Our chicks have arrived! Like all new mamas, I believe my babies are the cutest things ever.
In a perfect world, our new chicks would be the natural result of having a roster and some broody hens around our little homestead. But alas, my world is not perfect. We live on a lovely little street in the middle of a New England village and our neighbors, dear as they are, would not appreciate a 4:00 AM wake up call, courtesy of â€œChanticleerâ€. So my chicks came to us from McMurray Hatchery via the United States Post Office.
We placed the order on a Thursday and got a call from our Post Master at 7:00 on Monday morning telling us that our package had arrived. I could hear them peeping away in the background. It was a quick trip across the street to fetch them home. One might think that a box of 15 chicks would be large, but in truth the whole thing is smaller than a breadbox. It was hard to get Phoebe out the door to school Monday! The tiny things kicked her mothering instincts into high gear and she was loath to leave them with us.
We were all set for the chicks, which need very little the first few weeks. They need bedding, and we used wood shavings for that. Shredded paper works well too. You just donâ€™t want anything dusty as that can cause breathing problems.
Then thereâ€™s starter feed. Chicks from the hatchery have been medicated so we got an unmedicated feed. If we had hatched them at home we could have gone with a feed that contained antibiotics to protect against the many poultry diseases that float around each spring. Water is very important too. You need a waterer that keeps the water clean and prevents the chicks from drowning.
As important as water is heat. In the natural world, the chicks would spend a good deal of time under their motherâ€™s warm body. We keep a hanging heat lamp in the coop. If the chicks are cool they will huddle under it; if warm enough they will move away.
Our nursery coop is a re-purposed mesh playpen. The babies will graduate to the outdoor coop eventually. It has to be consistently warm enough outside, and they need to be a lot bigger.
Once theyâ€™re outside, the chicks will switch from starter feed and move on to â€˜real foodâ€™.Â A good deal of their diet will come from bugs and grass and whatever table scraps we give them. Chickens are very partial to cheese and cantaloupe. Weâ€™ll also supplement with some laying mash.
Itâ€™s important to choose a breed that meets your familyâ€™s needs. We live in a place with sub-zero winter temperatures. We are also a family farm and there are always children running around so temperament matters. (We handle our birds a lot.) Our last flock was so friendly that they would let us pick them up without any fuss. We chose to go with Buff Orpingtons this time. They are a beautiful bird and quite hearty, with a mellow temprament. Theyâ€™re also a good dual-purpose bird should you decide to raise some meant for the table.
Itâ€™s important for chickens to have a coop. I do love the fancy chicken tractors but we had a decent shed already so we used that. A good coop is not too large. It needs good insulation but ventilation is even more important. Most important: it must be predator proof. Hawks, foxes and fisher cats are all problems around here. Dogs and rats will kill chickens too. We dug a trench and buried chicken wire to keep an animal from burrowing under.
Our chickens are free range. They have a small yard to use once they leave the playpen, and when they are closer to full-grown, then theyâ€™ll graduate to the rest of the outdoor space. Since we let them roam the yard, our garden does need to be protected. Chickens can devastate a tomato patch in an afternoon.
Once these 16 chickens begin laying we can count on over a dozen eggs each day, plenty to keep the two families who share this flock in eggs and leave some for selling, trading or preserving for winter. Itâ€™s not just the eggs I love. I think helping to care for animals is good for kids. My daughter, Phoebe, knows that the chickens must be cared for each day, even before we eat. She knows how important it is to check their water, especially if itâ€™s hot and she knows that they need to be closed in at night. Gathering eggs is one of her favorite activities.