Sunday, 31 July 2011

The weeks are going by....

...and the chicks are growing!  One thing amongst many that I have discovered about chicks is that they grow up, very fast!

Here they are at a couple of days old;

One week (ish)

Two weeks (ish - you get the idea)

Roughly 4 weeks

At four weeks they have a good smattering of feathers, rather than a fuzzy covering. They are still eating Chick Crumb but also mashed up boiled egg, including the shells and mealworms, yeuck!  Coincidently, did you know mealworms can be bought off the shelf in 'mini', 'medium' and 'there's no way I'm going to buy THOSE' sizes from a pet shop near you.

When starting to feed your chicks other foodstuff, you do need to add grit, in the case of chicks, chick grit.  This helps to grind up the food when it leaves your chicken's crop.  Here's an accurate description about the function of the crop and grit from Queensland Government Primary industries & fisheries, including long words that I probably wouldn't have used. 

'The crop is a temporary storage pouch at the base of the neck that sends the hunger signal to the brain. The oesophagus then traverses the chest cavity to carry food to the proventriculus where food is mixed with acids and other digestive enzymes. Retention time here depends on the activity of the crop and gizzard. Grit in the gizzard, combined with strong muscular action, grinds the food into a mash.'

At 4 weeks, their acquired brooder was getting a little snug. The hunt was on for an equally cost effective (free) indoor home for them as I had planned to move them out to their (yet to be bought, or even decided upon) coop at 7 weeks.  As luck would have it, my husband in his recent flurry of purchasing musical equipment had bought something that required a ginormous cardboard box. It was duly acquired and with everything transferred over the chicks soon settled into their new home, with the mandatory hour of concerned cheeping.

The writing that you can see a bit of is a line from Louis Jordan's 'There Ain't Nobody Here But Us Chickens'.  A rather amusing song that seems to get sung round the house quite a lot these days.  Bonus points if you spotted that there are two lamps on the brooder.  I couldn't decide whether to go with a new red bulb, or stick with the clear which I had been successfully using for the previous four weeks.  In my indecision I thought I'd let the chicks decide but they were equally undecided, so I stuck with the clear.

The daily cockerel/hen checks were picking up speed at this point.  I was fairly sure that Brick was a hen but less sure about Betty.  Needless to say, a lot of checking on various forums and googling pictures of chicks at various ages of development took place.  Cockerels' combs and wattles (the sticky out areas of featherless skin on top of their heads and under their beaks), grow quicker and larger than hens, and whereas hens' combs and wattles tend to stay pinky/yellow (until point of lay I think), cockerels' start to redden up. So at 4 weeks, the jury was still out.


Sunday, 24 July 2011

Introducing Betty & Brick

We'd had our chicks for just under a week when we noticed their fluffy yellow & brown down was being interrupted by emerging feathers on their wings, apparently the first place they start to grow.

It seems on some breeds you can determine gender from either the length or growth rate of primary and secondary wing feathers but I don't know to what breeds this applies or whether my information is totally accurate.  

There are a few ways to attempt to determine chick gender, aswell as feather sexing there is vent sexing (looking at their bottoms in some detail) which has to be done when the chicks are a day old and needs an expert to do it; so that was me out!  Then there's the 'sex-link' chicks where males and females are different colours - even I could work that one out! But my chicks weren't one of these breeds so it seemed a waiting game would ensue. This would prove to become a daily examination of any new tell-tale pointers.

At this point they had also acquired names.  Not an easy task for I am terrible at choosing names; I can never decide and there's usually weekly changes during the first few months.  We decided on Betty for the yellow chick & Brick for the brown one.  Betty was named after Betty Page, not an obvious choice for a chicken but a heroine of mine and also a suitable 'old lady' name for a clucky, old hen.  Brick - not a usual name for a chicken or in fact anything except an item of building construction. However,  anyone familiar with the TV programme The Middle will be fully aware of 'Brick'.  The character and our chicken shared similar traits and the name seemed to suit.  Everyone was happy with the names, at least for the time being.

                                   Betty & Brick 

Some further investigation clarified the breed of our chicks.  Apparently, they are Pekin bantams, their feathery bloomers helped in that particular minefield.
Here is a bit of information about the breed, not mine obviously as there is far too much accurate information.

'Pekin bantams are a true bantam, a breed of miniature chicken which has no large fowl counterpart,(also known as erroneously Cochin bantams, although in the UK Cochin bantams are simply miniaturised versions of large Cochin) are round, and their carriage tilts forward, with the head slightly closer to the ground than their elaborate tail feathers. This 'tilt' is a key characteristic of the Pekin bantam. They have sometimes been described as looking like little walking teacosies, or feathery footballs. The cockerels often have longer feathers that protrude outwards from their feet. The range of Pekin colours is extensive, including black, white, buff, lavender, mottled and red - and the list is continually growing. Rarer colours are in great demand, and many breeders spend years perfecting new lines of colours in their birds.
Pekin Bantams are very docile, and with careful and regular handling they will be happy to sit on their owner's lap to be stroked and petted. They make ideal pets for families with younger children for this reason. However, the Pekin bantam cockerels can still be aggressive and defensive of their territory and mates once they reach sexual maturity, but are generally gentle natured and have been known to share incubation of the eggs.
The hens are regularly broody and are known to be good sitters and attentive mothers.'

Pekin cockerel and hen

'Broody' (we've all heard the term used) in chickens involves a fluffy, grumpy hen sat unbudgingly on a nest with an overwhelming desire to hatch a batch of eggs and simply refusing to do anything else.  This can last for weeks if fertile eggs are not supplied or there are methods to break the broodiness and return the hen to normality...looking forward to that then!

Seven days of chick-handling have had positive results.  Betty & Brick are seemingly pleased to see us and enjoy our company.  They like to sit on our laps and enjoy a cuddle but they especially like sitting on the highest point possible.  If the head is out of reach then they will make do with a shoulder, parrot style.

They also like to run around the lounge, a large amount of running and flapping of little wings married with lots of cheeping heralds the first minute of freedom from the brooder.  They do get tired very quickly and will just stop in the middle of some chick activity and fall asleep just like that.  They can be just stood there doing something and then their head is on the floor and they're asleep propped up.  The first few times they do this is very unsettling to a new chick keeper, your first instinct is that something terminal has happened to them, like the first time you find them asleep, sprawled out on the floor in the brooder.  As my husband pointed out rather accurately after his first heart stopping encounter, "They look like roadkill".

Saturday, 23 July 2011

The day after the first day

Now, I'm not an early riser (my husband will definitely vouch for that!) but you know when you half wake up, instantly remember you've got stuff going on so  you'll never get back to sleep? Well that was me - actually has been me since the chicks arrived.  I'm becoming quite acquainted with 7.00am on weekend mornings.

So the day after the chicks arrived, I'm up and down the stairs to make sure they are still with us and I'm extremely happy to be greeted by a chorus of cute cheeps.  They seem so pleased to see me that I feel a cuddle is probably in order - wrong!  The appearance of a looming hand sends the fear of god through them, and a scattering to the four winds.  It seems that natural instincts have kicked in, suddenly I'm transformed from kind giver of food to an airborne invader about to swoop down and turn them into breakfast.    

At this point, I should explain that our chicks live in the house, the brooder in the living room, so I can keep an eye on them while get used to us.  There's been talk (on the 'chicken' section of the internet) that chicks are pooey (correct), smelly and dusty and that a lot of people don't care for their lodgers to lodge for too long.  Our chicks lived in the brooder with us until they were six weeks old, they were cleaned out everyday and not once did we have a problem with smell or dust, the hamster on the other hand is a different matter entirely...

Now where was I? Ah yes; nervous chicks.  Now I know that any pet, furry or feathered, can be bribed into domestication with treats - it's just about administering the right treat.  So adding to my list of chicken tasks was to find the optimum treat for bribing purposes but top of todays 'to-do-list' was to find out about a proper lamp, the thermometer and clean them out.  Chicks poop about once every 2 minutes and there's a fair few minutes involved in one night.  You'd think being asleep would stop them but no - they 'sleep poop'!
I have come across a video of the chicks in their brooder. They are roughly a week old, give or take a few days either way.

Cleaning out is relatively quick and harmless, dirty towel out, clean towel in.  I used towels because initially they were old ones I had lying about but on further research they are quite good.  They aren't dusty like shavings and they don't spread themselves about your house with uncanny ease! They are easy to get clean and because they provide a good, grippy surface to stand on, stop the onset or worsening of something called 'splay legs'. Splay legs is fairly self explanitary in that chicks stand with their legs apart and are unable to bring them together to stand properly.  They can be born with this or (as I understand it) it can develop from too much time on slippery surfaces.

A cure is to hobble the chicks legs together with string, a plaster of something similar and this keeps their legs together and corrects their stance.  This stays on for 3/4 days, after an initial hour of close supervision to ensure they are comfortable with their new leg-wear and helps the chicks legs strengthen and straighten.

Right, back to heat lamp research.  It seems that these 250 watt heat lamps are very expensive and it also seems that they are intended for people with somewhat more than 2 chicks.  I still wasn't totally put off the idea of having one as it is the 'proper' piece of kit...that was until I read that one of these lamps nearly burnt someones house down!  They get VERY hot and need to be housed with extreme care and that incident wasn't isolated, so strike that off the list then.  Luckily, further research showed that indoor, small scale poultry keepers successfully use household spotlights with 60 watt bulbs, which as luck would have it was what I was using. 

There was also a suggestion that red bulbs are more calming for the birds and discourage them from pecking at each other.  I used both during the chicks' time in the brooder and I can say that I didn't notice any difference in their behaviour from one bulb to the other.  The red bulb did give off the suggestion of a house of easy virtue though and the clear one didn't do us any favours either, being on 24 hours a day it just made our neighbours think we were farming cannabis...

So that was it then. The chicks were sticking with the acquired spotlight from my upstairs rummage and seeing as they and I were doing such an excellent job of managing the heat without the thermometer, we were just going to wait until the tortoise's turned up but of course, it never did.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Neither, for us it was two chicks.

After a gap of over 20 years since owning a single cockerel, two little fluffy chicks came into our lives.  So I thought I'd blog my beginners trials and tribulations; it might prove useful to some, amusing to others and may even encourage a few more people to join the chicken-keeping flock.

It's amazing how much you forget over 20 years...

Emperor, my first cockerel.

The rather unplanned arrival of new family members on a Tuesday afternoon in June, in the shape of two fluffy day old chicks, brought about a quick and rather unprepared for return to poultry keeping.

With the chicks (one brown and one traditional Easter yellow) contented in the arms of some equally contented children, I set about turning general household objects into a hi-tech brooder.  I knew I needed a brooder, I'd read it on the internet. 

A brooder is a container, be it a cardboard box, large plastic container (like the type you have under the bed to stash stuff that in all honesty should've been thrown away yonks ago), an indoor bunny cage or such like.  Whatever you use it should be safe, large enough for your desired number of chicks, able to offer a cool area away from the heat lamp (I'll get to that particular trial later) and easy to clean.  Chicks poop...chicks poop A LOT!

I  didn't actually have anything suitable in the house but a quick drive to my obliging (and also not at home to stop me trawling through her house) mother, produced the container I needed to provide a home for my chicks over the next few weeks.  

Once back at home and after a quick flick through a chicken forum (yep they have forums for everything) I discovered that heat was essential. And not just heat; heat at 95 degrees that had to be reduced by 5 degrees each week!  Now, I knew I had a lamp that kicked out a lot of heat as our tortoise uses it in the winter but, of course, I was never going to find that, so a quick trip to one of the children's rooms heralded an unused spotlight. I made a mental note to buy a proper heat lamp for the chicks at the earliest opportunity and headed back downstairs.

A quick check on the chicks...still happy and still cheeping.

An old towel placed in the 'acquired' tub and the spotlight angled over the side to provide a good amount of warmth but 95 degrees worth of warmth?  Hmm...
it seemed that this temperature was a definite requirement rather than a rough guide.  Obviously, I didn't have a thermometer to hand, even though our tortoise also has one of those in the winter( I must find out where he hides it all) so another check on the internet to find out if a thermometer is absolutely essential.

Apparently, the chicks themselves will tell you if the temperature is correct, too cold and they will huddle together under the lamp; too hot and they will be as far away from the heat as they can get.  A good indication that the correct temperature has been reached is a bit of lying under the heat coupled with wandering about, eating, preening and other such chick activities.  Seeing as I was currently thermometerless (must get one of those as well) it was down to the chicks to let me know if I was getting it right.

A quick trip to my local farm shop for Chick Crumb, a complete food for chicks up to the age of roughly 7 weeks.  You can buy this non-medicated or medicated, which helps prevent chicks from the masses of bugs and germs that seem out to get them.  A quick look at the illness pages in any chicken book will have you wondering how they manage to survive at all!

With the brooder ready to go, I added their food and water in a very shallow dish.  Chicks can drown very easily. Some people recommend putting marbles or pebbles in the bowl so they have to drink from between them and there's no risk of immersion.  

I prised the chicks from the children and placed them in the brooder. Initially this had the chicks in a bit of a panic but they soon settled under the lamp, which I dropped down a bit when I was a little more confident I wasn't going to cook them.  They had a wander, inspected and even tried their food, had a drink and went back to snuggle up under their lamp.  At this point, I realised I should add a picture of the brooder but am quite shocked to discover that during the many photo sessions with the chicks, I failed to take any of the brooder, so I will have to ask you, dear reader, to use your imagination.  Hopefully I have given you enough information for a very good, if imaginary, annotated image.

I was pretty confident our home-assembled brooder was doing a reasonable job of looking after our new charges but (as always) overnight would be the challenge.  Baby birds and night time never strike me as a good combination.  Any baby sparrow, blackbird or suchlike I found as a child and brought home to help always died overnight, so it was with much relief when I found two expectant faces waiting for me the following morning.