With yellow downy feathers, chicks are absolutely adorable. In the spring when Mom got around 20 baby chicks, we helped get them settled. We would lift each one out of the crate and gently dip its beak in the water so it would know where to find a drink on its own. Mom would use a foot-high ring from a hog feeder as a fence to keep them in one area of the back part of the old corn crib that we used as a baby chicken house. Mom hung a heat lamp over the top of it to keep them warm. Tiny, tiny, tiny little chirps would fill the air as they made the transition to their new home. Then they nestled together under the heat lamp, looking like a big fuzzy sun. Once cozied up, the chirping started to subside as they felt the warmth from the light and from one another’s little winged bodies.
On cool spring mornings when we went in to feed them, the chirping would start as the first crack of sunlight hit their eyes and they heard the door creaking open. Stepping over the fence, we would take ground corn in to fill the feeders. The chicks would see our toes and start pecking at them, not enough to really hurt, just enough to keep us on edge of that eventual one peck that would make a little red mark. That first strong peck was an indicator that we would need to guard our feet better in the future.
When the chicks feathered out, we would put them in the chicken coop. It had a big fenced outside area attached to it. Their food and water was outside. When they were young, they had only the coop and the fenced area to wander. They needed to learn this was home, where they needed to sleep at night. If they didn’t learn this lesson and decided to find their own roost for the night, they would be open prey for skunks, raccoons, and possums. When they got bigger, we would open the chicken coop doors every morning so they could roam around for the day. Free-range chickens.
Around dusk, their homing mechanism would kick in and they would return to the safety of the chicken coop. Once they were all quietly on roosts, Mom would close the door to the coop, making it secure so that it did not become a midnight meal house for those predators, who if given the chance, could quite possibly wipe out all the birds in one night.
Hens would start laying eggs when they were six to eight months old. Picking up eggs was one of my favorite jobs. The nest stand was made of metal and looked a bit like a honeycomb. It had eight nests total: four across and two high with boards as roosts on the outside of each entrance. Hens would pick a straw-filled hole, lay eggs, and then leave. With the exception of the setters. They were tough chicks, unwilling to freely relinquish their eggs. I would wear gloves to protect my hands from their vicious pecks. From 20 chickens, we would get around 15 to 19 eggs a day.
One of my first pets was a little chick that I got for Easter when I was around five years old. Starting off downy yellow, she grew up to have red feathers, so I named her Red. (We also had a dog we called Dog.) I would pull an ear of corn out of the corn crib and walk around the barnyard rolling kernels of corn off the ears while Red and the other chickens followed me around snatching up what I dropped. And that’s about all you can do with a pet chicken. I think she lived for five years. I remember the day I went in and found her in the roost, head down, eyes closed. I so hoped she was just asleep. I tore out of the chicken house in tears. I seem to recall her and my Grandpa Murphy’s passing to be close. At ten years old, it was an emotional overflow of the finality that death brought. Dad buried her out by the corn field, and we put a cement block on her grave with a plastic red rose. Although just a chicken, I imagine the block is still there marking Red’s grave in our little overgrown pet cemetery.
Thinking about baby chicks a lot lately… every time I touch my head: my hair feels like chick fuzz! Only I have a funny Mohawk thing going on on top of my head.
Linda (Thanks Mom for the fact-checking details!)