The Chickies are Here!

A day late, but twice as many as I expected.

If you know anything about me, you know that I live in a rather rural area and have been keeping a small flock of chickens for the past six or seven years. My first flock was the best: eight hens who were tame and friendly because I’d raised them from chicks. Coyotes got three of them in a day (which is why I have a coyote tail hanging from the rearview mirror in my S2000), and, as a result, I had to keep them cooped up all day long, first in their relatively small chicken coop and later in a fenced in chicken yard my friend John built for me alongside the coop. The remaining five chickens produced, on average, four eggs a day. We’re not really big egg eaters, so we wound up giving away fresh eggs to just about anyone who showed up at our door — the farrier, the FedEx man, and the APS meter reader — as well as friends and neighbors.

Time passed. I got more chickens and coyotes and neighborhood dogs took some chickens away. We got a rooster from my friend Janet. I hatched one chick on my own, then bought two more to keep it company. One my my hens hatched her own brood of chicks, all of which were killed by the rest of the flock. Later on, I started replacing chickens with older birds that were less likely to be killed by the flock. Neighborhood dogs dug their way into the yard and killed all my chickens but one; we later electrified the outside of the yard fence to keep them out.

As I write this, I have two hens and a rooster that I got from my hairdresser, Sue. She was moving and looking for a home for her flock. When I got the hens from her, one of them was laying. But now neither of them do. We say they’re lazy chickens. And I’ve already decided that they’ll soon go to a new home in Wenden, where my Mexican friend Celia will turn them into enchiladas. She says fresh chicken is a lot better than store-bought. I don’t doubt her, but I’m not about to wring their necks, pluck them, and gut them to find out for sure.

When I decided to replace my little flock, I decided to start from scratch again — no pun intended — with a fresh batch of chicks. I ordered from Ideal Poultry in Texas. They’re one of the few hatcheries that will ship small orders (less than 25 chicks) and will vaccinate for Marek’s disease (which killed a few of my chickens a few years back). I ordered Ameraucanas (Araucanas), which are also known as the “Easter Egg Chicken.” Why? Because they lay colored eggs: brown, green, and sometimes even blue.

I’d had Ameraucanas before and I loved the green eggs. One of my hens laid a beautiful sage green colored egg that was almost the same color I’d painted my kitchen. The colored eggs are a novelty, but what’s nice is that this breed is a pretty good producer. All of my chickens laid regularly until their untimely deaths.I ordered 10 hens and 2 males from Ideal Poultry. I got an e-mail message a few days later, saying my chicks would be shipped out on December 7. Ideal ships via Priority Mail and I knew from experience that I could expect a call from the local post office on Friday morning, around 6 AM, telling me that my chicks had arrived. I prepared a large plastic storage container with pine shavings and paper towel sheets on the bottom. Bought new a new chick waterer and chick feeder, and bought the smallest bag of chick starter I could: 25 lbs. I also set up the heat lamp over my makeshift brooder. All I’d have to do when the call came was to plug in the heat lamp, fill the waterer and feeder, and bring the chicks home.

But the call never came on Friday. I went to the post office to try to track down the chicks, but without a tracking number, it was impossible. I was told to wait for the 11 AM express mail truck. It arrived at 1 PM. No chicks aboard.

Meanwhile, I’d called the hatchery and left numerous messages and e-mail messages. Chicks can survive without problems for up to 48 hours after hatching without food or water. After that, nothing’s guaranteed. All I could think of was a box arriving at Wickenburg Post Office the next day with a dozen dead chicks in it.

But there was nothing I could do. I had to be in Tempe that evening for Mike’s company Christmas party. The plan was to spend the night at the Embassy Suites on South Rural. I was hoping to do some Christmas shopping while I was down there — I needed a Lowe’s gift certificate for my brother and his wife — but I was already out of time. So I hopped in my Honda and zipped down to Tempe.

The hatchery called my cell phone just after I checked in at the hotel. The guy who called was probably the owner and he had a thick Texan drawl. He told me that the shipment had probably been delayed on Wednesday because of an ice storm in Dallas. (I guess I missed that on the news.) A lot of flights were cancelled. But the chicks, which had been hatched after noon on Wednesday, definitely went out. They should arrive by Saturday morning. The hatchery would replace them if they died enroute.

Not much I could do in Tempe, so I tried not to think about them.

We went to bed around midnight, which is almost like staying up all night for me.

Mike had a bad night. Neither of us drank very much at the party, but something he ate didn’t agree with him and he was up half the night. I woke at 7:30 AM and left him to sleep for a while. We had a suite, so I surfed the channels on the television in the other room while drinking coffee I brewed in the tiny pot in our kitchenette. I wanted to go home and get the chicks settled in — if they were still alive — but I was worried about Mike.

We finally checked out at about 9:30 AM. We each had our own car, so we went our separate ways. I got in to Wickenburg at about 10:45 AM and went right to the post office. I heard my new little babies peeping as soon as I got in the door.

The post office folks had been kind enough to cut down a plastic cup, put some water in it, and give it to the chickies. So I think some of them got something to drink. At this point, they were nearly 72 hours old and very vocal. I thanked the post office folks, put the box of chicks in the car, and drove home.

Ideal Poultry ships chicks in a small cardboard box with plenty of air holes. The box is held closed by a plastic strap, making it easy to open up the sides and peek in. The box is small on purpose; it forces the chicks close together so they keep each other warm. And it probably prevents them from falling over all the time. Normally, Ideal puts a rolled up straw thing in one side of the box, since I always place small orders. This time, it decided to fill the empty space with extra chicks. So when I started pulling them out, I didn’t stop until I had more than 20 of them in their new home.

There were two dead chicks on the bottom of the box; they’d obviously died early in transit because they were very small and their brethren had stomped them into the hay. Normally, I’d feel pretty sad about this, but with so many live chicks to occupy my mind, it didn’t bother me as much as it should have.

Most of the chicks were very active. I went through my ritual: taking each one and dipping its beak into the water to teach it how to drink. It sounds silly, but they really don’t know how to drink until you show them. And that’s kind of what gets them started on their unaided lives. Kind of like slapping a newborn baby on its butt to get it to breathe.

I haven’t gotten an exact count yet, but I think I have 28 chicks. The hatchery may have thought it was doing me a favor by shipping so many extras for free, but I have a definite space problem. The plastic bin I bought to house them for their first 3 to 4 weeks won’t last more than a week now. I’m already scrambling for a large box to move them into. Maybe they thought I had a nice, warm Arizona yard to keep them in. In reality, they’ll live in my garage for at least two months. That’s when they’ll have enough feathers and down to handle the cold winter nights.

They are cute. No doubt about it. Most of them already have feathers growing on the ends of their tiny wings. They’re babies, so they’ll walk around and eat and drink and jump over each other and then suddenly get tired and fall asleep. They’re fun to watch. And when they’re all awake, they make a ton of noise.

As for my current adult flock: their days are numbered. I’ll see Celia again right before Christmas. Although I already gave her her Christmas present, she might be taking three bonus birds home with her that day. Enchiladas? Tamales? Or just roast chicken? If those girls don’t start laying eggs soon, they’ll be the main course on Celia’s table one day soon.

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