Yep, Spring is right around the corner! St. Patrick's Day and Easter are the big holidays all the stores are peddling decorations, toys, candy, themed clothing, decorated pastries, and basket fixings for. If this is the year you are thinking about moving beyond the silly hats and funny wrapped candies to something like a new pet- maybe a bunny or some chicks, there are a few things to consider before making this step. For your consideration of these live animals, remember to plan ahead and to think through the life of the animals you are considering beyond the cute, fluffy, young little life stage. For the sake of our discussion, we will look into 5 different questions to ask before getting chicks this spring, although similar questions can be asked about a bunny or any other pet for that matter.
1) Am I ready to take care of this chick from day one through adulthood?
The first thing to consider when looking to take some little chicks into your care is if you are thinking about not just their immediate care, but also into their young chick stages, the transition to the outside, and ultimately into adulthood. Baby chicks require a safe, warm place for at least the first 6 weeks of their life. Temperatures in their environment need to be 95 degrees the first week and worked down each week from that by 5 degrees until they have all their insulating feathers and can regulate their body temperature on their own and handle the ambient temperature. During this time, they will start to discover their wings and flap inside of their brooder. If the sides of this container are not tall enough, the birds will prove to you that chickens can fly-not far and not high, but far and high enough to make you an instant chicken wrangler. After these fun times, the chicks will need to move to their coop/ run area and get used to being outside, roosting, dust bathing, and foraging. Chickens can live anywhere from 5-8 years on average with the oldest chicken being on record for living 16 years! Be prepared for the long haul and entertainment for years to come.
2) Secondly, you will need to make sure that you have the space requirements for the chicks/chickens and if you are able to have them. Location, location, location is key to where you will have your new flock. Little chicks need that space that keeps them warm and clean for while they are little, but as the birds grow and learn what their wings do for them they will need more space. Although chickens do not tend to 'fly', they like use their wings to leap to perches and some get curious for how high they can get. General rule of thumb says 2-3ft of space for inside of a coop and 8-10ft of space for a run or outdoor space. This will keep a chicken area at the minimum of space requirement, but will need to be maintained well to keep a clean and healthy environment for your birds. Things like the deep litter method or using sand in the coop are all items to investigate to know for sure how you will house and run your flock. In our experience, the bigger the area you can have for your birds, the more time you have between major cleanings and the happier the chickens are to explore. On the other side, two things to consider in free ranging your birds will be aerial predators and the foraging sources for your flock (making sure this is large enough to not be depleted or is renewable). Also, if you live in a neighborhood, check with your HOA or city ordinances to make sure you are allowed to have chickens. If you do not live in an place that limits how many or what you can have, it is still a good idea to let your neighbors know what you are planning. Note, the promise of sharing some of your eggs can go a long way for a neighbor that seems reluctant of your new adventure.
3) Now, what type of bird to actually get. If you head off to your local feed and seed store in spring, you might be overwhelmed by the choices for chicks. Your first instinct could be to pick a color or one that you like the way it looks, but I do want to caution you that this might not be the best way to pick your new responsibility. Instead, I would highly encourage you to think of what the reason you are starting your flock- egg production, entertainment, meat production, pet, garden helpers, or any other reason. Once you determine why you are getting your first birds, it will be easier to decide on type. There are definitely birds that are specific for egg laying production-like the Barred Rock, Leghorns, or Golden Comet. Then, there are bigger growing birds that are also good egg layers that can be considered dual purpose (egg and then meat) like the Black Australorp, Rhode Island Red, or Jersey Giants. Other reasons for choosing a breed can be the playful and silly nature of a Polish, the gentle and broody demeanor of the Silkie, or free ranging and independent nature of a Welsummer or Buckeye. Ultimately, the best start for your flock will be to decide what you want out of the birds and then decide on the breeds based on this and not just how cute they are, cause we can all agree that all the chicks are super cute!
4) Along with choosing the breed, you will need to know the next biggest determination, the sex of the chicken. If you live in a neighborhood, you probably are not allowed to have a rooster. If you plan to free range your birds and have more land to let them do this, you might want a rooster for help in protecting your ladies. Just in case you are wondering (as we did when we first started), you only need to have hens to have eggs- roosters are necessary for fertility, but not for production. After you decide about roosters and hens, you need to know how you can find these that match up with the breed you choose. Many smaller breeds that are the 'fancy' birds are sold as little chicks as 'straight run'. This term means that you purchase the chick, but they are not sexed as either a male or female chicken. The larger breeds are sold from hatcheries as sexed birds within a certain percentage, many times this is 85%. This means that 85% of the time you will have a hen and the other 15% you might have a rooster because they been looked at in the hatchery to be sexed before sent out to you or your local feed and seed store. Lastly, you can purchase a 99% sex-link bird that come from some breeds that hatch as one color for the male and another for female. Examples of these are the red sex link/star, black sex link/star, or Legbar. You will need to determine what you will do if you get a bird that is not the sex you are planning for if it is an undetermined as a chick. Maybe make some farm friends that might be able to take your favorite 'hen' , but crows one morning and turns out to be a rooster.
5) Lastly, you want to plan for the future with your pets/flock and all the eggs you will get. Enjoy the experience, learn everyday and you will probably want to add to your flock as time goes on. Hens lay for a few years and have times they slow down in egg production, so planning to have enough birds to keep up with your desired egg production will be one consideration. As you gain confidence, you might want to add a few 'fancy' breeds that you didn't think was possible when you first started. A good mix of egg layers or dual purpose birds with some silly birds or cuddle-bugs can add to your backyard flock entertainment and fun!
Have a great time preparing your flock's home, deciding on who to bring home, and of course, the entertainment they bring once they are home. Join us for a upcoming chicken raising class to learn more and meet other chicken folks.