“Chicken math”, they call it. It is the way we rationalize the addition of cute little baby chicks without necessarily penciling out the consequences of the total sum. Ask any flock keeper what they would do differently if they could go back and re-build their coop. The universal answer: “I’d make it bigger!”
As of January, we had a flock of four (and no idea that predators lurked) and a rare stretch of a few uninterrupted months at home in California that would allow us to brood a few chicks and guarantee fresh eggs going forward. Of course, everyone knows that January is NOT baby chick season, but a neighbor told me about a little poultry farm just up the road from us and, sure enough, they had baby chicks!
Granddaughters Evie and Viv were visiting, so we all piled in the car and headed north. When we stopped for lunch at Burger King, I looked at what the girls had ordered and joked that we might have found a name for one of the chicks:
Farmer Jeremy was reluctant to let us take day-old chicks. He reminded us that if something was going to go wrong, it usually would happen in the first week, and he tried to steer us toward the hardier week-old chicks. But I had my heart set on babies and persuaded him to let us take three chicks that had been hatched the day before.
We transferred the chicks to their “high tech” portable brooder – a shoebox with hand warmers tucked beneath a cozy dish-towel liner. And there they huddled, peeping in day-old alarm, under the watchful eyes of chicken-wranglers Viv and Evie.
By the time we arrived home, the girls had named all three: Ava, Bella, and, because they hadn’t forgotten the Burger King joke, Nugget. We settled the three little ones into their “high tech” brooder – a sturdy cardboard box that the CE rigged up on a bathroom counter and the mandatory heat lamp positioned above it to keep the chicks warm.
All was well – for about five minutes. And then we saw that little Miss Nugget, the Rhode Island Red chick, had distinctly homicidal tendencies toward her siblings. Nugget went after Ava, the Australorp and Bella, the Buff Orpington, with murderous efficiency – pecking unrelentingly at their downy feathers, pecking at their feet, pecking at their eyes!
After pondering and rejecting more macabre solutions, the CE fashioned a partition to separate Nugget from the other two, and vowed to drive her back to the farm (and likely, a very bad outcome!) the next day. Luckily for Nugget, the time-out that night and a few briefer sequesterings the next day provided a much-needed attitude adjustment. Somehow she got the message that she needed to play nicely and from then on, the three have been inseparable.
With our travel schedule in mind, we are on a fast-track plan for raising the chicks. We gave them their first outing at just one week old:
At first they only spent a half hour at a time outside in our mild winter temperatures of 65-70 degrees and then back under their heat lamp. Some people say that exposing chicks to lower temperatures makes them hardier and helps “feather them out” faster. No idea if that is true. By five weeks old, ours were on the average schedule, almost feathered out and spending from morning to dusk in a corralled area of the pen.
Today the chicks turn seven weeks old and they are already as big as Pippa, our Belgian Mille Fleur d’Uccle. We’ve been giving them supervised time outside the pen with her so she can assert her dominance, which she does by occasionally puffing herself up, spreading her wings and flying at them, Valkyrie-style. They run away, peeping wildly and then everyone goes back to pecking in the dirt. Pippa doesn’t have a mean bone in her sweet little body. She’s just reminding them that she’s in charge.
After giving them another week to grow, we will start introducing them to Ginger, the larger and not-very-friendly Ameraucana. Could get interesting. Conventional wisdom dictates that pullets should be sixteen weeks of age before integrating them with an existing flock, but we are on a fast-track plan. That cardboard box brooder is too small and too flimsy to house chicks that are now the size of crows. And we have a travel date coming up. Our friend, Tammy, is the most genial of house sitters, but chickens in the bathroom??? Gotta get these girls into the coop!
Chicken math hasn’t worked out the way we had expected. We thought we were adding three to a flock of four, but now, sadly, our total will be five, for now. Maybe we’ll be making another trip to that chicken farm next year…