Colorado Springs News, Sports & Business

Gazette Premium Content The Country Life: What to know when getting baby chicks

By Bill Radford Updated: March 11, 2014 at 8:50 am

The chicks are back in town.

We're talking baby chicks - cute, chirping, feathered balls of fluff.

Baby chick season has begun. Which means it's been about a year since we got our six baby chicks. I have fond memories of falling asleep to their chirping from their cage in our master bathroom. Five hens and an unintended rooster (they were supposed to be all females), they're now all grown up and live in a coop outside.

The Big R store in Falcon received its first shipment of chicks of the season last week. I asked Jessica Metts, an employee in the feed and tack department who raises chickens, what basics people should know when buying and caring for baby chicks.

No. 1 is a heat source for the fragile chicks, she said; use a heat lamp, not a space heater. (Backyardchickens.com states that an ordinary 100-watt bulb can usually provide enough heat and that the chicks' behavior can tell you if the temperature is right: If they're panting and/or huddling in corners farthest from the light, they're too hot. If they huddle together in a ball under the light, they're too cold.

Fresh water is also important, Metts says, and so is a medicated feed if the chicks aren't vaccinated. Young birds often carry salmonella, so practice good hygiene and wash hands before and after handling them.

"If you're a brand-new chick owner, don't be intimidated, but don't be naive about it," Metts cautions. "They are babies; they do need a lot of attention." Some chicks have died within hours of leaving the store because the new owners left them in the car to run errands or whatever instead of getting them to a warm, secure environment.

Chickens, of course, are not just country residents; backyard city chickens have become more popular in recent years as part of an urban homesteading trend. In Colorado Springs, you can keep up to 10 chickens - but no roosters.

Easter is next month and will no doubt be accompanied by the usual warnings against buying baby chicks or bunnies as Easter presents. The American Humane Association, on its website, warns that "these extremely vulnerable little animals are poorly suited as pets." The vast majority of the baby bunnies, chicks and ducks that become Easter gifts die within weeks, it says.

Raising chickens "is a great experience for children," Metts says, but the kids should be monitored. And children and adults alike need to realize "this is a baby animal 100 percent dependent upon you." They also should be viewed as a long-term commitment; the American Humane Association states that chicks given as pets that do survive are often abandoned or released to animal care and control agencies.

Our chickens are sort of pets, sort of livestock. They're amusing to watch (though I wish the rooster would quit attacking me) and they produce "farm fresh eggs." But they won't end up on our dinner table.

We're not planning to get any chicks this year, but I wondered about introducing new chickens to our existing flock if we did. Would the flock welcome newcomers? Metts suggests waiting until the chicks are nearly full grown, then putting them in with the adult chickens but with a barrier - say a wire mesh - separating the new and old chickens so they can "socialize" but not be able to get to each other. When they are put together, be sure there's enough space for the young ones to get away from the older ones if necessary. In a short time, they'll be getting along like they have known each other forever, she says.

Metts has 11 chickens - 10 hens and a rooster, ranging in age from 1 to 3 years old. She practically glows when she talks about them.

"I have some of them named after characters from 'Friends' and then the other chickens are named after characters from 'Desperate Housewives,'" she says; the rooster is named Chandler.

"I truly do enjoy having chickens," she says. "They're great animals to have."

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Bill Radford and his wife live in the countryside east of Colorado Springs with a menagerie that includes a horse, a mule, two goats, three dogs, two cats, a half-dozen chickens, two rabbits, two guinea pigs and two parrots. Contact him: Twitter @billradfordiii, gazettebillradford

on Facebook. Follow his blog at blogs.gazette.com/thecountrylife.

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