It's now been almost two weeks since I brought home two baby chicks. Since then, I've added two more. I wanted to be sure that all were surviving under my care before I started writing about this experience. I'm happy to report they are thriving and -- importantly -- everyone's getting along. I see no bullying in the brooder, although I understand that the pecking order should become evident in the next week or so.
(As I'm seated in my office typing this post, BTW, they are happily chirping and scratching about in the large brooder right behind me.)
So let me make some introductions!
When Harriet the Spy (left, an Ameraucana) and Beatrix Potter (a Buff Orpington) arrived back on April 5, I could not believe the fragility of two-day-old chicks.
Jane Austen (left, a Silver Laced Wyandotte) and Laura Ingalls (a Plymouth Barred Rock) arrived eight days later.
It would have been ideal if all four breeds had been available on the same day, but I followed this advice to help these chicks of differing ages mingle without issue in the brooder. First, the difference in age is not more than about a week. Chicks accept chicks much more readily than older hens, and at this early age the pecking order is not yet established. Keeping them close in age also meant that temperature and lighting needs in the brooder could be balanced among the chicks.
Secondly, the chicks were introduced as pairs. Two or more at a time is recommended to reduce bullying of a single chick. When you see how quickly each pair bonds and the comfort they get from one another, you'll quickly see how lonely it could be for a single chick.
I also used a DIY wire divider in the brooder to separate the two new youngest chicks from the older Harriet and Beatrix. The wire divider kept the younger chicks safe while everyone adjusted. I'd read this process could take a few days; within 24 hours, the four were together without any issues. They now mingle about freely as a group of four, or they separate into their pair bonds based on the brooder temp.
(The brooder is quiet now. The chicks are sleeping, the two youngest flattened out on the brooder floor, tiny wings loose and beaks face-down. When I first saw this sleeping style, I feared they were dead! They tend to sleep closer to the heat lamp. The two older ones are rarely in the warmest part of the brooder -- they are nestled together, one with her neck and head stretched out resting across her sister's back. This is the cycle of activity in the brooder -- an endless looped tape of eating, scratching about, sleeping, and always-always pooping.)
This family pic shows the difference a week can make in terms of size and feathering. Differing breeds mature at different rates, which I'm seeing most especially with Laura the little Barred Rock. She's on the far left.
(If baby chicks have an awkward kindergarten phase, Beatrix Potter, far right, is in it. Her same-age sister, Harriet, is maturing gracefully with beautifully patterned wing feathers developing.)
Each of these breeds was chosen for their good egg production, friendly or docile temperament, and their cold hardiness for Colorado winters. Egg color wasn't a top concern. Never having raised chickens, I wanted a mix of breeds so I could figure out long term which breed works best for me. Four chicks seemed a good start considering my small backyard. City code allows no more than six hens and no roosters. As a first-timer, I was advised to purchase pullets, not straight-run chicks. Pullets have been sexed as female (90-95% accuracy), so I've a good chance that no roosters are among this group.
Personalities emerged quickly. Harriet (the Ameraucana, front right) appears to be the most active and a bit bossy. Physically, she is quickest to mature (check out her tail feathers) and has been the first to associate my hand with good things. Although her sister, Beatrix, was at first more motherly to the two younger chicks, Harriet is now showing gentler instincts and allowing for snuggling.
Buff Orpingtons are known for being docile and friendly, and Beatrix (above left) is that. She is calm and was the first to allow the youngers to snuggle. She doesn't fuss about in the brooder, but settles down in her spot and pays little attention to fussing from the others. She will become a large all-buff (brownish, not yellow) hen.
The wing feathers of Jane Austen (above left), one of the youngest and newest chicks to the brooder, are beginning to show the lacy white and black patterning that will distinguish her as a beautiful and dramatic looking hen. I'd read conflicting information about Wyandottes being loud -- I decided to take a chance anyway. She is certainly the songird of the group and I'm hoping this won't be a problem in my small backyard. She is not afraid to get in Harriet's face.
Laura Ingalls (the Barred Rock on the right), the smallest, seems to be developing at a slower pace. She's otherwise eating, drinking, and behaving just fine. I've read that the Barred Rock can feather up more slowly than other breeds so I expect she'll catch up. She tends to be the one often trying to get under the other chicks for warmth and comfort. She will become a striking hen with graphic bands of black and white feathers.
(The chicks are awake and chirping again, and my son, Ben, has joined me in my office. He sits cross-legged on the floor to look over the brooder. He tells me his friends can't understand why I'm raising chicks.)
My husband was the first to wonder why I want to raise chicks. I am not doing this on a whim. My brother once told me his wife brought home 100 baby chicks, without a single brooder or warming lamp purchased. I can't imagine that!
I suppose it all began when I began growing herbs in pots all around my patio. With a big pot of chili or pasta sauce on the stove, there is nothing better than stepping outside to the patio to clip oregano, parsley, or basil. The pinkie-sized red cayennes are so cute on the vine. Dried, they last all winter long and are used to spice up all kinds of tomato-based dishes. I am proud of those little cayennes.
Growing these herbs expanded into a desire to grow even more vegetable crops, so the raised beds of summer vegetables are getting underway and will be planted by late May (our last frost date).
I can also point to the past year of from-scratch cooking and baking that my son and I have enjoyed so much. We search for new recipes, learn about and acquire ingredients and spices that are new to us, and work side-by-side in the kitchen.
That's what it's really all about -- the pleasure of the process. I might point out to my husband that my own small flock's fresh eggs will taste better (they will) and that all of this gardening and flock-tending will produce food that is healthier for us (it will), but the driving factor in all of these endeavors is the pleasure derived from the process.
Laura Ingalls Wilder (the real author, not my baby chick in the brooder) wrote opinion pieces published in farm journals long before she picked up her pen to write her stories of pioneer families on the western prairie. She once wrote, “The real values of farm life are simplicity, money honestly earned, difficulties overcome, service lovingly given, respect deserved; in short, the exercise of physical, mental, and spiritual muscles until a rounded, complete, individual character is built.”
Ms. Wilder was talking about process -- the exercise of physical, mental, and spiritual muscles -- involved in growing food and caring for animals.
I look forward to the daily responsibilities and pride that come with caring for this small flock. If you have any interest in your own backyard flock some day, I hope you'll follow along as I share the chicks' development, their transition to life in the coop, keeping them safe from predators (we may be urban, but we are very near wild spaces), and my thoughts on these new experiences in an urban backyard.
Is there a topic you'd like to know more about? Let me know in the comments section below.
Thanks so much for letting me introduce you to these fine four ladies. I'm so excited for this new adventure!