Have your own flock of fresh egg producers
It’s all the rage these days and there are so many reasons why that is. Accept it, backyard chickens are here to stay. You’ve read all about the benefits of having fresh eggs, you’ve watched “Chicken Run” and now you’re sure you’re ready for your own backyard flock. By far the most adorable way to start is with chicks. They’re cute, they’re fluffy, and there a few things you need to be prepared for before you head to the store.
Create a brooder
Your new little babes will need to be protected from the elements and predators for six to eight weeks, until they get their grown-up feathers. Then you just need to worry about predators. If you plan on having an outdoor brooder, make sure it’s secure and draft free. If you’ll be raising the chicks inside, be prepared for a lot of dust. A bathroom is a good choice for your brooder. A large plastic tub works well as a poultry containment device.
Choose a good bedding. Newspaper is NOT good as it’s too slippery and you can end up with chicks with bad legs. Sand is ok, wood shavings (but most definitely NOT cedar) as long as they aren’t eating it. One brilliant idea is to use chicken food pellets. They’re bigger than the crumbles, easy for the chicks to stand on, and it doesn’t matter if they eat them. It’s fun to put in things like little tiny bars to watch the chicks learn how to roost.
Keep them warm
Had they been hatched in a flock, your wee balls of fluff would normally spend the first few weeks of their lives sitting underneath mom. Even when she takes the kids out into the yard, mom periodically sits down and fluffs up so her chicks can scoot underneath the feather blanket and warm up. Since you don’t come equipped with a feathered belly, you’ll need to provide a heat source. Normally this is a heat lamp, or a light bulb –both well protected so the birds can’t accidentally touch them – set up above your brooding area. Day old chicks need their environment to be close to 100 F, and the need for heat lessens as the chicks grow. The best way to accomplish this is by having a large enough area that the chicks can sit under the heat source, or move farther away if they’re too warm. You can get an idea of whether you’re providing enough, or too much heat by watching the chicks; if they all huddle under the lamp, it’s too cold, if they all stay at the farthest point from the lamp, it’s too warm. You can adjust the height of the lamp up or down to change the temperature. If it’s really cold you might need another lamp, insulation, or a warmer spot.
Food and containment
Your little girls will know how to peck at food, and drink, but they aren’t so good at not falling in the water. Have either a waterer designed for chicks, or put some marbles in you water dish to both keep it from tipping over, and keep the chicks from getting drenched. Limit any treats to hard boiled egg. Chickens don’t have teeth. When outside in the grass they pick up small stones that get stored in their gizzard. These stones grind the food they eat so it can be digested. Your chicks don’t have stones, and can’t digest big chunks of food. The chick crumbles are safe to feed because they don’t need grinding. The same goes for hard boiled eggs.
Make sure your brooder is secure. I know, I said this already, but now I mean secure so the chicks don’t get out. As they grow, your girls will become more adventurous, hopping up and jumping over anything they can. If your brooder is inside you’ll want a screen over the top of the box or you’ll have a room full of little tiny poops in no time. Chicks might also be able to get out of the brooder, but not get back in, which would be disastrous in a very short time.
Interacting with your chicks
Decide how socialized you’ll want your chickens to be when they’re grown. If these are going to be pets that you’ll want to play with (chickens are not great players, but some enjoy being held, and most, if socialized, will be willing to sit on a knee or shoulder) go ahead and start spending time with them now. Let them sit on you (wear old clothes), pet them, let them get used to your company. Even if you see them more as farm animals, spend a little time adapting them now to your presence; it will make it easier to handle them when they’re older.
Your chicks will add a lot of feathers as they grow. Each new feather comes with it’s own little puff of dust. Inside or out, the amount of dust produced by these adorable little fluffs quickly becomes evident. If the girls are inside you’ll appreciate my bathroom suggestion, and if they’re outside you’ll need to keep an eye on the food and water, which you’ll need to do anyway, to make sure it doesn’t get nasty.
Just go for it!
Everything above is the idealized way to do things. I’ve raised a couple batches of chicks in my house and didn’t follow many of those suggestions. I raised my girls first in a large cat carrier, and then added cardboard boxes to give them some play room. That cat carriers were once in the sunroom, and once in my living room, next to a wall heater turned to low, and I set them on a heated cat bed. I made sure that inside the carrier had both warm and cool areas. I also removed heat sources as the chicks grew. I used window screens over the boxes to keep the chicks in, and doors to keep the cats out. The amount of dust is amazing. Even when they were in the sunroom I had chick dust all over my house. Just deal with it – it’s only two months.
Once your girls have grown up feathers (they look very different from the chick feathers) you can move them outside. If you’re worried about the cold you can put a lamp in the coop, but the chickens will huddle together for warmth, and a well built coop will probably be fine without a lamp as long as the outside temps are in the 40s or so. Ideally you have a secure pen, and a coop with a door that shuts and locks. If you raised the girls inside, the first few evenings that they are in the outside pen and coop, you need to go out and make sure they go into the safe coop. You may need to pick them up and put them in. After a couple days they’ll go in on their own.
Now you just have to be patient for a while longer until they start laying. It could be anywhere from two to four more months, depending on the breed. Fortunately chickens are a lot of fun to watch while you’re waiting.