Mad About Science: baby chicks

By Brenden Bobby
Reader Columnist

It’s that magical time of year again. The postal workers hear the first cheeps of spring arriving in aerated boxes, and people start coming out in droves to see the wood, tin and wire displays filling up with pine shavings and fluffy balls of cuteness.

I like to do one of these articles every year, because there are always new chicken parents that are as wide-eyed and underprepared as I was my first year.

Before we get started, a disclaimer: Yes, they’re cute. No, they won’t stay like that forever, so don’t buy them on a whim. Imagine how difficult it’d be from your dog or cat’s perspective if you just up and got rid of them. Chickens are just as perceptive, so if you’re not in this for the long haul then find someone who is or learn how to humanely butcher them, because I guarantee the animal shelter won’t rehome chickens and roosters.

We primarily buy chickens for three factors: eggs, meat and for show. While anyone with an opposable thumb can collect eggs, everyone that owns these birds should know how to butcher them. There’s always a bare minimum 10-percent chance that one of your pullets (young hen) will end up being a cockerel (young rooster). If you incubate them yourself or buy “straight run” (the chicks were not sexed at hatching), this chance goes up. With how common roosters are, their love of crowing at every hour of every day (and night) and the fact that they can’t lay eggs, few people want them. The easiest thing is to just butcher it yourself. This is especially necessary if you live within the limits of a town, as you will get noise complaints and angry neighbors very quickly.

You also need to know where you’re going to put them once they’re not small anymore. Their coop will be their home, and where they go to roost at night, and it will be the place that keeps them safe from predators. If you live in town, you may also want to invest in building an enclosure to keep neighborly dogs and un-neighborly predators at bay, and to keep the birds where you want them. Free range is great, until those fluffy little hooligans start crapping on your neighbor’s Camaro and you have an unenthused police officer arriving to relay a no-crapping order addressed to you.

Your coop needs to have roosting bars, because chickens don’t like sleeping on the floor, and these bars should be wood; metal bars will make your chickens’ feet freeze to them during the winter. The coop also needs a small, lockable door the chickens can use to get in and out of the coop. If it’s elevated off the ground, the door needs a ramp. It also needs a door large enough for you to enter and exit so you can clean poop from the coop. You will also want nesting boxes in your coop, so the chickens have a place to lay their eggs, otherwise you’ll find them everywhere, and easter egg hunting is never fun when you do it 365.

If you’re not much of a handyman, you can buy prefab coops for anywhere from $250 to over $1000. If you’ve got the tools and the knowhow, it doesn’t take long to build one with some lumber and a little elbow grease. I converted an old 14-foot hauling trailer into a coop. Had I known what on Earth I was doing at the time, I probably could’ve spent less than $200 on it, and it comfortably houses over 30 birds currently. There are a few construction-related tips and tricks I’ll leave in the sidebar for later.

If you have your farm planned out and are ready to bang it out in the spring, don’t forget to look to the present, because your birds are needy creatures, and they require things now. Before you buy any chicks, have your space ready. You will want to make a brooder, which is chickenese for a space that’s enclosed to keep the chicks in. If you’re buying ten or less, a large sterilite tub works (just don’t put the lid on it!). You will also need pine shavings to put in the bottom of the tub so the chickens can be comfortable and have traction when walking. They also need access to water, access to food, and a heat lamp that will keep their box at a comfortable 95 degrees. Luckily, you can buy all of these things at once at the farm and feed store, and the people working there will be happy to help you with everything you need.

If you own other pets like cats or dogs, you will want to put the brooder some place these animals won’t bother them. The baby chicks are like little chicken nuggets to most dogs and cats, and there are few things more heartbreaking than a box full of baby animals reduced to bits and pieces. Cats are easy to keep out, because you can fit the top of the brooder with a wire rack (always use half-inch hardware cloth.) Dogs are a different story, because they can easily dismantle a brooder setup or even scare the chicks to death. High stress can cause the poor little buggers to just give up and die.

If you’re just starting your journey or are a seasoned vet, I’d still suggest checking out “Storey’s Guide to Poultry” at the library. There are a few other really good titles surrounding it, but the “Storey’s Guide” books are my go-to farm resource.

I’ll let you get back to fawning over the cuteness, now. Good luck!

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