A fine yellow snow of pollen falls from the oak tree while new leaves burst from their buds, shoving out old leaves that have clung on all winter. New grass shoots up like tiny green swords, so fast you can almost hear it growing.
The azalea, salvia, and dogwood are heavy with flowers, and the orange tree is sweet with blooms. Peaches grow slowly fatter and pinker on the branches of the young peach tree. It is springtime in Gainesville, Florida.
It is a perfect time to bring home seven tiny Speckled Sussex chicks from the Alachua County Feed and Seed.
We chose the Speckled Sussex because it is a heavy, docile breed that we expected to be gentle with us in the garden and unlikely to fly over our chain link fences. The breed’s final winning characteristic for us was the beautiful mahogany white-tipped feathers, which make the bird blend it effortlessly with our backyard strewn with oak leaves.
As I put the cardboard box into the car seat next to me I feel exhilarated and a little anxious. The chicks are so tiny and clumsy. They chirp loudly, demanding and unafraid. They don’t seem as worried as I am about the adventure ahead of us.
Free Ranging Chicks
We don’t keep the chicks confined if we can avoid it. Natural behaviors like scratching for bugs, greens, and minerals and dustbathing in the dirt is healthy and a good preparation for their lives as chickens in our yard. They stay close wherever I go. If I go inside for a moment I can see them from the windows peering for me with their strangely long necks.
Every day I settle at a table under the big oak tree with my computer and coffee; the warmer, food and water nearby. I keep a careful eye on the chicks and get my work done slowly.
They peck around the yard between naps under the heater, climbing mountainous stumps in the wood stack and explore jungles of fern. Meanwhile, I type away, my hands and coffee slowly becoming dusted yellow with pollen.
The Chick Essentials: Heat, Water, Food
The chicks’ needs are simple, but attention to detail for each is important. The right heater, feeder, and waterer can make the difference between healthy chicks and problems from the start. Wherever the heater, food, and waterer are is home base for the chicks.
While a hanging lightbulb has served many chicks in the past, we like the Chick Heating Plate because of how safe and portable it is. It can sit with the chicks in their pen and go into the yard equally well. The height can be adjusted as the chicks age. A cover over the top keeps it from getting covered in poop.
The waterer that we use is sized for chicks, reducing the debris that gets into the water. Raising the waterer over the shavings with a concrete block helps eliminate debris getting into it as well. If chicks free range during much of the day, as ours do, water will stay cleaner for longer, but it should still be cleaned out frequently.
The feeder is also designed to keep debris out of the food supply. It can feed a lot of chicks without competition, but it doesn’t take up too much room or get in the way of scratching. The mounded design keeps chicks from getting into the dish and scattering food.
Growing up Chicken
They grow so quickly. On their first day home they fall over trying to stretch their awkward wings, but by day three they cannot only stretch but use their wings to flap over little obstacles.
They still take frequent naps, like any baby. They sleep perched on my fuzzy boots, which I wear to protect my freckles from their insistent pecks. How could you not fall in love?
A Secure Coop
Within a couple of weeks the chicks have outgrown their pen and we move them into their coop. For the first few days, I call them up the little ramp and into the roost box. They come hesitantly at first, worried about entering the dark box.
I open the air vents in the nest box so it won’t be so dark and call them with my head and shoulders plunged inside. By the fourth night, they go into the roost box by themselves.
Our coop, the Innovation Pet Deluxe Farm House Chicken Coop, was a steal, for sale as a floor model at the local Tractor Supply. It is a sturdy coop with secure half inch hardware cloth. We cover the exposed bottom with hardware cloth to protect the coop from predators digging in from below.
It is advertised for up to eight chickens, but even with the extension pack, which we got, I think eight is a stretch for a large breed chicken if they aren’t out most of the time. Our girls are happy sleeping in the coop, but if they have to spend the day in there they start banging their beaks on the bars like little prisoners.
They grow bigger every day, developing distinct personalities and making us laugh with their attempts to get into the house. A personal favorite for me soon develops. She is a mostly white hen who always seems to be last to whatever is happening. I call her Seven because I’m always counting them, “one, two, three…” and then yell “Seven” when she is inevitably running behind the rest.
They have new experiences, like meeting the large rat snakes that live in the garden. Deciding if something is food or predator is one of the challenges of growing up chicken.
The chickens seem to instinctively know that hawks are dangerous, and a low flying hawk sends them all yelling and running for cover, as the dogs and I come charging out to defend them.
The First Egg
They lay their first egg. It’s tiny, but it makes us so proud. In the fun of having them, I had almost forgotten that this is why we got chickens in the first place,
As the weeks go on, the eggs increase until we are getting several mismatched eggs a day. Some are large, some small, some round and some oval, some creamy brown and some darker brown.
Living with chickens, I learn the rhythms of my backyard in a way I never did before. The squirrels are an alarm system and clean up leftover scraps that the chickens don’t eat. They have become incredibly trusting since we’ve had the chickens.
The birds, especially the crows and mockingbirds, alert and chase off the hawks. I see how closely we are connected, how interdependent we are on each other.
I love that kitchen scraps and cheap seeds that have been sprouted become delicious eggs. Little goes to waste in our household any more. Even leftover meat and pasta go to the chickens, who devour practically everything with enthusiasm, chasing each other for the best bits.
The chickens have truly been a joy. They are a lot of work, but they bring so much more into our lives than eggs. They continue to develop distinct personalities as they get older, and they are always making us laugh with their antics. I can’t imagine life without them.
Do you have any questions or comments? Don’t hesitate to contact me! I would love to hear your thoughts.