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MJ Wixsom: Taking care of chicks is a project

Ever have one of those times where you buy something major that you really don’t need, but you kinda want? Yeah, me neither.

But they had these baby chickens and they were available and backyard chickens are fun. They even ship them to your door.

Day-old chicks still have most of the yolk sack inside them. That is like the ultimate in picnic baskets for a two-day trip to a new home.

They don’t need food or water and only need to stay warm. Ship enough together and they keep each other warm.

Chickens even come pre-sexed now so you can have all females or all males depending on your desired use.

If you want them to look at, the roosters are the pretty ones. They fuss and fight also.

If you want the eggs, you can get all females. You don’t need a rooster for the hens to lay, but you do need a rooster if you want the eggs to hatch.

We have one rooster at Guardian Animal and do not need another. If they go outside, pretty sure a rooster would annoy the neighbors.

(Note: sexing day-old chicks is only 90 percent effective. There may be a rooster in that hen house.)

I have only female chicks coming.

As babies, they need supplemental heat. A brooder box can be made from wood planks, but plastic totes or even a stock tank can also be used depending on the number of birds and the future plans for it.

Whatever you get plan on a lot of dust to be made in the area. Several broods of chicks and a few quail have made our garage into a virtually unusable dust bowl.

Chickens are messy. They need to have special feeders that limit the amount of scratching that spreads the feed everywhere. There are waterers that also limit the amount of stuff that gets into the drinking area. Still expect to clean it at least once a day.

If you get your chicks from a reputable hatchery, they will recommend some vaccines.

Marek’s disease affects domestic chickens worldwide. It affects the nervous system, organs and other tissues. It mostly affects young chicks under 4 months. There is no treatment for Marek’s once the birds are infected. Vaccines given close to the time of hatch are effective at preventing Marek’s disease.

Coccidia is another disease that can kill young birds. Coccidiosis is found wherever chickens are raised. It is an intestinal disease caused by protozoan parasites.

Oocyst (tiny protozoan eggs) are shed in droppings of infected birds. These oocysts have a thick wall that enables them to survive in the environment for 18 months or longer. Oocysts must sporulate to be infective which takes about 48 hours. The severity of disease is proportional to the number of oocysts ingested. A controlled number will produce antibodies and therefore resistance to the disease.

The thick wall means the microscopic oocysts are very resistant to disinfectants.

Litter composting, freezing and drying will eventually kill the oocysts. Vaccines help control the disease.

Even so, deaths are not uncommon. Chickens will trample the slow, pile up if it is too cold, heat stress if it is too hot and die because they were the weak ones.

Overall, it is not a bad idea to get a third to half again more chicks than you really want.

Each week in the brooder box the temperature of the heat lamp can drop about 5 degrees F until it gets to room temperature. Chickens that are outside are going to need a coop. While any handy person should be able to build a coop, it is not as easy as it seems. Unless you live on a production farm, you might want to get a premade coop or a kit. Plan well, those 6 foot coops on Amazon only hold a very few chickens.

Remember that some of the beings that you share your house with are programmed to kill things.

No, not parents with teens, but your dog, cat, ferret and monitor lizard all think that the baby chicks are snacks on the run. This doesn’t necessarily change as the chickens get bigger. The only way to protect the chicks is to have an escape proof pen in a non-accessible place.

While you are building your escape-proof chicken coop, you will need some nest boxes. These should be about a foot square. Chickens will start to lay at about 17–26 weeks of age. (Our quail started at seven weeks of age.) The egg production will start to taper off about two years of age.

While you are setting up your coop, be thinking about how you are going to clean it and collect eggs.

I set up the back to open to collect eggs and the bottom to allow it to be cleaned with a hoe from the outside.

Set up a space for composting. The chicken poop collects and attracts flies.Composting the poop cuts down on the smell and the flies and helps the garden.

Chickens do get a few diseases, but starting with vaccinated birds from a good source will prevent a lot of problems.

Birds from a neighbor’s flock could have internal and external parasites.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve seen enough lice for my lifetime. If they get sick, flock medicine is often best. Sacrifice one and then have a good necropsy done to save the others.

The phrase “pecking order” comes from chickens. They really do have personalities.

They chase, push, fly, peck, scratch and other things that seem like play or fun. Watching chickens is relaxing.

So, this week there will be fifty chickens delivered to Guardian Animal.

Part of the fun of these is that they are an assortment that may include chicks from the White Egg Layers, Heavy Breeds, Ameraucanas, Campines, Cochins, Red Caps, the exotic Polish varieties, and from the rare and unusual varieties.

Ornamental layers and random layers will be at my doorstep soon. I might even have enough to share.

I guess this weekend will be spent planning for them. (More quail and pheasants later.)

MJ Wixsom, DVM MS is a best-selling Amazon author who practices at Guardian Animal Medical Center in Flatwoods, Ky. GuardianAnimal.com 606-928-6566