When I was about five years old, we lived in south Georgia and kept a small flock of backyard chickens. We weren’t in a rural area or anything, a lot of people in our Lake Park, Georgia, neighborhood had some sort of animal they kept for food or milk or eggs or whatever. I remember one fall afternoon our next door neighbors slaughtered their hogs. My dad went over to help them. They hung the carcasses up on the swingset to drain the blood. Back to our chickens.
My 4-year old sister Heidi and I would go out to the coop and collect the eggs every day, and bring them back in to mom. One day, as I rounded the swingset to open the door of the coop, the mean-ass rooster jumped off the top of it and spurred me right in the neck. It knocked me to the ground and scared the crap out of me. He went into the stew pot that night. To this day I have a scar, two tiny white spots. Looks like a vampire bite.
At some point the time came to cull our flock. My dad and the neighbors killed and processed the birds. My mom and Heidi were inside the house, crying. Apparently I was running around the house with the neighbor’s boys with blood smeared on my face, feathers in my hair, making the “Indian” sound. I remember laying my head on the stump in the front yard and one of the kids pretending to chop it, like dad did the chickens. Later I remember a bunch of the birds in the freezer, neatly plucked and cleaned, in a knotted pillowcase.
It’s one of my favorite, most vivid memories as a kid, macabre as it might seem. One of the things I was looking forward to most about living on the farm is that we could now have our own small flock of chickens. Monday, June 4, we got a call from the post office – our chicks had arrived!
Did you know they ship baby chicks through the mail? Just before a chick hatches, it absorbs the entire contents of the yolk. In a natural hatch with a mother hen, it can be as much as three days between the chicks that hatch first, and their slower brothers and sisters. The yolk is enough nourishment to let the early hatchers wait up for the late hatchers. Breeders and commercial hatcheries take advantage of this period and ship the chicks overnight just after they’re born. We ordered 50 chicks of mixed breeds, but straight run, through McMurray Hatchery.
Straight run means if you order 10 chicks, you get 10 unsexed chicks. You might get 10 pullets (females), you might get 5 each, you might get rotten luck (if your goal is eggs) and get mostly cockerels (males). You can order just pullets or just cockerels, but I specifically chose to get straight run. I’ll quote from Harvey Ussery‘s book, The Small Scale Poultry Flock, as to why:
Since the majority of hatchery orders are for pullet chicks only, it becomes impossible for hatcheries to sell the unwanted cockerel chicks – however many “cockerel specials” they offer. It is simply a fact of life in the business, therefore, that excess cockerels are killed, by the hundreds of thousands – by conveying them alive into a high-speed chopper; with “controlled atmosphere killing” (using carbon dioxide, argon, or nitrogen); sometimes by simply dumping them into a barrel and leaving them to suffocate. The reader may well choose otherwise, but my choice – since learning that pullets-only orders necessitate the treatment of living creatures like so much disposable garbage – has been to make straight run orders exclusively.
Having both cockerels and pullets means that we will keep some birds as egg layers, and the rest of these (mostly cockerels) will go into our freezer for meat. We will raise, care for, feed, shelter, and then kill and process these birds ourselves. Several well-meaning people have already lamented over these birds’ “murder”. I will be writing in the future about “eating cute baby animals” and why we are choosing to raise our own meat birds. It’s easy to go to the supermarket and buy a boneless, skinless chicken breast for 99c a pound without even being conscious of what happened to the animal you are about to eat. However, once I learned about the insidious industry that is factory farming, where horrific practices like the ones done to the baby chicks I’ve described above happen everyday, I do my best to only eat animals that were not treated like garbage. I choose to eat meat, and so the decision to go the extra mile and give animals the best life we can (even the ones we choose to eat, ESPECIALLY the ones we choose to eat) to my mind, is the more ethical choice. More on that later. Back to the chicks.
They came packed in a box with holes in it. They were LOUD. We brought them home and one by one, taught them to drink water by dipping their little beaks until we saw them drinking and swallowing. Then we released them one by one into a large plastic tub lined with pine shavings. Lisa and Anne-Marie were here visiting and we all had fun handling the chicks, snuggling them a bit, and teaching them to drink. They started eating right away, and contentedly pecking and running around the makeshift brooder.
Is there anything more adorable than a baby chick? Soft little puffballs, high pitched peeps and tweets, and in so many colors. We have chicks that look like chipmunks, baby penguins, little yellow easter chicks, one with a black mohawk stripe, gray squirrels, and more.
Day 3, we had a minor setback known as pasty butt. Sometimes, when chicks are stressed (like from being shipped in the mail), they’ll get runny stools. The poop will stick to their down, and get bigger as the chick poops and more accumulates. Since chickens only have one pee/poop hole (the vent), if you don’t correct the problem, they can actually die if the dried poop blocks the vent and they are unable to poop. I noticed a few pasty butts and immediately separated 19 of the 51 chicks. I spent an hour gently cleaning the poop off. I consulted a couple chicken sources and decided to feed some plain yogurt and put a bit of apple cider vinegar in their water. By the next morning, no more pasty butt!
The chicks get fresh green forage every day, and treats like fruit that’s past its’ prime. Their favorite treat in the world is mealworms. They literally go into a frenzy when we sprinkle mealworms on top of their food. I can’t wait to see them outside, catching bugs. I’ve caught a couple catepillars and grasshoppers and tossed them inside, and they are absolutely ravenous for them. We plan to start a mealworm farm to provide fresh treats for the birds. It’s totally easy and you pretty much set it and forget it.
I swear they grow by the hour. Their wing feathers keep getting longer, and they have the cutest little tails now. Tuesday night, we had a pretty big thunderstorm roll through, and the power went out around 7pm. Normally I wouldn’t care, but the chicks have to stay at a consistent 90 degrees right now, and no power means no heat lamps. Jimmy and I went into the basement, and they were huddled in a little quivering, fluffy mass. Not a good sign.
We covered them with a small quilt and Jimmy lit his propane camping heater and placed it in the brooder. We caught the few chicks that were still running around, and put them under the quilt. We spent the next 5 hours in the basement, camping out in the dark with the chicks, adjusting the quilt, putting them back underneath, and making sure the heater didn’t fall over and start a fire. The chicks slept like little babies, a cute little peep escaping from the brooder (the odd snore escaping from Jimmy) as I read Game of Thrones on my nook. Finally about midnight the power came back on. I left the quilt on them for the rest of the night, and we got some sleep of our own.
Today we took the chicks outside for a “walk” so they could get some sunshine and scratch and forage. Ready for some cute chicken action? Watch!
We’ll be building their portable coop soon (copying Joel Salatin’s design for putting chickens on pasture), so I’ll be posting about that when it happens. Everyone will live together in the portable shelter (getting a fresh patch of grass every day) until it’s time to cull the cockerels. Then the laying flock will go into a different, to-be-designed movable coop with nesting boxes, and will get to free-range via electric poultry netting.
Chickens have been nothing but fun so far. Well, except for having to clean the bedding out of their food and water twice a day (silly chickens). I know more challenging chores are ahead, but being a chicken mama sure is fun.
Are chickens right for you?
Does your town allow backyard chickens? They make less noise than a parakeet, will give you free fertilizer for your garden, fresh eggs every day, and are endlessly entertaining. They’re great animals to have around kids, too. Why not see if you can keep a chicken or two?