Saturday, August 13, 2011

Chick Wisdom

We knew nothing about hatching or raising chicks when we took on the insane challenge presented to us by Erickson, The Broody Mama. And having searched for information online, I know there are plenty of other people out there who don't have a clue either. Here are some useful tidbits I'm calling my Chick Wisdom:

1. Hatching by Broody Hen. I wrote an entire blog post about this topic, but want to reiterate my knowledge here. Hens know way more than you do about hatching eggs. Make sure she has access to food, water, the outside to stretch and take an occasional break and dust bath and she'll do the rest. I know it sounds crazy and you think you have to do something so you don't trust me, but I'm telling you that all you need to do is wait. Have some sort of separate area to keep the Mama and chicks for say one month to six weeks depending on the size and number of your chicks. The one thing to keep in mind (if it matters to you) is the fact that Mama does not lay eggs during this entire process: not while she's setting and not while the chicks are babies. She'll only start laying once she feels like her duty is done and the chicks are "on their own." For us, that was around six to seven weeks.

2. Pasting Up. (This one is important!) Pasting up is a condition associated with baby chicks. Their poop gets runny and cakes up on their rear and vent. It can be deadly because if the vent is blocked, nothing can come out. That's all I'll say. The good news is that it's an obvious problem. You can see if one of your chicks is pasting up as their bum is all caked up with dried on poop. You don't have to pick each one up and scrutinize their bums. Don't worry about how to tell. When you see it, you'll know. One of our chicks, Leia, got pasty. I took him (yes, Leia has grown up to be a rooster.) inside and rinsed his bum with warm water and a washcloth. After he was clean, I set my blow dryer on cool and turned it on at the lowest setting to dry him off a little before I put him back outside with Mama and the other chicks. He made a lot of noise. It will hurt your feelings a bit. Mostly, he was upset to be away from Mama. I had to clean him up twice. Then I kept an eye on him, but all is well.

3. Tiny Chickens. That phrase seems silly, but it was amazing how the chicks were born and within the first few days they were acting as if they were tiny adult chickens. Most of the things your adult hens do, the chicks will start doing in miniature. You figure, of course, they're watching Mama, but some things seemed to be all instinctive. They walk around, scratch at the dirt with both their feet and step back while they're bent over to look at the ground for possible food items. Then, they peck at the ground for little tidbits. They stretch just like the big hens with one wing out and the opposite foot stretched back. They tear at scraps and fling their beaks around trying to break up pieces of food that are too big to eat. They preen their fluff and feathers (as they come in) just like the hens. It's pretty cute stuff to watch.

4. Mama's Help. The mother hen continues to take care of everything once the chicks have hatched. She constantly makes sure they're eating by collecting bits of food (treats, chicken feed, bugs, grass, whatever she can get) and making a particular clucking sound. The chicks know that sound means food and will come running up to her to eat. She puts the bit of food down for the chicks to eat, but if it's too big or the chicks are having a hard time with it, she'll pick it back up and tear at it with her beak before putting it back down for them to try again. She does this constantly, trying to make sure all the chicks get to eat. Now, she won't give particular chicks food. They have to jump in there and fend for themselves, but she will collect enough so everyone has a chance to eat. They still have to be strong enough and smart enough to help themselves. During all of this mama bird feeding, she keeps very little for herself. It's almost all for her babies. The chicks also follow her everywhere. They stay glued to her hips for over a month. They easily learn from everything she does and they stay protected because Mama defends them when another hen comes too close for comfort. She can also usher them back inside the coop if she thinks they're in danger.

5. Pecking Order. As I mentioned in my last post, the entire flock is thrown into disarray by the addition of the chicks. They have to work out their positions while adding to their numbers. In our case, Mama decided she needed to move up in the pecking order now that she did something none of the others had done, so she was pretty mean to the hen she was bypassing in the order. The lowest member on our totem pole decided she was feeling a little froggy and chased the chicks a lot, but it was all because she refused to move down to number nine when she was already number four (four isn't so bad anymore when all of a sudden there are nine chickens). The funniest part of the pecking order drama was the chicks themselves. They were also in a pecking order war, and there is nothing funnier than tiny six-week-old bantams getting feisty. At seemingly random times while they're out foraging, two or three (and at least one time four) chicks will stop scratching and looking for juicy tidbits and stand up straight and tall, fluffing up their neck feathers. Sometimes they peck towards each other a little, but it looks quite ineffective from the sidelines. Then, once they've decided who won, they go back to foraging and all is well. I'm still not sure of their pecking order.

6. Gaining Independence. Around five to six weeks, the chicks start to stray from their Mama. They slowly start to wander off when they're foraging and not worry so much if Mama is right next to them. Now, they don't get too feisty and wander clear across the yard from her - I'm talking six or seven feet away when they're used to staying within a foot or two. At this point, if they get too far away they still freak out and hurry back or "cry" if they don't see her right way. Around seven to eight weeks it's like a switch is flipped and all of a sudden each chick is just another member of the flock. Slowly, Mama won't call them over every time she finds food. Then, she'll start to grab food away from them just as she would from another hen who's lower than her on the pecking order. Initially it's a little sad that she's not being Mama anymore, but then you realize that they're all grown up and part of the flock! For us, the pecking order issues also disappeared at the same point. Everyone worked out their place in the group and they reside harmoniously (for now).

As I took a break from writing this post and looked outside into the backyard, I saw Erickson trying to get away from her entourage of chicks. We're going on week eight and sometimes they decide they want their Mama. All she wants is to go into the chicken house and lay an egg, but they won't leave her alone (they're staying within a foot of her right now). She'd just like some privacy. Man, can I relate.

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