stretching their wings

I was always perplexed by the way a bitch (as in, female dog) will eventually turn on her pups — snarling as the little ones (who are, by then, not so little, with not so little teeth) try to continue nursing from her. Some dogs, it seems, will simply run away to leak milk in private somewhere the pups can’t find them. Other mothers growl and snap at the pups, sending a crystal-clear ‘it ain’t gonna happen, sweetheart’ signal.

It seems cruel — after all, what could be cuter than a puppy? — but it makes sense. Eventually young creatures outgrow the need for coddling, and past a certain point, coddling actually hinders them.

So it was with the chicks. Since we picked them up from the USPS that fateful August day, they’ve been kept in the garage in boxes. At first, thirty chicks fit handily in one 90-quart Rubbermaid container. (At this stage, for a sense of scale, three chicks also fit handily in the palm of my hand.) But after a week, they needed two boxes. And after two weeks, they let their dissatisfaction with their two-box living quarters be known by pecking one another. More space was needed: I started putting chicks in cardboard boxes, Jasper’s cat carrier, whatever I could get my hands on. And let me tell you, thirty chicks in six different containers is a heck of a lot more work than thirty chicks in one container.

That’s twelve dishes constantly in need of refilling — because as the chicks have quadrupled (maybe quintupled!) in size, they’ve developed the klutzy-teenager habit of knocking over anything that contains something useful. Water dishes are a particular favorite, and knocking them over can create a serious chicken health hazard.

People talk about toxic mold growing in wet litter, but I didn’t find any visible mold. No, my biggest problem with constantly upended water dishes: Wet chicken litter smells not like manure, but like ammonia — a component of their excretions, and a known lung irritant. Given birds’ sky-high rates of respiration, they’re especially susceptible to lung irritants. (In fact, pet parrots can die just from being exposed to a hot non-stick pan, which releases toxic gases during cooking. Word to Polly: don’t cook the cracker in Teflon.)

The chicks’ propensity to knock things over meant that I spent a good portion of the last two weeks scooping out wet, ammonia-rich litter, drying it in the sun, replacing it, and then watching the chicks — the moment they had fresh litter — knock over another water dish and wet the litter again.

So, the point is, I can empathize with mama mutt. I promise: I didn’t growl at the chicks, bite them, or even run away from them, exactly — but it was quite gratifying to drop twenty-five of my not-so-little brood off at the coop this morning. And even more gratifying to watch their delight and terror at suddenly finding themselves in so relatively vast a space. We started them out in the top level of our two-level coop condo, and it was hilarious to watch the first pioneer — a bold little Leghorn — press into the undiscovered territory of the ground floor. (She alternated between curiosity, bravado, and abject terror at suddenly finding herself alone, without any of the protection afforded by her flock.) Eventually she was joined by an Araucana. After an hour or so, I tossed a few ears of sweet corn onto the ramp between the levels; about half the flock took the plunge and followed the corn onto the ground floor.

Also gratifying: the chicks’ waterer is now a large five-gallon bucket. (Good luck knocking that one over, guys! Er, knock on wood.) Their feeder is also a five-gallon bucket. This means I have just two vessels to refill for twenty-five chicks — and hopefully I won’t be refilling these large containers that often.

Okay, so I mentioned that I only moved 25 chicks this morning. The other five are still here, but they have the run of the brooder: one large box houses just two birds, the other just three. They’re still under mama-watch until their peer-inflicted scabs heal — at which point they, too, will get the boot. And I’m trying to keep them outside as much as possible, where they seem to revel in the sun, spreading out their wings to luxuriate in it, dust-bathing in the pine shavings, and eying the yard’s greenery with considerable curiosity.

It’s 5 p.m. Now, the only question is: can I resist the urge to drive over to the field and check on the little ones just one more time before morning?

Ducky, the biggest Araucana (named after the uber-happy character in The Land Before Time who says “Yupyupyup!”) surveys the brooder box.  You can see she’s almost as tall as the box itself.

Ducky surveys her new home — and, presumably, deems it quite satisfactory.

A pioneering White Leghorn is the first to explore the coop’s lower level.

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