a problem with that: heat. According to another set of official guidelines, chicks need a specific temperature each week of their lives to survive. These guidelines were developed alongside the age-old use of heat lamps: in week 1, you set the lamp close enough to the brooder to keep the air a steady 95°F. Every week, you raise the lamp to reduce the temperature by 5° until it matches the temperature outside. According to that formula, our chicks need a constant 75-80° right now or will die from chilling. Eek.

The heating plate is different, though, and it’s so new there’s not much guidance regarding that all-important transition from the brooder to the coop. Supposedly, the plate makes chicks feather faster so they can move out earlier. By 3 weeks, our chicks were fairly feathered and would play in the 67° study an hour at a time without returning to the plate. A couple weeks ago, the chicks started sleeping near and on top of the plate more than under it. The plate is warm on top but not enough to heat the air, and they’re thriving.

The problem is that outside, temperatures still dip into the 40s at night, and the birds may not all fit under the plate anymore, even though this was the recommended size for up to 20 chicks. Unexpected. Heating plates aren’t supposed to be as effective in temperatures under 50, but it would likely be more than enough heat for them at this age if they could all fit under it.

We have some brainstorming to do. As a novice, everything feels complicated. This week, I worked on quieting the noise of dozens of conflicting opinions and following my instinct. Sometimes it was right, sometimes it was wrong…everybody made it through, but we did learn an important lesson about dogs and chicks.

Day 29

It was 75° and sunny today. Finally, chicks in the sunshine! Here they are taking their first steps onto grass, Cogburn first, with his own brand of chivalry.

I thought they’d run for the sun, but after cautiously picking their way out of the box, then running back to the box a few times, they beelined for the open tractor door.

LangshaninChickenTractor-4weeks

Smart chicks. Hawks can’t catch you in here!

BuffBrahmaCockerel-4weeks-Tractor

I wiled away an hour on the grass with them, Chicken Meditation Hour with vitamin D. Sometimes they’d waddle out of the tractor to nap in the sun.

They’re easy to manage. I’m loving these large, docile breeds who would rather nap than run and fly. Also loving the fact that Brahmas are cuddlers. That’s Brahma Donna dozing with her head on my foot.

BuffBrahmaCuddlers

In the context of the outdoors, Rooster Cogburn’s pecking-order behavior took on new meaning. If a pullet left the tractor, Cogburn would follow it out and start an argument. Then he and the pullet would run back to the tractor together. After it happened a few times, it clicked in my head that the pecking-order posturing isn’t a human-style ego argument. It’s about keeping the flock safe. Well, duh.

Maybe that’s how it started with humans, too. Relevant tangent: There’s a mystical lightning bug display that brings people to the Smoky Mountains by the thousands each year. A couple years ago, Chris and I finished a hike at dusk to see if we could catch the display a few days before the tourists arrived, but as the sun set, we were suddenly surrounded by quiet people with folding chairs. Plus one, massive, too-tame black bear. Nobody was using flashlights, so the bear looked like a big shadow…floating towards a lady who was snacking on almonds.

Chris said, “Hey, that’s a bear!” We clapped and yelled until it reluctantly left. Afterwards, the group was chuckling. Chris was quiet. We were in blissful denial about the imminent danger. Chris wasn’t. If the bear attacked, Chris, a protective person even before he trained as infantry in the Marines, would’ve felt obligated to try to fend it off, probably with bad results. He was reasonably frustrated with the rest of us for being so casual about a serious situation.

The facts are on Chris’ side. It took one internet search to learn we’d been in the epicenter of bear attacks in the park. A few decades ago, the only bear death in the park’s history occurred about mile from where we were standing.

It was a complicated teaching moment about Chris’ and my varying approaches to life that. I think it pertains to chicken pecking order, too. The top chicken, whether a rooster or strong hen, is the one with the drive to take on the burden of keeping everyone alive. There are many stories of roosters dying in fights with predators. It’s easy to understand why less assertive flock members forgive them for being salty sometimes. BeBe, the littlest chick and current lowest on the pecking order, adores Cogburn.

BeBeandCogburn-5weeks.jpg

After an hour, I put them into the chick chariot (cardboard box) and carefully walked up the hill to the barn. They immediately fell asleep in a sunbeam in the brooder. Tomorrow will be warmer, and they can stay outside longer.

Day 30

Today they were outside 3 hours. They stay near the tractor and peck nonstop at grass, feed, grit, caterpillars, ants, etc. Pinkie caught an earthworm, which I tried unsuccessfully to take away. Apparently earthworms carry intestinal worms chickens can get, but it’s not a battle you can truly fight. Chickens will eat squiggly things no matter what. People say you should de-worm chickens on a semi-regular basis anyway. People say a lot of things. We’ll figure it out when we get there.

If I’m sitting on the ground, they nap next to me. Every so often, Rooster Cogburn runs rooster drills, rounding all the chicks back into the tractor.

LightBrahmaCockerel-4weeks

Everything was going swimmingly until 2 hours in.

Our chicken run is open on the top. With the chicks closed in the tractor so they wouldn’t be underfoot, Chris and I worked on gridding strings across the top of the run from the trees to the fence as hawk prevention.

TyingHawkStrings

Tomorrow, I’ll tie CDs from some of the strings to create wild reflections. This is supposed to deter hawks, or at least slow them down so chickens have time to run for shelter. As it is, the chicks will only be allowed out of the tractor alone when they’re significantly larger, but we aren’t sure how aggressive or hungry these hawks will be. There’s a family of them in our trees.

I’ve been setting different types of shelters in the run for the chickens to run under, like this teepee, which will hopefully be covered in vines by summer; I still have to figure out how to plant it in a way that chickens won’t eat the baby plants. That’s stumping me.

HawkStrings

Anyway, we took a break and let the chicks out of the tractor while refreshing their water and food. The friendly brown dog we recently adopted, Sarah Lee, was with us. Cogburn came out and stood under her for shade. A moment later, Sarah walked to the side of the tractor and jumped on Pinkie.

It happened so fast. Pinkie flapped hard and peeped. I said, “Sarah!?” too surprised to scold her, but Sarah got the message and was easily shooed. I scooped up Pinkie and looked her over. She cocked her head and looked me over back. She seemed normal. I gently set her with the flock. She shook her feathers out, started toward the others, and my heart dropped. She was limping.

I took a deep breath and picked Pinkie back up for a closer look. She took a closer look at me, too. The Langshans have mastered the inquisitive stare.

AwkwardLangshans1

One of her toes was hanging at a different angle, maybe broken or dislocated. I felt tears well up. This could be bad. In preparation for chickens, I read a book with a long section on ailments. It said a bird with a broken leg should be put out of its misery, the rationale being that chickens need to scratch to be happy.

Did that apply to toes, too? I couldn’t remember (and by the way, not everybody subscribes to this philosophy; it was just one book). Pinkie, cocking her head as she looked at me, didn’t seem to have misery to be put out of. Chris said to put her on the ground so we could see her move.

The problem was the inside toe on her right foot, which she favored as she limped to the food container, where she used the injured foot to scratch the feed out on the ground (wastefully, I might add). We watched her for a minute. Chris said, “I’m pretty sure she’s okay if she’s eating.” I agreed. We closed the chicks in the tractor, closed Sarah outside the run, and went back to hawk prevention.

As I carried them back to the barn a while later, Pinkie seemed almost normal. She wasn’t peeping or in obvious distress. When they were back in the brooder, Chris and I quietly started researching chick broken toes, in separate rooms without telling each other. We learned that broken toes are common injuries that can heal without intervention.

There are circumstances that could make it worse, like broken skin, but Pinkie’s toe was just crooked. I looked in on her and saw she had no problem shoving past the other chicks for a prime spot in a sunbeam.

As concern for Pinkie lifted, it was replaced with guilt for putting our pets in that situation. Sarah’s so relaxed. We assumed it was fine to have her in with the chicks. In her defense, chicks look and sound like squeaky toys, and ever since we brought Sarah home from the shelter a couple months ago, we’ve been encouraging her to play. I think that’s what she was trying to do with Pinkie. Fowl play.

Her punishment was only a stern “no” from Chris right after it happened, but for the rest of the afternoon, Sarah’s face said, “I’m sorry I played with your dinosaur toy.”

SarahLee-sadlook.png

Actually she looks like this most of the time, but it’s easy to read an apology into her hound-dog face.

You see pictures of dogs with chicks on their heads, and our chicks revere Clover (though Clover is partially paralyzed right now, so her movements are easier to predict). But Sarah Lee obviously isn’t a chick-perch dog. From now on, she’ll have to perform all bird-guard duties from outside the run, which is almost complete. Chris has spent hours of social-distancing installing an electric fence around the bee yard and chicken run. Our next step is to add motion-sensor lights and alarms.

With all these protective measures, we’d feel super stupid if our farm dog ended up being the reason we lost our first chicken. We won’t push the Sarah-chick boundary again.

PearTree-BeeYard

It was a perfect day on the land otherwise, and the chicks had another successful day learning to forage.

Day 31

Pinkie is still doing well. You can move the toe without hurting her. I tried pulling it slightly to relocate it, but it didn’t change. I didn’t want to do more harm so let it be.

Luckily Pinkie the Ambassador is not the type of chick to get picked on. This is a friendly group of birds, but basic chicken instinct is to peck birds who are down. It helps that Pinkie’s behavior is mostly normal. The main difference was she disappeared under the heating plate when I was putting all the chicks in the chariot to go outside.

Popsicle Sunshine always hangs back, so I filled the box with Brahmas and little BeBe (who likes to be where Cogburn is) and left Popsicle to keep Pinkie company in the brooder. When I came back 10 minutes later, they were out from under the heater and happy to go outside. Pinkie, though favoring her right foot, started foraging and exploring as soon as she touched the grass.

They spent 5 hours in the tractor and tried to spend more. It was hard to bring them in because they’ve learned they can fly out of the chick chariot. I was hoping they wouldn’t realize they can do that.

I covered the box with cardboard and made 2 trips back to the brooder, first with a box of bumbling, babbling Brahmas, and then with a box of serene, silent Langshans. It was the first time I’ve separated the breeds and was interesting to see how different they really are. The Brahmas are supposedly quiet for chickens. The Langshans definitely are.

Day 32

Pinkie report: she’s still good. The toe is at a strange angle but pink and healthy, and she’s eating and being social, if spending a little more time under the heater.

We were woken up at dawn by wind that sounded like a highway coming down the mountain. That’s something we’ve had to get used to living in an amphitheater of trees. When wind comes from the west, it roars down the mountain behind us. The forecast said the wind would be more severe as the day went on, but it miraculously quieted by early afternoon. Cautiously, I trotted down with a box of chicks – twice, because transporting in 2 groups is working for everyone – and they spent most of the afternoon in the tractor.

Chicks-FeedandGritOutside

When the sun retreated and temperature dropped, I began the difficult process of putting them back in the chick chariot. Nobody wants to get in the box. It’s frustrating because they always seem to like where it takes them. Chicks aren’t like dogs, who see a leash and think, “Hooray, walk!” The chicks see the cardboard box and think, “Nope!”

Then they see me and think, “That chick’s alright,” and I grab them and put them in the box and they fly out again.

If the cardboard cover is loose, they push it up and flap out. I just keep trying until a few of them are in, then close the remaining birds in the tractor and make 2 trips.

We’ll have to do this shuttle for at least 2 more weeks, until they’re feathered enough to stay out overnight in 40-50°. I’ve been brainstorming solutions to make them less sketched out by the box. Something involving mealworms. Fortuitously, the live mealworms should arrive tomorrow. Don’t tell Chris.

Later, I let the chicks out in the study to strut in the day’s last sunbeams. I’m determined to make sure they don’t feel crowded. Letting them out regularly is a good way to do that, even if it’s indoors.

BrahmaChicksRoosting-5weeks

Pinkie flew to the rim of the bin to roost, and her bad toe was flexing as she balanced, so maybe it was more of a sprain than a break. Her bad toe is the one that isn’t stretched out as much. It’s kind of folded under at the top.

Pullet-brokentoe

I leave the window open at night so they can get used to cooler temperatures, humidity, and night sounds. Most sleep on top of the heater despite the breeze.

Day 33

Pinkie report: she’s still good. Not favoring her leg as much.

This morning, it was sunny but in the 50s, too cool to take the chicks outside. I wondered if they would be restless, but they were scratching and preening and napping, looking content, so I let them be.

After lunch, when the temperature reached 65°, I went in to get the chicks. The study smelled terrible. Pine chips absorb the smell of poop, but feathers don’t, and somebody pooped on BeBe!

It was bad. I pulled off the brooder cover and whisked horrible-smelling BeBe to the bathroom as the Brahmas clattered out of the bin and ran in circles on the floor.

I think I caught it right after it happened. BeBe didn’t seem cold or traumatized and was surprisingly undisturbed at the warm shower under the faucet, the first chicken bath for either of us. As I carefully dried her feathers, I saw a smudge of blood on her comb. Somebody pecked poopy BeBe.

That’s the most aggression there has been evidence of. I closed BeBe and her Langshan peers in the bin and took the Brahmas to the tractor. The Langshans would stay in the brooder. BeBe didn’t need the draft, and 65° might be too cool for birds without full chest feathers anyway.

The Brahmas are far more feathered, but the sun fell behind the clouds as soon as I put them in the tractor, and there was a cool breeze. Ugh. While I pondered if this was too cool for 4-week-old chicks, they got busy foraging, unperturbed. I decided to check on them in a few minutes and went back up the hill for a brooder refresh and to give the Langshans oregano as a treat. Soon, the study and BeBe, now amazingly back to normal save for a bruise on her comb, smelled like fresh pine chips and herbs.

Back at the tractor, the Brahmas were their normal gregarious selves, not puffed up or chilly looking. I gave them a container of hot water to huddle on if they started to feel cool when I wasn’t around. They were more intrigued by the air bubble bobbing inside. Then I made the 1-mile round trip to the mailbox because the 6th email notification in 2 days had popped up from the mealworm farm. This one said the worms were here.

Mealworms-LIVEANIMALS

Mealworms are…wild. I like bugs so don’t have a problem with the wriggling, but raising mealworms may not be for everyone.

My order included a sack of wheat bran and 500 mealworms in a cloth bag. I divided the wheat bran into 2 small storage bins and tossed a few carrots in, then shook half the worms into each container. One container would go under the vanity in my 1/2 bath, and the other in the refrigerator (don’t tell Chris).

MealwormFarm

I’m kidding; of course I told Chris I planned to raise bugs in the refrigerator. He may not be as excited as I am. He may be in denial. But the weird little monsters do hide in the bran (I stirred them up in the above photo), so it kind of looks like we’re raising baby carrots on the beach.

As I was finishing drilling air holes in the storage container lids, I saw the Brahmas were napping in a fluffed-up pile, a sign they might be cold. I ran down to get them. Before opening the tractor door, I dropped 6 mealworms into the chick chariot.

What ensued was the normal chaos of putting chicks in the box, but after I got Donna and Eula in the second time, they realized the floor was moving. As I rounded up Cogburn and Peep, the sounds in the box changed from flapping to beaks on cardboard. I don’t think there were any worms left by the time I put Cogburn and Peep in, but the vibe in the box had shifted from wigged out to a quiet, mealworm-induced bliss that rubbed off on everyone. They were relaxed on the ride back to barnbungalow.

People say mealworms rule chickens’ hearts and minds. They’re sensational chicken bribes. Turning chick chariot into a meal car (er, mealworm car) may be the ticket to transporting chicks these next couple weeks.

At night, I let them stretch their legs in the study one more time. I’ve been watching BeBe in case her tiny comb bruise makes her a target for pecking. It hasn’t. At one point, I looked in and found BeBe and Cogburn roosting together, big white bird snuggled up with little black bird.

Day 34

It’s officially too cold and rainy to bring the chicks outside for the next 3 days. After the Bebe pooping/pecking incident, I can’t leave them in the brooder all the time, either. Luckily they’re mannerly in the study, because I’ll be letting them out indoors multiple times daily.

It’s helpful to entertain them with treats. Mealworms are great, but chickens can easily overdo mealworms, so we’ll save them for bribes. Grass and oregano are popular and build their immune systems, and I started one more tasty experiment this week: fermented feed.

FermentedChickenFeed

Chicken feed is the easiest thing you’ll ever ferment, (as long as it’s organic and whole grain; this doesn’t work with the standard crumble): 1 part feed, 2 parts unchlorinated water, and 1 part air, in a jar. Loosely cover and stir daily.

It takes 3 days to get good. The feed was bubbling back on day 1, so I let them try some. They ignored it. But today was day 3 of fermentation, and that goop was a big hit. Cogburn was the first to peck at it and let out a surprised purr to call the other chicks over.

Why ferment feed? Moisture, probiotics, and it’s supposed to stretch expensive feed. In this case, it’s great to be able to offer actual feed as a treat because it keeps them occupied during their study free time without loading them up on junk food.

They like the new box village I made, too. Cogburn’s so heavy now he was landing on the floor with a scary whump. To help avoid more orthopedic injuries, I made a step-stair situation out of boxes so he doesn’t have to hit the floor from 2′ up. They like hopping on the different levels and love the sound of pecking cardboard.

They were out 3 times today. Nobody has pecked, or pooped on, anybody else.

Day 35

And, 5 weeks old!

They’re good sports about being inside. They make less mess than expected, but it will be nice to let them outside again. With our indoor Chicken Meditation Hours numbered, I try to spend time with each chick. The observation should help in the future because each chicken acts differently.

For instance, if Popsicle Sunshine is sitting alone, it doesn’t mean she’s sick. She’s a loner. She loves having the brooder to herself. But if you play the chicken-waterer game and she doesn’t come running, you know something’s wrong. She’s fascinated by water.

It’s funny having a loner chicken. She’ll spend 20-30 minutes napping on the bin rim or checking out the new chips I add when the rest of the chicks are out. Eventually she does hop down with the other chicks. Here she is with Cogburn.

CogburnandPopsicle

Pinkie is barely favoring the toe anymore. Cogburn is starting to grow out his wattles, those things that hang down under his cheeks.

ChickSelfie-Cogburn

This week, they’ve been outgrowing the brooder faster than expected. Hopefully that means we’ll have giant, strapping chickens who will protect themselves and live long, happy lives with us on the farm, popping out big, brown eggs for years to come.

The forecast looks like they’ll be able to go outside for most days in foreseeable future, if not nights. In week 6, we’ll work on figuring out the right equation to move them outside full-time.

People said raising chicks would be time-intensive. I’ve taken that up a level because of the abundance of time this bizarre, socially distanced spring. Despite the work, self-doubt, and copious dust, I’m equally excited about raising chicks again in late May when the farm co-op will have Easter egger chicks. Blue eggs!

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