Mad About Science: Baby Chicks

chicken_PNG2145Ben’s out of the office and the contributors start running wild! Muahaha!

OK, not really, hear me out:

Science and agriculture go together like algebra and geometry, hydrogen and dioxide, Beavis and Butthead. Without science, agriculture just has a bunch of people hitting the ground with blunt objects and shouting at the sky for rain. Without agriculture, science doesn’t have any people to do science because they’ve all starved to death.

With the approach of spring (and Ben’s absence), we’re going to take a different turn with Mad About Science for a month. I promise it will be educational and more importantly: practical.

Where are we starting?

With my favorite subject, of course!


Yes, I’ve talked about chickens before, but while we’ve got our farmer’s hat on we’re going to talk about how to take care of them in the now and why you should want to own them. We’re going to cover babies this week, then the full grown chickens next week.

Worth noting, most of these tips can apply to baby waterfowl (ducks, geese), turkeys and guineafowl, too. Waterfowl are messier and require more specialized care while turkeys and guineas really just need more space and a lot more patience when they grow up.

For many of us, the thawing snow and the bitter farewell to the mountain brings a new excitement: Hordes of tiny fluffballs cheeping away at the feed store! Experienced buyers and newbies alike may get overwhelmed when they first step in, from the long lines of people waiting for the first shipment to the multitude of colors and shapes to all of the accessories that you’re told you have to buy, but you’re not sure you need (until a week later when the adorableness is all dead and your heart is filled with tragedy and remorse).

Let’s get to it!

First, they’re cute and fluffy, but they will not stay that way forever and they are absolutely not an impulse buy. They’re living creatures, not a scarf that looks good on you for a week. If you’re planning on buying, plan farther ahead than the snuggling.

At a bare minimum, most adult chickens need 2 square feet of space to sleep at night. That accumulates quickly, because you don’t want to buy just a single chicken. They need about the same at a bare minimum to run around during the day, but bare minimums are cruel and inhumane. You want to make sure you have plenty of space for them to run about and look for things and not get bored. Happy chickens are fun chickens. Unhappy chickens make everyone sad.

So you just found yourself with your first box of baby chicks. Look at them, they’re so darn cute and noisy. What next?

Honestly, don’t be afraid to ask an employee at the feed store! They’ll tell you the necessities and they’ll usually have them all within arm’s reach, no hunting or digging necessary. Farm & Feed stores rely on repeat customers to continue operation, so they’re not going to try and swindle you or upsell you things you don’t need. They want you to come back, which means they also want your feather babies to get big and healthy and eat lots of food! A few hundred dollars over two years is a better deal for the business than $30 now and a lost customer.

Among the starting necessities are a brooder (It can be a playpen, a large plastic tub, really any kind of large container that keeps the chicks from running wild), a heat lamp and bulb, some type of bedding (straw, sand, pine shavings) and food and water.

Whatever you do, do NOT use cedar shavings. The oil in the cedar shavings is poisonous to the chicks, like if we were to use a vat of cologne for a jacuzzi for our own needs.

As babies, they don’t have any feathers, which means they can’t regulate their own body temperature. This means that a comfortable 75 degrees to us will literally freeze the baby chicks to death. This is why you need a heat lamp and a bulb, preferably a red bulb. It’s gross, but baby chicks will sometimes cannibalize each other. If they see red, they will relentlessly peck until it’s devoured or inedible, so the red bulbs help mask the blood and are also more soothing for the birds. If you had a light shining on you 24/7 you’d prefer a dark red over a brilliant spotlight, right?

When mine are juveniles, I’ll usually load their box up with sand. So long as they’re healthy, I can use a wire mesh litter scooper to clean their housing every day or two and keep their home fresh. Just like a cat box!

It’s very important to keep their area as clean as you can. Don’t break your back or anything, but don’t let them wallow around in their own filth for days on end. Chicks can get sick too, and watching them get sick while you helplessly look on is a soul-crushing experience.

If this isn’t your first rodeo and the local stores just don’t have what you’re looking for, there are several good hatcheries online that can give an incredible diversity to your flock. However, in doing so, you should be very careful. Use safe web-browsing practices. Does the site look fake or sleazy? Are the prices competitive, or does it seem like it’s offering deals that are just too good to be true? Is it trying to install anything on your computer? Any of these things are signs that you probably shouldn’t be using this website.

As well, baby chicks from hatcheries around the United States may carry strains of diseases your chickens have no immunity against, and proper quarantine measures should be taken to ensure the flock is safe. Keep chicks you’ve bought from here separate from ones flown in, or you risk losing all of them.

If you’re really looking for some safe diversity, ask your friends and your neighbors, or come find me at the library. There is an entire community of us bird loving crazies, usually filled to the brim with knowledge or contacts to get you your feather fix. We have a lot of local breeders with specialized and mixed flocks, and you’re more likely to see a strong and healthy flock grow from strong and healthy birds than you are from flocks raised in a factory farm.

I think we’ve about covered the basics. The best advice I can give at this point is when in doubt, ask somebody! There are no stupid questions when it comes to raising living creatures. Next week we’re going to talk about some of the crazy breeds, and why you should want to own your own flock!

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