story: Gwen Lawler-Tough
Important Lessons For Raising Chicks
In 1996, I thought it would be cute to get some spring chicks from the local feed store for my two young sons. My half-baked idea was to give the chicks to a nearby farmer when they started getting big. I knew nothing about chickens then, and figured there wasn’t much to know, anyway. I figured wrong. We all fell in love with our chicks, which the boys named Salt and Pepper – and we learned some valuable lessons along the way.
Lesson 1: Chickens have definite personalities that often characterize their breed.
Salt was a Rhode Island Red hen, which grew from a yellow chick into a hen flaunting red feathers, a lean build and an independent streak. Rhode Island hens will go off by themselves to search for bugs, while most hens stay together. Pepper was an Araucana rooster, whose black/white baby fuzz developed into an intricate pattern of brown, black, blue and red feathers. Those beautiful feathers are one of the reasons people go clucky over these birds.
For a few weeks, the chicks were happy, peeping little ones, content in their small box with cedar shavings. For heat, we put in a small lamp. For food, we bought the feed store’s chick starter. The boys couldn’t wait to come home from school to play with their chicks. This entailed lying down on the grass and letting the chicks run all over them. So far, so good.
But around the third week, the chicks had a growth spurt and one morning I found both of them running around my kitchen floor.
Lesson 2: Chicks grow fast: fuzzy-cute becomes gawky-ugly.
It was time for the chicks to go to the farmer, but, we couldn’t part with them yet. Plan B: We’d keep the chicks until Salt started laying eggs, which the feed store guy told me started at around six months. We had to figure out a new outdoor home to go with plan B. The weather was warm and the chickens were getting their feathers. My husband converted the bottom part of the boys’ two-story playhouse into the “Chicken Koop.” We covered the windows with chicken wire, and at night we would lock them up so the raccoons couldn’t come up from the creek and eat them. Lesson 3: Many critters think chickens are “good eats.” You must lock them up at night without fail. Over the years, we have ignored this lesson to the chickens’ peril, and our grief.
The night plan worked well. The day plan was a bust. No one told me chickens had minds of their own. At six months, it was time for Salt to start laying her eggs. She ignored the comfy laying box we had made in for her in the chicken house. One day my husband spotted what he thought was a small light bulb on top of a pinball machine we had temporarily stored on our covered patio; it turned out to be Salt’s first egg.
Lesson 4: Chickens do have minds of their own and lay eggs where they want. They can also fly unless their wings are clipped.
We reluctantly made that trip to the farmer. But the next spring, we were back in the feed store, getting more chicks, this time for keeps. We have raised dozens of chickens ever since. Over the years, we have had many roosters, and alas, many predators. Every rooster has died protecting its flock. In our rural area, bobcats can easily jump our fenced chicken yard.
Lesson 5: Roosters do give their lives to protect their flock. They also are important if you want to have little chicks.
Yes, the rooster makes his morning greeting, and it can be very loud. But without a rooster, the eggs that your hens produce will be delicious but sterile. If you want to have one of your hens go “broody,” or to sit on her eggs for 21 days and nights to produce chicks, you need a rooster. Most cities, including Redding, have laws prohibiting roosters. But if you live in a more rural area, consider getting a rooster so you can see one of life’s most touching sights: a mother hen nestling her chicks under her feathers. In today’s very complicated world, this makes me feel that all is well.