Monday, January 13, 2014

Adopted by Chickens


I've told a few stories on the feather brains that reside at our address, but I've never described what the first few weeks of their life was like, so I thought I might fix that situation today.  :-)

I actually started lobbying for chickens a couple years back, but as with all rational humans (I am not one of them), Rob said to start planning and reading about it, but that we'd probably not do it for a year or two. Well, you know me...I read everything I could find. It starts to get redundant after not very long, to be honest, because chickens are some of the easiest animals there are, and books can only expand on that so much.

At any rate, there eventually came a point when Rob said this could be the year, and that was 2013. I'm relatively sure that this was about the beginning of February, and traditionally one waits until late spring to get chicks since it's warmer, but not later since then they'd start laying in the middle of winter. Or something.

Anyway, I couldn't wait that long. I mean, what if Rob changed his mind? I needed him to build the coop! So...well, I jumped the gun. You know, just a little. I called the feed store to find out when chicks would be coming in, and they said February 25th. I was a little surprised-- that seemed pretty early, even to me, but who was I to argue with fate? They also told me that the first day of chicks is pretty crazy, and I should plan to be there at opening time if I wanted to make sure to get the breeds I wanted.  I could have ordered chicks, but since we were only signing on for four, that meant I'd have to wait until May or June to order them by mail, because they have minimum shipment requirements in the colder months so the chicks can keep each other warm. Four doesn't cut it.

Meanwhile, I planned and re-planned what breeds we were going to get. I don't know what other people do when they're looking forward to something, but I read. A lot. I read absolutely everything I can get my hands on because it's kind of like living the experience- or at least, as close as I can get to it before the experience happens. It's a neurosis, yeah. I'm aware of it, but not particularly apologetic.

I finally settled on three breeds, primarily based on their cold-hardiness, broody tendencies, and my preference for their looks: Buff Orpingtons (2), Australorp (1), and Speckled Sussex (1). These ladies would be kinda spoiled and expected to keep us in eggs preferably for more than just the winter, as well as being good mothers for the chicks I had high hopes of making happen someday. (If you think baby chicks are cute on their own, you should see a mama hen with her baby chicks...it's killer adorable.)

So on the morning of February 25, I dutifully got up early and got to the feed store by ten to seven, when they open. Um- there was nobody there, besides a couple employee cars. I was feeling somewhat foolish for taking their warnings so seriously, but really, whether I had expected a small melee or not, I would have been there on the same day at the same time...these chicks were a big deal!

I went inside as soon as they opened the doors and headed straight for the very loud chick section, where hundreds of chicks were voicing their concern about their new living arrangements. Hundreds might have been peeping their heads off, but dozens more were flopped in their shavings, sleeping as deeply as any new baby, enjoying the heat lamp's rays on their backs. Sleeping baby chicks are really the cutest things-- when they get tired they stumble around like little drunks, and eventually just fall over, wings akilter, and sleep. Fellow chicks running over them don't seem to phase them a bit. I've heard stories of house guests panicking upon getting up in the morning at seeing an entire crate of dead chicks-- only to rouse the household, head back to see what had happened, and find the whole bunch of them up and eating, aroused by the noise.

I knew exactly what I had come for, but I still wandered through the chick section for a bit, looking at all the different breeds. Honestly, I don't know how parents who go to their local feed store with kids get out of there without chicks.

I did finally leave, however, clutching a loud shoe-box. The little things kept up a racket the entire way home- which was understandable, really. They'd hatched all nice and warm just two days earlier and had spent the time since then being passed around nonstop. Fortunately for them, they were about to finally get a break.

Sleepy babies.
I arrived home to be met by Rob (who had not gotten up nearly as ridiculously early as I had), and together we got the little fuzz-balls situated. We had decided to just used Rubbermaid totes for their brooder, since four chicks is pretty easy to accommodate. We wanted- okay, I wanted, and Rob didn't mind- to socialize them so they'd be more enjoyable as adults, so we just set the crate in the dining room. With a mason jar feeder and waterer, some pine shavings, and a heat lamp, they were totally set. Their world suddenly returned to some semblance of normal, all four of them plopped down and slept the sleep of the dead.

We had fun with them around. We got to know their sounds a little better, and I never failed to delight at their happy sounds, which they used in many situations but primarily when they got fun food, like scrambled eggs. They loved scrambled eggs. With so few of them, their crate never got super dirty, so it was easy to keep up with cleaning it, and the old stuff just went straight to the compost bin. We christened them Buffy, Lucy, Maggie and Henrietta.

Practicing roosting skills!
Lucy picked up an odd habit at some point in the game-- she would cheep endlessly, the alarm call variety. Being the cute little thing she was, I was somewhat concerned about this but really had no idea what the issue might be. At some point I just picked her up and carried her around with me for awhile-- and that seemed to do the trick. We had somehow ended up with a chick who insisted on human socializing. It's possible I shouldn't ruin his manly reputation by mentioning this, but her cute little fuzzy butt totally owned Rob, and she spent a good many mornings wrapped in a towel on his desk, keeping him company while I got breakfast and he woke up. She did eventually outgrow this stage, and now she acts just like the other chickens, but she was definitely our favorite for a bit there. She ended up being the first one to lay by several weeks, which earned her several kudos.
Helga and Miss Poppins
(told you they look dead
when they sleep...)

Meanwhile in chick-land, we had some friends who had asked about the possibility of buying eggs from us. Well, four chickens isn't a lot to have when you're thinking about selling eggs, since they'll produce anywhere from one a day (winter) to four a day (summer), but certainly not loads of extras. Eh, whatever, that just means I can convince Rob to get more chicks!  Four weeks into our baby chick phase I brought two more home, who went by the monikers Helga (she was a beast even as a chick) and Miss Poppins. They were best friends from the start, and it was really pretty hilarious to watch them grow up side by side.

When it came time to merge the two groups so they could co-exist peacefully in their coop, we were a little nervous about it. Hen books are rife with warnings about pecking orders, and we preferred not to have any damage done to the little guys by the teenage girls with attitudes.  Fortunately spring favored us with decent weather, and since all six girls were pretty young and uncertain, they stayed within the boundaries of our yard when we let them go entirely free range. This took care of our problem for us, because they went their own separate ways with their group of choice, and as time went on they just started getting over their distance issues and becoming a group. It was still obvious that Helga and Miss Poppins were best friends, and Helga usually got a good thump on a daily basis for getting too big for her britches, but everyone did pretty well.

Helga & Miss Poppins
exploring the outdoors
Of course, Helga soon grew up to be bigger than any of them, and promptly turned the tables by taking over Place #1 in the pecking order. Six hens don't require much of a pecking order, and we don't tend to have any problems in that category, but every now and then we can see that Helga's definitely the top honcho.

Well, until Skeezix came into the picture.

We'd had our chickens for 10 months, when the neighborhood was graced with some new arrivals. Two houses down, some new folks moved in, and- no way!- they had chickens! It ended up only being two hens and a rooster, but I thought it was pretty cool. I stopped by to chat with her and let her know that our other neighbors have no problem with free ranging birds, and that she was welcome to do the same with hers, because I didn't have a problem with their rooster inter-mingling. It'd save me the trouble of tracking down fertile eggs whenever I want the girls to hatch a batch.

Visit he did, spending most of his days over here before heading home at night. Eventually the inevitable happened: instead of going home at night, he hopped up onto the roost in our coop and made himself at home. The first time this happened, I scooped him up and took him back to his own coop. Nobody was home, so I opened the door and deposited him inside. The next night when it happened again, I just let him be. If the neighbors wanted him, they could certainly come looking. (Despite a note in their mailbox and several un-answered knocks on their front door, they never did.)
Learning to co-exist.

It appeared that we had inherited a rooster.

That's not all bad, really. I don't mind rooster crowing, and all of our neighbors are enough of a distance away that they don't hear him except during the day, at which time they're fine with it. The girls took awhile to figure out what role this pushy male was supposed to play in their life, but they eventually figured it out. He's actually quite well behaved, and has only attacked when he had legitimate reason to be concerned. We've boxed him 'round the ears a couple times and he seems to have accepted that we're a little higher on the totem pole than he is.

Meanwhile, Helga has taken a fancy to him. It's hilarious to watch them, because she seems to be the alpha wife. The others seem to have taken well to having a watchful guardian over them, and they stay pretty close together, which is nice for us, since we don't need to watch them as closely. But Helga just adores him, sticking close at all times, and I just discovered today that they talk to each other! I heard sounds I've never heard from her before coming out her mouth while she walked (thudded) alongside him today. It was kind of fascinating.

Dust bathing isn't near as dignified as
chickens believe themselves to be...
And yes, his name appears to be Skeezix. I initially wanted to call him George (Fred and George, get it?) but it just didn't work. Every time I referenced him or talked to him the name "Skeezix" just came out, so now it's stuck. It's not really very dignified, but then, he isn't really either. He's doing a good job and is relatively virtuous for a rooster, but he's not regal by any means. Just kind of a potentially savage ding-dong.

I snapped this picture of them today, dust bathing...it totally struck me as hilarious that here was this bachelor in the chicken version of a hot tub with a bunch of females around him. Or maybe I'm just crazy.

Chickens are the most ridiculous creatures.

5 comments :

  1. Love this. Do the neighbor's hens come over at all? I'm surprised they haven't moved in, too.

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    Replies
    1. They really don't, since the first day or two. I almost wonder if they were letting the rooster out but not the hens...?

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    2. Love the chick pictures, it's making me want to pick some up for mom and dad when I'm home!

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  2. You are not helping my chicken-wanting dreams at all!! :)

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