The Beauty of the Balancing Act

The chickens are eleven weeks old now.  Pretty much twenty-somethings in chicken age.  They are establishing themselves well in the coop and run and making all the necessary changes needed to become “hens”.
My habit is to go out in the mornings and open the coop door so they can all fly out and spread their wings.  Much like humans do when leaving their beds, chickens stretch their legs and spread their wings and make all the noises you’d expect a stretching, spreading chicken to make.  Unlike most humans, they also make a lap or two around the chicken run each morning.  I have no idea what that’s about, unless it is just the joy of having so much space after being crowded onto a roost all night with fifteen of your closest chicken friends.
Once they are out and about, I lower the feeder, which then signals breakfast and the rush back through the door to eat.  I usually leave them at that and make my exit before someone realizes I still have a healing mosquito bite on my leg they might need to peck.

It is still hot here in North Texas and I feel bad for anyone or anything that doesn’t have air conditioning to escape to when the temps top out in the high 90s.  That includes the chickens, although I’m sure they would much rather be outside than in, no matter the temperatures.  I usually take them a treat at midday to make up for not installing a/c in their coop.  The treats vary, depending on what I have to hand and how hot it is outside.
From the start, I’ve used a dish I made from a bowl and a flower vase, originally put into service as a water dish for bees and butterflies in the garden at our old house.  The inverted flower vase fits over a piece of PVC hammered into the ground.  The PVC keeps the dish upright and balanced and at about the right height, it turns out, for chickens to feed.

Last week, they got frozen watermelon.

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When I went out to fetch the dish, no morsel of watermelon was found.  They ate melon, seeds, and rind!

I noticed, since changing their food from chick feed to finishing feed, that a couple of my girls have started eating feathers. A quick check on the chicken forums let me know this is a sign of protein deficiency, so I started putting yogurt in their dish and they devour it.
It’s been kind of fun to see what they will and won’t eat.

I’ve been watering down the ground in the run since hot weather set in.  It helps the girls stay cool while softening the packed sand.  Once I have a nice soft spot, I set to work with the hoe and rake to break up the crust of hard dirt and get the nice earthy stuff to the surface.  Then the chickens take over, pecking and scratching and churning the dirt into a nice fluffy area.  In the process, they unearth worms and bugs and roots, which keeps them happy and helps them learn to forage.
The downside to having them in the run and not free-ranged is that they have decimated every available green sprout and shoot.  I’d rather they have some sort of greens and not be fed just the bagged chicken feed, so I’m looking for solutions to that as well.  Yesterday, Mike, aka Coop Daddy, helped me rig up a cabbage tether ball for the girls to play with.

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I didn’t take a photo of the whole cabbage.  But this is what it looked like hanging from the run ceiling after the chickens had polished it off!  I guess they like cabbage well enough.

Coop Daddy finished building nesting boxes for the girls this weekend.  Yesterday I took everything out of the coop and cleaned and disinfected it.  While the ladder was outside, the girls pretended to be Bald Eagles.

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Once the coop was clean and dry again, we moved the nesting boxes inside and set them up on concrete blocks.  I won’t fill them just yet, since the girls aren’t quite ready.  I was curious to see what they would make of them, but at bedtime they filed up the freshly cleaned ladder to their freshly cleaned roosts and totally ignored the additional furniture.

In another few weeks they will be ready to change foods again and start ingesting oyster shells in preparation for egg production.  I am excited for this phase of the journey, since fresh eggs was the reason to get chickens in the first place.
Although, I have to admit I will keep them for entertainment value regardless of the eggs.

Lucy, I’m Home!

A week ago Sunday, we finally moved the girls to the coop.  It seems a bit impossible that only six weeks ago, actually seven now, I first brought home a cheeping box from the Post Office and set up chicken keeping in Mike’s shop.  It has been like no other animal experience I’ve had to date.  And I will say it is something I can see myself doing until I just can’t any longer.

When we upgraded the brooder from a large cardboard box to a metal water trough, we also moved from the work area of the shop to the actual apartment where I could better control the temperature.  But it became very clear, early on, that a heat lamp in early summer in Texas was pretty much a waste of time.  I dispensed with that around week four.  In fact, I decided that turning off all of the lights, and pulling the food, was a good way to prep the chicks for the move to the coop.

I didn’t think that one through very well.  Sixteen hungry pullets flapping and squawking their way to the front of the chow line can, literally, knock an under-caffeinated old gal on her ass in about 2.2 seconds first thing of a morning.

I never did get the hang of slipping the feeder under the bird-proof netting undetected.

However, birds used to flying to the rim of the tank at the first sight of net-free space are much easier to snag and stuff into the Rubbermaid tote for transport.
Ahh…  payback is sweet!

I had read that, to make sure your young birds know where to find their food and water, you should keep them in the coop for a few days.  Well, I suppose I have a flock of overachievers because they found the food and water in quick order, then lobbied their little hearts out to be set free.  On the second morning, I left the coop door open to see what would happen.  By day’s end they had mastered leaving and returning to the coop unaided.  And then the games began.
It’s been pretty hot here so far this summer.  The coop has a south/southwest orientation, so it catches the late day sun.  Not a good spot when you consider metal walls, even if they have been insulated.  Not to mention, the water tends to heat up pretty fast in the hanging waterer.  Good shade is a commodity until somewhere around four-thirty or so.

My habit is to go out to check on the girls twice a day, around lunchtime and again about three.  On the third day, I found about half of them out in the run, snugged up against the shady side of the coop in a row of holes they’d scratched in the dirt.  The rest were still inside the coop, doing much the same thing against the opposite side of the same wall.  Except the ones inside were panting hard and looked miserable.
A quick scan through suggestions for cooling off chickens convinced me that the open air, hot as it was, was the best place for them.
They already associate me with food, so the sight of the feed bag is normally enough to make them come running.  But those hot little chickens didn’t have a run left in them.  At least, not until I went in and started trying to encourage them to come outside!
One or two came willingly enough.  Just scoop them up and set them outside the door.  Another one put up a fuss and repeatedly hopped right back up and inside no sooner than I’d turned my back.  I finally started shutting the coop door.  Which gave me no less room to operate, but did keep those chickens willing to be chased out no “out” to be chased to.
Mike built the roosts along one wall of the coop, roughly eight feet across, with one about four and a half feet high and one about six feet up.  We use half of an old wooden ladder to give the girls access to the roosts.  They’re great.  Unless you have to duck down under them to grab a bird.  Coming up and whacking your head is bad enough.  Coming up and whacking your head and knowing full well you now have chicken shit in your hair is well on the far side of disgusting.
I lost count of how many times I bumped the waterer.  Or how many times I hit my head on the metal feeder that I’d raised to avoid spilling.  The massive rainfall we’ve had this summer has kept the humidity around 80%, so I was soaked through in the ten minutes or so it took me to collect and relocate a handful of birds.
But, finally, all sixteen chickens were outside and seemed to be cooling off.  To be safe, I refilled the waterer with fresh, cool water and hosed down the dirt in the run.

I was a proud chicken mama when I went back later to open the coop door and all of my little sweeties came running.

I seem unable to be convinced that all the chickens are present and accounted for unless I count them three times.  On the evening of day five, I repeatedly came up one chicken short.  As they had the day before, the girls brought themselves in at day’s end.  Except one.  I made a couple of loops around the coop before I finally saw her, Daisy, just rounding the corner ahead of me.  And the chase was on!
She has repeated this infuriating little scene every evening since.
Last evening, Sheli was here to help put chickens away.  True to form, Daisy ran.  When she realized I had help, she took to the high ground and ended up on the roof of the mini coop.  Sheli and I made eye contact and came at her from two sides.  Daisy neatly flew up and over my head and landed at a dead run.  Damn bird.

All in all, things were going as well as I could expect.  And then, last night, I needed to drive into town to be available to meet the washing machine repair tech at Sheli’s apartment this morning.  Just as a nasty storm was moving in.
The chickens had never been in a thunder storm.  I worried they would be scared enough by the thunder and lightening to end up with broken legs or wings.  It was hard to drive away.
Three inches of water came down during a two hour storm.  And the worst thing I found when I checked this afternoon was a mudslide on the same side we’d excavated a few weeks ago after another such deluge.  Unlike my lightweight birds, I sunk over the soles of my heavy boots in mud trying to walk on that side of the run.

Well, if that’s the worst thing that ever happens, I still see myself keeping chickens as long as I’m able.

A Rose, by any other name, is still a chicken.

By now, most of the chickens have names.  Or rather, twelve names have been chosen.  However, only a handful of birds have actually been given names.  Those birds have also been banded, so we know who’s who.  I am waiting for Claire and Emma to make their choices before I name and band the rest.

I knew from the start that there would be a “Prissy”, because my sister requested that name and there should always be a Prissy in a flock of hens.  The name brings back memories of Looneytunes on Saturday mornings (as well as Saturday nights, once I realized that adulting wasn’t as much fun as childing).  She was the old spinster hen in love with Foghorn Leghorn.  And I can still hear her voice all these years later.  “Welllll…”  We’ll see which one acts most like a Prissy.  She will not be getting a rooster to fawn over though!

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Miss Prissy of Looneytunes fame.

Since there are six Golden Comets, at least one had to be named for an actual comet.  It was too easy to leap to Halley, so I did some research.  At two weeks, one bird was acting very much like the Mama Bird of the flock and always coming forward when I approached the brooder.  She had a well-defined “v” on her head so it wasn’t much of a leap to go from “Vee” to “Vaisala”, the name given the P40 comet discovered in 1939.  That search also led me to the name of German astronomer Caroline Lucretia Herschel.  So, there’s a Lucretia.  I was told that Lucretia is really a Latin name, so of course she had to have a girlfriend to hang out and gossip with.  Therefore, Shakira made the list.  Viasala wears a red band, Lucretia wears green, and Shakira has an orange one.  And there had to be a Henrietta, but I don’t know which bird she is yet.

Justin wanted to name one Donald (for the duck, not the dumbass).  I explained that they’re all girls, so he settled for Daisy.  His second choice was Leia.  He picked the two whitest birds, one Comet and one Egger, and we’ve banded them in white (Daisy on the left) and blue (Leia on the right).
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Early on, my Bestie, Elle, asked for a “Nugget”.  My mom wanted “Loulou”.  Those two names will stick, but they haven’t found a bird yet.
Sheli wanted “Birdie”, who will be called Birdie Pruitt, of course.  You can’t have a Birdie without a Bernice, and her name has to be Bernice Matisse.  Birdie has a pink band but Bernice hasn’t been selected yet.
Mike, aka Coop Daddy, recently suggested we have a “Loretta”, and I’ve got my eye on which bird should have that name.

I guess it seems somewhat childish to name chickens.  But they all have personalities and they will be as much a part of our lives here as the dog is.  Not entirely pets, but more than just animals we keep.  They are so much fun to watch!

Since they’ve learned how to fly up to the top of the brooder, Mike agreed that a couple of higher roosts might help take the edge off until they can finally be moved to the bigger coop.  But, as he predicted, it simply gave them a higher starting point.  I found out just how easy we’d made it for them the morning after the new roosts were added.  As per my usual routine, I took the net off as soon as I went in to check on the birds.  I turned my back long enough to enter the kitchen and, when I turned back to pick up the waterers and feeders, I was greeted by a handful of chickens lining the top to the brooder.  One, unnamed to protect her bold little butt, even flew onto the counter.

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We are closing fast on moving day.  It really can’t come soon enough.  The mini coop has been a great addition since it gives the girls time outside in the fresh air and grass.  It also allows us to turn off the air conditioner in the apartment and to let the room “air”.  I can’t wait to get the brooder out of there and clean that apartment!  I’ve been careful to disinfect as I go, but it’s still the temporary home for sixteen chickens and it smells like one.

Eventually, I will have photos of the individual birds.  But that will be after they’ve been relocated and have finished growing into their adult feathers.  And I’ll be putting their names on the coop somewhere.  I need to find the basin for their dust baths.  And we’ve got a bit more work to do to secure the coop and run.

All in due time, I suppose.

Nugget
Daisy
Prissy
Henrietta
Birdie Pruitt
Leia
Loulou
Lucretia
Vaisala
Shakira
Bernice Matisse
Loretta

Our babies are growing up!

The feeders I received with my “brooder starter kit” worked great for the first couple of weeks.  But as the girls have grown I found myself wasting a LOT of feed trying to clean the shavings and poop out of it.  For a few days, I just shook out the remains and let them scratch for the food.  But I found when I changed out the shavings that most of that just went straight to the bottom.
So I picked up a new feeder last weekend and, so far, it has proven to be a great choice.  They do still get poop in the food, mostly because they insist on standing on the feeder.  And there are always shavings to clear out.  But I’m not having to pour any food out and that makes me very happy!
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The brooder is still in the kitchen of the shop apartment.  I have access to hot water there as well as electricity.  The brooder is on a tile floor and the birds can’t get to the carpet.
I go out at least twice a day to change out the water and check on the birds.  I’ve managed to get them outside several times now, but moving them is beginning to be a real challenge.

Last week we spent quite a lot of time in the coop, doing repairs.  I wanted the birds out there as well, since we were having some fine weather and it wasn’t too cool for them.  With the interior coop renovations at a standstill for now, we’ve moved on to shoring up the areas of concern with the outer coop, which I suppose is more properly called the run.
We’ve learned that the previous owner of our property wasn’t much of a carpenter after all.  Most likely, he had a set of plans and a materials list to work from.  The idea of this coop is perfect.  The framework is all treated lumber, the joints are supported by joist hangers, the central supports are six-by-six posts and the walls are all made of hardware cloth.  I don’t know if the hardware cloth goes below ground as it is supposed to, but there is a continuous concrete footer all the way around the perimeter.  Most of the construction was done pretty well.  But there are warped boards and several have lifted with age and exposure to the heat.  And the hardware cloth gaps in several places where it no longer meets the wood.
All of this will need to be corrected to prevent predators from getting to the birds.

It’s been getting increasingly hotter and the humidity has been off the charts.  So, working outside presents some challenges.  We do have some great shade and take advantage of that when we can.  The mini coop sits in the shade, which can be a bit cool for the birds, but works better than putting them in the sun.  At least they can get to the upper floor of the mini coop and huddle up when they get cold.
That makes moving them back to the brooder a snap!  Just close the door at the end of the ramp and they have nowhere to run.

Except that some of the birds are on to me and know that’s what I want, so they absolutely refuse to go up the ladder.

The last day we worked on the coop, we discovered we would need some supplies and Mike took off for town to grab what we needed before Lowe’s closed.  I was busy planting an herb border on one side of the coop.  When I finished, I sat down near the mini coop to watch my girls.
By now, all of them understand scratching the ground to expose little delicacies like bugs and worms.  The leaves we spread on the coop floor last fall harbor lots of these and the chickens have had a lot of luck adding variety to their diets.  Three or four of them also know how to dig out a nice dirty spot for bathing and this is what they were busy at when I sat down.  Two had managed to dig holes big enough to fit into and were happy as clams just cuddled into the earth.  Overhead, four or five chicks were busily scratching and eating little white worms, calling out in delight each time they discovered something.  The rest were huddled upstairs.
I decided this was likely a sign they were too cool and decided to take them back to the brooder.

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Thirteen chickens, hereafter referred to as the “good” chickens, availed themselves for easy capture.  Three, now known as “those nasty bitches”, did everything in their power to avoid being caught, including trying to fly out the top door while my head was crammed into it!

I transferred the thirteen to the brooder with fresh food and water and went back for the bitches.  Lucky for them, two had lost their nerve and were waiting in the upper coop.  That last one though…
I started with trying to coax her with food.  She was likely full of bugs and worms and not hungry.
I plucked a nice long blade of green grass and wiggled it enticingly before her.  She wasn’t in the mood for greens.
I whacked the flat of my hand against the screen and told her to run for it.  She shied to one side and turned her back on me.
I found a small stick and attempted to “shoo” her into the other, less open, side of the mini coop.  She jumped over my stick and gave me the Polish eye.

By now, I was drenched in sweat and my mood had totally soured.  I considered leaving her until she agreed to go upstairs where I could catch her.  But I wanted, very much, to be out of jeans and boots and into a swimsuit, parked on a raft in the pool.

I went for a bigger stick.  When I got back, she’d changed her mind and was waiting patiently for me to pick her up.

Six of the girls have been named and banded, but I’m waiting on our granddaughters to come out and pick their birds to name, so the majority of them are nameless.  They are getting their head feathers and, based on the colors we’ve got, are going to be very pretty birds.

 


Most know how to fly to the top of the brooder.  And they are definitely starting to assign their pecking order.  It appears all of the Sussex will be low-roost birds.  The Comets, while happy to come forward to have their chests stroked and eat from my hand, are still a bit timid and will likely be middle-of-the-flock birds.  One Comet, our “Vee” who is now called Vaisala (after comet 40P, 1939), is the boldest of them but has stopped acting like the mama bird.  Surprisingly, the Easter Eggers are the most aggressive and bold of the lot.  One in particular, an as yet unnamed and unbanded bird, insists on jumping into my hand any time I reach into the brooder.
I try to pick them all up in turn.  I want them to trust that they won’t be harmed and to feel safe being handled.  I still feed them by hand, as a treat for me more than anything, which gives me a chance to see the feather development up close and to determine which birds are going to be easily handled.
We stopped using the heat lamp last week after the nighttime temps began to hold above 75°.  I turn the kitchen light on each morning and it stays on all day.  I turn it off at night and the room goes dark as pitch.  Initially, the girls called out in alarm and discomfort, but they now settle in and get totally calm.

I have NO idea what they do after I leave the shop!

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I thought I was done with teenagers!

At three weeks, cute little chicks have lost roughly half of the downy yellow fluff they are wearing when you open the box they shipped in.  In place of the fluff are feathers.  Beautiful mixtures of rust and roan, gold and cinnamon, chestnut and cocoa, black and white.  Their ears are visible.  Some have combs beginning to show at the base of their beaks.  Their feet are big!  And some chicken feet are a strange olive green.  I didn’t know that last bit.  I thought all healthy chicken feet were yellow.  Live and learn.

By three weeks, the babies have grown out of the Chicken Little stage of cheeping loudly in despair and delight.  They’ve learned a few new sounds, but haven’t reached that chuckling cluck of a fully mature hen.  They do have a cute little chirp reserved for happiness.  I hear it most when the feeders are full but the chicks are still half-empty.  It’s the sound I make when I settle down to a dish of ice cream.  Or a plate of tacos.  I’m not sure I actually articulate the sound.  But if I did, it would sound like my partially-sated chicks.

Three-week-old chickens are curious.  They run to your outstretched hand to see if you have treats.  Or to peck at you.  The hand that feeds means nothing to a three-week-old chicken.

They are also getting very brave.

At three weeks, wing feathers have been around long enough to let their ultimate purpose be known.  And chickens are birds that like to roost.  High up.  Regardless of whether you want them up on the rim of the brooder or not.  Wings will get you up there if you are brave enough to try.

So far, three or four of them are brave enough.

Which means we’ve had to insure against flight risk.  We designed a net to cover the brooder tank that very closely resembles a seine net.  But it works like a charm.

The chickens are adjusting.  They still freak out just a bit when I cover the tank.  If I don’t let them see the wood parts, they handle things more quietly.  Lets hope it’s always so easy.

The guide that came with our chickens calls weeks three and four the “teenage” phase.  That wasn’t something I considered when I decided for keeping chickens.  I thought I was well-past dealing with teenage angst.

Three-week-old chickens aren’t cute and cuddly anymore.  Their heads resemble a cross between an over-processed home permanent and a bad haircut.  Their wings are mostly feathered and lovely, but their tail-feathers have gaps that look like some disease-riddled potted plant.  They are clumsy, usually putting one foot in the feeder and the other in a pile of chicken shit.  Simultaneously.

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And they smell.
Like a young man on the verge of puberty.
With a load of poop in his shorts.

But then they calmly perch on their little practice roosts and fluff out their wings feathers and settle down.  And, like watching a child fall asleep after a trying day of “why” and “mom”, you have to smile because they’re so damn ugly they’re cute.  And they’re finally, thank goodness, not trying to fly around the room.

I will build you a house…

When we realized there was a sizable chicken coop on the property we were buying, I think we just assumed we’d get some chickens and commence chicken keeping.  I got a subscription to a chicken magazine and bought a book.  I bookmarked a couple of websites and a blog or two.  And, after actually reading a good bit, I realized there was going to be a whole lot more to this than just sitting back and waiting on the eggs to start rolling in.

A much closer inspection of the nesting area of our coop brought the realization that the original owners weren’t nearly as generous with housing of their animals as they’d been with themselves.

The outer coop is a lumber structure with posts set in cement.  The walls are hardware cloth and, for the most part, it is a sound building.  There’s one gaping hole in the roof that can be easily repaired as soon as we figure out who will be climbing up there with the hammer and nails.  One wall has need of some patchwork.  The entry door is warped and needs a new pair of latches.  And something must be done to alter the path of the sand that lost its grass anchor to the big trucks that tore up the hillside during the building of the new barn.
The inner building, where the chickens nest and roost, is the area of most concern.  It has metal walls on two sides and hardware cloth and timber for the other two.  There’s a heavy door, with two locking latches, and both knee and noggin knockers.  The floor is mostly pave stone, although these are uneven and there’s a low spot near the door that tends to collect moisture.
The previous homeowner constructed a wood frame about four feet high and covered the area with heavy plywood.  He went to the trouble to cut quarter circles of heavy plywood for the walls of the nesting box and even glued the parts together with water-proof epoxy.  The problem is that the frame and nest box took up the entirety of the space, except for about four inches on each end.  And it was just one big box with a deep corner.  No privacy.  No ceiling.  And, worse yet, a sheet of cabinet-grade plywood was bent into the space to form the back of the box.  Behind that, leaves and spiders and whatever you can imagine collected.
Above that, the gaps where the metal sheeting met was filled with foam insulation.  But otherwise, there was nothing to deter the cold wind of winter or the stifling heat of summer.

We started by ripping out the floor of the box, intending to leave the frame.  But there was so much wasted space.  So, we ripped it all out.

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I power-washed the building from ceiling to floor.  Then disinfected it with a solution of water, vinegar, dish soap, and tea tree oil.  I wanted to pull up and reset the pavers, but the corner ones are set in cement.

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Next we covered the inner walls with sheets of styrofoam insulation.  Then we covered those with plywood sheets.  It isn’t our finest work.  But it’s a lot cooler in there now and my guess is that winter won’t be nearly as fierce as it might have been.

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We finished this part today.  Next we need to fashion our nest boxes.  We’ll have three rows of four boxes, each one twelve inches square with a perch for easy entry and a ladder along one side to make reaching the top row easier.
Those will only take up one wall, so the roosts will be on the other wall.  I’m hoping to repurpose an old wooden ladder we brought from the farm.  The back legs are gone so it is ok for leaning up against something, but not so good for standing open and climbing on.  It will make a great roost.  If it fits.  Under it will be a poop catcher of some sort.  I still don’t know since the roost itself isn’t quite finalized.

Meanwhile, we bought a mini coop so the chicks can start spending time outside.  It’s a bit crowded, especially after the feeder and waterer go in.  But they’ve already learned how to climb the little ladder and fly back down.  They like to huddle up on the upper floor when they are chilly.  And at least one chick has already started taking dust baths.

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We’re about three weeks away from moving them into the big coop.  And, after last night’s almost three inches of rain proved too much for the sand floor of the outer coop, I think we’re going to need every day of that time to get this place ready!

Here’s to sunny days that aren’t too hot to work outside.

Flying Lessons

Note:  When I wrote this I was not consulting a calendar and erroneously added a week to the total time we’d had our chicks.  At this date they are actually only two weeks old.

The chicks are three weeks old today.  Halfway to being old enough to leave the confinement of their brooder and venture into the big coop that will be their home.  In the last week we have introduced dried meal worms, which were initially met with a flap of the wings and no further notice, but have become a treat for at least a couple of the girls.  I tried them on a cockroach and spider.  They didn’t care to even give chase.  Although, one of them found a pine shaving covered in chicken shit and ran all over the tank with it in her beak.  Her sisters gave chase with much cheeping and squawking.  Typical juvenile female activity.
And so it goes, bring home a new toy and the (dog, toddler, cat, whatever) would rather play with the packaging.

I’ve also started adding a bit of chick grit to help with digestion.  That they love and fight over.  It ends up dumped into the shavings and they have to scratch for it, so I’m pretty okay with the squabbling.

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Almost from the start, a few have tried to roost on the flanges on the legs of our light support.  It was cute.  By the end of the first week they had the stubs of wing feathers which, by week two, they were attempting to use.  They would flap their way onto the flanges and take turns pushing each other off.
Last week we noticed that most of them were beginning to get enough air under their wings to almost clear the top of the tank.  And they learned, very quickly, how to fly over the feeders and waterers.  That only meant that a few more determined flaps would put them up and over the top of the tank!
My solution was to ask Mike, aka “Coop Daddy”, to make a couple of experimental roosts to see if that settled things.

It did.

Until last evening when I went in to do my last check and found one girl solidly perched atop the tallest waterer, looking quite content to stay there for the night.

Thankfully, the mini-coop (snort, my chickens will have a mini coop[er]!) arrives on Wednesday.  It has a house and a ramp.  It’s totally covered in hardware cloth, but gives them access to the grass for the first time in their little chicken lives.  I’ve been turning the heat lamp off and the overhead lights on during the day to get them used to a “daytime” and “nighttime” cycle.  The mini will give them their first days in the actual sunshine and fresh air.
I have yet to figure out exactly how I will get them in and out of it.  I’m not ready to leave them in the big coop overnight and it isn’t ready for them anyway.  But this flying and searching for higher ground is only the next step to that end.  I will need to put them in the mini for several hours each day, but bring them back to the brooder at night.  I’m wishing I hadn’t gotten rid of all our old cat carriers.

Last week we ripped out all of the old nest boxes, which were nothing more than a framework built about four and a half feet off the coop floor, with plywood nailed down as the floor of one huge open box.  There were two side walls, one on each end of the big box.  But no roof.  The back wall was a sheet of cabinet-grade plywood bent into a curve and nailed to the plywood floor.  This arrangement explained the ceramic “decoy” egg we found in the initial clean-up!
Now that we’ve ripped all of that out, Coop Daddy will begin work on a set of double-decker nesting boxes, four over four, that will allow 2 hens to a nest, if they choose.  In the space left over, we’ll set up the roosts and a catch basin for the copious amount of chicken manure roosting birds create.  That should make collecting it for the compost bin much easier.

We’re also working on names.  I have a list and have added all suggestions from friends and family.  I ordered colored plastic leg bands so we can tell who’s who.

It’s all a bit over the top.  I’m pretty sure nobody that knows me expected much less.

Sleeps, wings, and pecking at things.

It’s pretty amazing to me how quickly I’ve gone from a rational, intelligent woman to a simpleton speaking baby talk.  I’d blame these baby chicks, but that would be just plain wrong.  So, I’ll pass it off as some new twist on post-mentapausal hormonal crazy and leave it there.

They are just so DAMN CUTE!

They’ll be a week old on Monday (and I won’t be here to help them celebrate so I hope Daddio at least makes mention of the landmark event).  I do plan to make a big deal about it when I get back.
I’m pretty sure when I went to bed last Monday night I was not expecting to get this far without some major catastrophe.  That I’ve kept them safely tucked away from all harm in the kitchen of the shop apartment has absolutely no bearing whatsoever on the fact that no catastrophe has yet to happen.  Although, the first time I went in and found a couple of them stretched out, I was convinced, momentarily at least, that they were dead.  One shriek from me and they were all awake and running for cover!

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The truth is, it was just too hot in the uninsulated shop to have a heat lamp on all day.  The box isn’t long enough for them to totally escape the lamp.  I can’t turn it off because, even with the ambient warmth, there wouldn’t be enough heat to keep them at the required 95°-98°.  I could continue going in every hour to check and adjust, but then I wouldn’t be getting much else done.  And it is important to me that they be chickens, which means they should be independent as soon as possible.
Most importantly, the peak temperature in the shop exceeds the minimum reduced temperature required for keeping the chicks in the later stages of feather development.  And we’re moving more determinedly into the hotterthanhades temperatures of a normal Texas summer each passing day.
So, we were on a losing track almost from the start.

My routine has been to go out first thing in the morning (well, after stumbling to the bathroom, getting dressed, feeding the dog, and making coffee) to check on the chicks.  I replace the paper towels, wash the thermometers (so I can read them without having to guess what’s under the chicken poop), wash and refill the waterers, and shake the feeders to fill the holes back up.  I’m doing this twice a day with some quick checks in between to make sure nobody is in need of anything.
Initially, they would all flatten themselves against the box walls as soon as the door opened.  I make a point to pick them up and talk to them (without the baby voice because I want them to use grown-up words, duh!) and make sure they know my voice, my smell, my personality.  So, as the week has progressed they are becoming more accustomed to my invasions and curiosity is winning out.
When I took my camera in last evening, they hardly even noticed.  Although the sound was unfamiliar and there was a lot of scurrying around along with the sidelong glances I have started to see.  But most were comfortable going about their chickening while I snapped a few frames.

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As will happen, one in particular has become the alpha female, or “mama bird” of the flock.  She has a “V” on top of her head, so we’ve dubbed her “Vee” for now.  She positions herself between the other birds and me or whichever human is closest to the box.  Once assured there’s no real threat, she walks around watching the others eat or drink or sit.  She doesn’t eat when they are eating.  Just watches her flock.  It’s been an interesting development.

One or two others have started pecking at fingers offered in worm-like wiggles to pique curiosities.  One pecks and several others come running to see what’s going on.

Today we’re heading to the feed store to buy a stock tank.  These chicks have already started trying to fly and, while it is absolutely hysterical to watch, I want a deeper brooder arrangement to avoid having them meeting me at the door soon.  And too, someone figured out how to peck the wall of the box and start a hole.

I’m not blaming anyone, but I sense a jailbreak plan being hatched.

 

We have cheeps!

The confirmation email gave our flock’s hatch information as 5:00am, June 5, 2017.  By 2:00pm on the same day, they’d been boxed and picked up by the US Postal Service.  I was terrified they would get to my local Post Office before I got home from my short stay with Mom and B.  I was even more terrified to imagine being stuffed into a box with fifteen other birds and jostled around for two full days and a night.

But I was home when the call came to go into town and pick up my “live animal” shipment.

The box was so light, I thought it might be empty.  But then a couple of small children came into the Post Office with their mom and immediately focused on the sounds of chicks in distress.

“Mama, that box is cheeping!”

I smiled and hurried out lest they want me to open it.

I handed off my precious cargo to Mike, who looked a bit bewildered, and started the car for home.
Once in the shop, we carefully cut open the tape and lifted the lid.  Sixteen little downy heads were stuffed into one corner.  I carefully lifted each one in turn, dipped its beak into the pool of the waterer and set it onto the clean paper towels covering the pine shavings in the brooder box.
And then remembered I was supposed to look at their butts and make sure they weren’t “pasted”.  It seems that spending two days and one night in the almost complete darkness with fifteen of your closest friends (or possibly siblings) being jostled and tossed and vibrated out of your senses might tend to make you poop all over yourself.
I was reluctant to stress them any further and opted to hold off on mudbutt inspection until they’d had a chance to warm up and calm down.

We spent a bit of time adjusting the heat lamp and checking the temperature, then left them alone to settle in.


I found it almost impossible to leave them for long and probably checked them every half hour for the first four or five.  They would hear me enter the shop and start running for the corner of their box.  Once I knew they were sufficiently warmed up and reasonably calm, I retrieved the shipping box and collected them into it to facilitate checking each bird, beak to butt.
I had ordered fifteen birds.  The hatchery sent one extra, in case of a death in shipping.  All sixteen were alive and active, eating and drinking well.  But two seemed a bit less rowdy than the rest.  Both had pasted backsides and one even required a quick dip under warm running water to loosen the poop.  She promptly thanked me by shitting in my hand.

Once all the birds were declared clean and settled for the night, I reluctantly left them and headed off for bed.

All sorts of horrid things come to mind when you leave small defenseless animals to their own wits in a new place.  As I fed the dog and made my coffee the next morning, I was imagining opening the shop to find an infestation of rats and snakes.  I had to stop myself from running down the walkway to the shop.  No sense chancing a broken hip for a box full of snake food!

I didn’t hear any cheeping when I came through the door and really did think maybe they’d all at least gotten sick over night.  But no, peeking into the box, I found sixteen fluffy little bumps scattered around the box floor, sleeping soundly.  As if sensing a threat, they all popped up in a group and made for the box corner.  I cleaned and filled the waterers and left them soaking up the warmth from the heat lamp.

By midday it was apparent that the uninsulated shop was going to be too hot for sixteen birds and a heat lamp.  With help from Mandy and The Two Beauties, we relocated the brooder to the apartment kitchen, where it snugged in next to the wall with the air conditioner overhead.  We changed out the paper towels, washed the waterers and refilled them with clean water and a splash of apple cider vinegar.  We adjusted the heat lamp and left them tucked in for the night.


This morning everyone was under the heat lamp, not huddled up, but acting like it was maybe a bit cooler than they liked.  I quickly changed out the paper towels, washed and refilled the waterers, and relocated the heat lamp.

And took the first of many pictures to come.

They won’t be this cute in another week.  The fluff will begin to come out and feather start to grow in.  Already the wings are looking less chick-like.  They have started acting more like chickens as well.  A gnat flew into the box and one of them immediately began to chase it.  There’s one who stretches her neck up as if to look over the top of the box.  And they have started to chase each other if any of them thinks another one has found something interesting.

In another week, we’ll have to have a solution to the cardboard box.  And I’ll need to get serious about cleaning the coop and getting it ready for chickens!

Chicken Pickin’

I had no problem coming to the decision to keep chickens.  The house we now own came with a huge coop that is really not much good for anything else.  And I love the idea of fresh eggs.  Not to mention “chicken tv”, an addiction that befalls pretty much anyone who spends more than five minutes watching chickens chickening.
There are dozens of chicken breeds to choose from and all have their place.  Some are strictly egg layers, others grown for eating.  Many are multi-use.  All are good bug eaters and garden tillers.  Chickens come in all sizes from really big ones to petite ones.  They come in all colors, as do their eggs.  Some are docile and sweet.  Some have the “touch me not” independent personality of cats.
I spent quite a few weeks researching all I could find on them.  Fear of chicken intimidation began setting in.  I consulted chicken owners and bought books and magazines.

Choosing which chickens, it would turn out, was much harder than choosing for chickens in the first place.  But eventually I settled on three breeds.

Golden Comets were suggested by my daughter and her husband.  It helped to have their six girls to watch when I visited.  Golden Comets are pretty red/brown and white hens and lay brown eggs.  They are mild tempered and mostly quiet.  The neighbors have them in their flock and I have taken photographs of them because they are so pretty.

Neighbor Anthony's Golden Comet

But I didn’t want to limit my initial flock to one breed.  One of the first books I purchased on keeping chickens, it turned out, was written by a woman from the UK.  Before I made that discovery I’d already decided for Sussex chickens based on her comment about how tasty the eggs are.  The hatchery where I would be buying my flock had one variety of Sussex.  Speckled.  They are mostly dark with light “specks” which provides them great camouflage.  They are gentle and lay light brown eggs.

Speckled Sussex hen

The third choice was made solely on egg color.  Easter Eggers are so named because they lay brilliantly decorated eggs similar to those produced by Faberge.

Just kidding!

Easter Egg chickens have a wide variety of feather color combinations and patterns.  They lay eggs that range from blue to green to pink to tan.  So, every time I go out to collect eggs, it’ll be like an Easter Egg hunt!  They are medium-sized and gentle birds.  I’ve looked at dozens of images and have yet to see two Easter Eggers that look exactly the same.  They are, truly, beautifully exotic birds.

Easter Egg hen

The total number of birds purchased was based on cost.  Less than fifteen birds means a “small order fee” would be applied.  I ordered the minimum – six Comets, five Sussex, four Eggers.  The hatchery guarantees shipment of live birds, but adds an extra “just in case” one expires en route.  It seemed a good idea to get vaccinated birds, simply because it felt like they could use the extra help.

My order was confirmed the day I placed it and I received notice of a ship date a week later.  My birds would ship on June 5, 2017.  That gave me about three weeks to get a spot prepared.  I ordered the starter kit from the hatchery, simply because it would be cheaper than buying each of the needed bits separately in town.

By the time the starter kit came, we had settled on using a big cardboard box for our initial brooder.  Yes, they will eventually peck holes in the walls.  Yes, they will eventually cause enough moisture to seep into the cardboard to render it useless.  But we weren’t interested in trying to use Rubbermaid totes.  Sixteen birds would need probably three totes and they would be growing up in three flocks.  Not a great idea.  It was pointed out that horse feeder troughs work well.  And we will likely move to that next.  But, for now, they live in a big cardboard box.
After doing a bit more reading, we opted for a red heat lamp bulb instead of the regular bulb suggested in the video from the hatchery.  The red light discourages pecking and cannibalism.  That seemed a good idea!  Again, we chose to recycle and are using a tripod from a surveyor’s kit we brought home from the farm to suspend our heat lamp over the box.  The last component to decide for was the bedding.  We bought large pine shavings.  The arrangement looks like this.

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I have no idea how this works, but I raised three kids and they all made it to adulthood.  Mike seems a bit less enthusiastic.  But he does enjoy chicken tv.

Note:  I ordered my chickens from The Cackle Hatchery