Saturday, August 29, 2009

Baby chicks - the good, the bad, the ugly

It's the end of August, so that means one thing for sure:  there are baby chicks scurrying around under a heat lamp 'round our place.  They arrived yesterday.  This year, we've taken the leap to 50.  50 chicks in our mud room in our 1500 SF house.  50 day-old chicks don't take up much space...but wait a week.  There's a world of size between 1 day old chicks and 7 day old chicks.  Needless to say, we get them out as soon as we can.

50 chicks arrive from Murray McMurray Hatchery in a 3' X 3' box.  It's weird, to be sure, but that's how it's done.  The post office calls about 6:15, a cacophony of your and others' fowl drowning out most of what they say, but the general instruction to come get your flippin' birds is well understood.

The good:  There really can't be anything cuter than a day old chick, except maybe a bunch of day old chicks.  And to watch them develop those first few days is nothing short of beholding a miracle.  You could swear pin feathers pop out each time you blink.  Over the course of just days, and even hours, little yellow fluffballs transform into dainty feathered birds of all colors and sizes.  They also make great teaching tools, the perfect vehicle for engaging young kids in the cycle of life.

The bad:  Anything one day old, much less one day old that's traveled by cargo plane from Iowa to Puget Sound, is pushing the envelope of survivability.  At its basic, this practice is fundamentally inhumane, and many Vashon farmers are turning to incubators and even ye olde fashioned laying hens for the next generations of babies.  We'll probably follow suit.  Creating an hospitable environment for 50 day-olds is tricky business.  Regardless of what the books or friends say, getting the heat lamp just right, making sure the chicks are free from drafts, ensuring that the water isn't gunky and that the cats don't investigate - all this takes effort, care, and focus.  A lot of life comes to a screeching halt while we get the new additions through their first few days.

The ugly:  The stakes are high.  Not everyone makes it.  The flip side of nothing cuter than a baby chick is that few things are more heartbreaking than burying a chick that doesn't survive the first day.  So far, 24 hours into it, we've lost 4.  The hatchery always throws in a few extra, so the economics work out, but the heartbreak is real and the deaths spotlight the unnaturalness of this system.

As cute and fuzzy as they are, I'm always relieved when the last of the yellow fluff falls away and shimmering little feathers cover our new girls; it means we've turned a corner and the frail babies of Day 1 have been replaced by Stop Sign Farm's next generation of fine young ladies.

No comments: