Rearing chicks, and finding out the cockerels from the pullets.

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My last post was a real mouthful, sorry!  That was just a combination of a build up of events and me not getting round to setting up this blog sooner.  This post is also going to be a chunky one…

Third Week

By 3rd week, I mean the Araucana is 3 weeks old. The Wyandotte and Pekin are a week and a half old and the 2 Silkies are 4 and a half weeks old. Just to confuse things! The Aracauna had developed feathers like little angel’s wings, but now they were spreading to evenly cover his back, and his wings were lengthening. He can preen himself and stretch a leg out without falling over! The two Easter chicks are at the wobbly stage Aracauna used to be. Pekin chick was born with feathers on his feet so I’ll have to watch the hygiene of the brooder. The Silkies also have feathery feet, and typical of the breed, a fifth toe. The skin is also black which is another feature. I have often read articles saying Silkies are docile and make good children’s pets…I have to say my two Silkies are like thugs! The suspected cockerel is starting to square up to my hand when I clean the box and the other one is following suit. Their feathers are fluffing out more and they are becoming more gangly, like teenagers with attitude!

The incubation kit, including the plastic brooder is due back at Pear Tree Poultry so I had to kit out another cardboard box for the newbie chicks as they are quite small and I didn’t want to put them in with the rowdy Silkies yet. I bought another feeder and drinker set and another anti-slip mat. The heat lamp gives off a reasonable area of heat, so we dangled it where it could heat both cardboard brooders, with the newbies box being slightly more raised. They will have to live separately like this till I think the newbies are bigger and ready to integrate with the others.

The temperature of the brooder should be a constant 33 degrees C (95 degrees F) but a good guide is the behaviour of the chicks. Loud cheeping means they are cold (they do this when we handle them for too long!) and if they are too hot they will position themselves away from the lamp and each other. They sleep a lot, like all babies and sometimes flat out – there were times we’ve had to check they were still ok!

Sleepy chicks!
Sleepy chicks!
Back, blue/gold Silkie, middle, black/gold Silkie, bottom, Araucana
Top, Silkies. Bottom, Araucana
Left, Pekin. Right, Wyandotte
Left, Pekin. Right, Wyandotte
 

Fourth Week

Sometimes chicks get a condition called ‘pasty butt’ which means poo sticks to the bottom. It needs cleaning off with a warm wet tissue or it accummulate and can affect the chick’s ability to defecate. Aracauna chick had a mild case of it and so did the Wyandotte chick. While I am checking bums, I also check feet for dried on poo which can build up and form poo balls on the toenails or underfoot, which can lead to a condition called bumblefoot. Apart from hygiene issues, these poo balls can cause lameness and unbalance the structure of the foot which then lead to deformities. Dried chicken poo can set rock hard but dipping the foot in warm water softens it and makes it easier to remove. Not that they appreciate these ‘pedicures’ but luckily I don’t need to do them very often as the older chicks get cleaned 3 times a day due to the mess they make. For now, the newbies aren’t too bad.

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Infra red lighting isn’t the most flattering!

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Fifth Week

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Silkies fluffing up nicely
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Araucana developing a little crest on top of the head
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Notice change of feather colouring on the Wyandotte’s wings

As the chicks get older and grow new feathers, they are able to regulate their temperature more so their dependence for heat becomes less. We can gradually raise the infra red heat lamp each week to wean the chicks off heat. However, the conservatory where they are living gets really warm, and at time of writing we are having a good spell of weather, so the heat lamp is switched off during the day and goes back on at night when it is cold.  This can be phased out till they are off heat altogether, but this will depend on temperature, how many chicks you have (they can huddle up for warmth) and when they are fully feathered out.

I decided to integrate the two sets of chicks now. They have been acquainted to each other when I have moved them out of their cardboard brooders for cleaning, and fortunately there were no dramas like there usually are when introducing new hens.  (I must definitely do a blog on that!)  I have also decided to invest in a dog crate to keep them in until they go outside. Partly because the Araucana had decided to to test his wings and can now fly onto the top of the cardboard box!

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Cardboard boxes are great for brooders but they become soiled quickly despite regular attention. The chicks are quite active now and often knock the drinkers over. The Silkies like to chest bump each other, which is boyish behaviour but apparently hens can do this too. The Pekin is also quite hyper at times -3 potential cocks perhaps?

Up to now, the conservatory was a no-go area for the cats. Now the chicks are safely installed in their dog crate, the cats can now have access and see what all the fuss was about. Phoebe didn’t care but Bart was quite intrigued. I hoped it wasn’t out of murderous intent, but Bart is a very laid back cat. Far too laid back to cause any damage. I saw him one day gently placing a paw through the bars of the crate, resting gently on one of the Silkies who didn’t even budge. Thats another good thing with keeping older chicks in the dog crate – they can see what’s going on around them so they become used to their environment.

Sixth Week

The weather has been really warm lately, which meant I could put the chicks outside for short periods. This gave the conservatory a huge sigh of relief, as they seem to eat a lot of chick crumbs and therefore produce a huge amount of poo, and odour with it. They have been losing their down which has been floating around in the air and settling on the floor and window sills while they grow their first feathers. Normally, it would be more practical to keep chicks of this age in a shed with the heat lamp. However, our shed was full (mainly with chicken keeping paraphernalia), so I was committed to being housekeeper to the chicks’ 5 star accommodation. No-one was looking forward to them living out full time more than me!

My current adult hens had a good nonchalant look at the babies. The Silkies had the audacity to give their elders some attitude. I was sure the blue and gold one will be cockerel but I think they may both be boys now. Typical!

Seventh Week

Chicks enjoying longer periods of time outdoors during the day in the Eglu run. They weren’t sure of the grass at first but it didn’t take long for them to realise its edible!  I just bring them in early evening, but they are off heat completely now.  The weather is being a bit erratic at the moment so I’m waiting for a steady spell of fine summer before they live out permanently.

It is possible to start introducing growers pellets at 6 weeks, but as the Pekin and Wyandotte were slightly younger, I figured that I was going to leave it as late as 8 weeks and it wouldn’t do any harm for them to stay on the medicated chick crumb for a bit longer. Coccidiosis is a common killer of young birds, and most chick crumb brands are designed to protect against occysts during the early stages.

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Two weeks since their last picture and some major changes with the Wyandotte and Pekin

Eighth Week

Well, I was sure by week 6 I would know which ones would be boys, but I am still undecided despite analysing pages of Google images. I think it would be more obvious if they were all the same breed and age, but hey ho. I’m sure I will figure it before they start crowing/laying.

I knew I had to make some decisions what to do with any boys and I decided I would give it my best shot at keeping them. I knew this because I was only half heartedly looking for rescue homes for cockerels. They do exist, by the way, but not many with the majority of them down south. I also came across lots of adverts for cockerels being offered free to a good home. Sadly, not many people want cockerels as they don’t lay eggs and crow in the morning (amongst other times), hence “free to a good home.” I am still of the opinion of charging a cost for any pet you want to rehome privately to put off anyone hoping for a free chicken dinner (either for themselves or for other pets). I know I would rather have any chickens in my care humanely put down by my vet if I couldn’t guarantee a safe home for them.

But thats not going to happen. Because I was going to do what all the text books advise you not to and keep my potential cockerels in a small suburban estate and hopefully not fall out with the neighbours!

There is no law to say you can’t keep cocks/cockerels on your property, unless it is written in the deeds of your house that you can’t keep livestock, which means technically, you can’t even have hens. However, the council can make you get rid of your birds if they are noisy and they receive complaints from your neighbours. It was while I was shopping for growers pellets at the local pet shop when I was chatting to a chicken owner there, when she recommended putting her male birds in a cardboard box at night to sleep. As it is dark in the box, the cocks don’t crow, and they can be let out after 9 o’clock to do what chickens do during the day. So, that should solve any crowing at the crack of dawn, and I figured if I put the box in the garage, if they did crow, they wouldn’t disturb anyone.

Steve wasn’t terribly keen to share the garage, which is now his music room where he holds his lessons. But as he didn’t fancy being woken in the early hours either, it was an easy win for me!

Ninth Week

Its June and its hot! Time for the chicks to live outside together permanently! I de-loused them individually and sprinkled some powder over the straw in the nest box. They seem to like piling together and sleeping there. At the moment, the youngsters will live separately from my older hens due to their size. The Wyandotte, Araucana and Pekin are still small and the hens would paste them for sure. The Silkies were older and bigger and I’m sure would hold their own but they are established with the baby flock so they are staying put in the Eglu.

The Eglu and run, as modelled by the garden gang of 2014 (on a rainy day)
The Eglu and run, as modelled by the garden gang of 2014 (on a rainy day)

I am pretty sure now, as the Silkies are actually around 11 weeks old, that both are displaying cockerel characteristics. That doesn’t surprise me too much as I’ve always suspected the blue and gold one to be a boy and I had secretly named him Tarquin. His brother had blossomed into a golden wonder and it was the shape of the fluffy crest on his head that confirmed it for me. So he is now Oscar. Male Silkies develop ‘streamers’ at the back of the crest while Silkie hens have a more spherical crest.

The Wyandotte seems to be growing bigger than the Araucana despite being younger, and the legs are thickening, a sure cockerel sign. Oh dear.

On the plus side Araucana remains small and dainty and I am fairly confident she’s a hen. My last Araucana was called Polly so I have named this one Molly, although they look nothing like each other. Araucanas lay a greenish coloured egg, so I’m looking forward to Molly’s produce!

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Polly, lavender Araucana, left
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Molly, creole Araucana, foreground

Not really sure what sex the Pekin is yet. I suspected cockerel at first as he was quite silly at times, bouncing on all the others. But the little comb that was visible from birth hasn’t really developed any bigger. I’m keeping my fingers crossed he’s a hen – too much testosterone so far for my liking!

Tenth Week

Tarquin is starting to crow! Its not a proper cockerdoodledoo yet, and not terribly loud (again, yet!) but I’m sure with some practise he’ll be in full voice. Time to get that cockerel box sorted.

I have seen some designs for a ‘cock box,’ most being wood and insulated to be as soundproof as possible, though this cannot be completely silent as the birds need ventilation. For me, asking my husband to build something like this is a no-no – it would be quicker to buy it if it was available! I opted for the original cardboard box in the garage idea. Good old cardboard boxes! Fabulous toys for cats, pet carriers, brooders for chicks and now sleeping quarters for manly chickens. Lightweight, eco friendly and easily disposed of and replaced. Good job I have an uncle who works in a warehouse!

So, every night, I put Oscar and Tarquin in the cock box, which is lined with newspaper and straw and close the lid. In the morning after 9am, they go out with the others. That is pretty much all I need to do to avoid any dawn chorus and neighbourly disputes.

Eleventh Week

Eventually, the chicks will live in the walk-in run with the older hens once they have integrated. At present one set of birds will free range while the other set stays in their run, so any arguments are had with a wire barrier between them. This is normally how I introduce any new hens but inevitably there will be fisticuffs when I let them loose together. Allowing new hens to free range the garden in safety beforehand will at least give them an idea where to run and hide.

In preparation for the youngsters living in the main run, I decided to do a big disinfect, not that a chicken environment can ever be sterile, but to kill off anything that may potentially harm young birds. In particular, I am referring to coccidiosis which is the main killer of chicks. It usually occurs in wet conditions and the occysts, which are the villains, can remain dormant for years. Affected birds are usually stationary and hunched with watery droppings and sometimes, but not always, blood in the stools. Coccidiosis can be cured by Coxoid (from any poultry supplies shop) if caught early enough. I always prefer to prevention to cure so I mixed my disinfectant to the required strength and treated the run. It was a strong solution and it smelt for days – I’m pretty sure any pesky occysts would have been obliterated after that.

Twelfth Week

Although Wyandotte hasn’t crowed yet, I’m convinced he is a boy. His feathers on his neck and back were becoming more long and pointy and his comb bigger and redder. So here is my third boy of the year, Siegfried! His sleeping accommodation will now be upgraded accordingly.

Pekin chick, like a typical Pekin, just got more feathery. Originally yellow with black splodges she is now predominantly black. Yes, Pekin is a she and her name is Bunty.

Bunty and Siegfried just chilling.
Bunty and Siegfried just chilling.

Its been quite a journey and learning curve from when I first incubated the eggs to the finished result – 2 girls and 1 boy were hatched out, and 1 died in the shell. Plus we bought 2 chicks who turned out to be boys, but that’s life! It has not been as straightforward as some people’s hatching experiences I’m sure, but I’ve learned plenty and hope anyone who stumbles across this blog will gain something from it.

L-R Molly, Oscar, Tarquin, Bunty and Siegfried
L-R Molly, Oscar, Tarquin, Bunty and Siegfried

Keep checking back to see how my lot are getting on – and if I’m coping!