Tag Archive | raising chicks

Baby Chicks Learning to Free Range

The baby Ameraucana chicks are three weeks old now.  This past week they have been learning to go out on their own into the big world and free range.  Seeing such small babies on their own can give a mother hen like me heart palpitations, but I can’t hold my little ones back.  They need to understand how to find food, hunt for insects, avoid danger and return to the safety of the shelter at night.  Although they are quite tiny, these chicks are old enough to be on their own.

The babies love freedom.  They run together in a little flock.  All twenty-three of the original hatch are still with us, hale and hearty.  On a sunny spring day they sprawl in the sunshine lighting the barn doorway and spread their wings to collect the warmth.  As a group, they move from place to place finding adventure and keeping in constant contact with a steady stream of peeps and chirps.

Thursday was the first time the little birds ventured from inside the barn out on the grass.  Once this wonder was discovered, there was no stopping those chicks.  They found the grass and greens delicious and also teeming with juicy bugs.  I am teaching them to drink from a pan by sinking their plastic waterer in the center of a rubber dish full of water.  The chicks have quickly caught on.

It is amazing how fast baby chickens grow.  The tiny roosters already test their strength in mock fights.  In no time the birds will be fully feathered and starting to fly.  A baby chicken is actually quite a good flyer because its body is small and light in comparison to the size of the wings.  This tends to give the small birds an advantage against predators.  They are very good at escaping.  Although they appear delicate, millions of years of evolution have made these small creatures tough and capable of caring for themselves.



Here are some of this year’s chick hatch, all different ages together in a nice little flock.  They are safely within the wire and net enclosed run.  That’s because we have a fox!

For most of the summer, the chicks’ house has been open so they can go out and free-range at their pleasure or come in the house to get food and water or to roost for the night.  The doorway was covered with wire and had a small opening just big enough for young birds to squeeze through.  That way the adult chickens could not get in. In the morning when I did chores, I would spread scratch grain in their run and call them.  Soon, all the chicks would come rushing for their favorite scratch treat.

About two weeks ago while the chicks were eating their scratch, I counted them.  There are supposed to be twenty-three, but one was missing.  Because the birds move around quickly when they eat, I assumed I counted wrong and didn’t think much of it.  Then I began to have premonitions about a fox.  I shrugged them off.

Four days ago when I fed the chicks, none responded to my call.  I could hear them talking in the hedges and stands of daylilies and within other cover in the yard.  Suddenly, no one wanted scratch.

Then, when I went to tend the horses, I discovered the half-eaten body of one of my young black roosters in the paddock.  I looked the body over and suspected a fox attack due to the nature of the injuries.  That evening, rather than going to their roosts when it got dusky, the baby chickens came running to me.  I’m their mother.  They stood around staring at me and yammering.  I took them to their house and made them go inside.  It was a struggle.  The young birds were afraid to go in.

That’s when I realized a predator, probably a fox, had entered their coop the night before though the small opening and stole the rooster as he slept.  I counted my babies that evening and got nineteen!  Oh no!  I locked all their doors and reinforced the wire fence around the run.

The next morning one more little black hen was waiting outside the coop to join her siblings.  She had hidden in the hedge for the night.  So now I have twenty chicks.  The loss of a black rooster is not such a disaster.  He would have been sold for $2 otherwise.  Sadly, I don’t know what other babies were stolen.  Probably some lovely little pullets, knowing my luck.  I’m glad to say my most prized ones are still with us and not fattening some nasty fox.

Also that morning I discovered the three most recent rabbit graves, one about two weeks old and two dating back to spring, had been newly dug up overnight.  It was obviously the work of either a fox or small dog by the size of the holes.  So, I’m pretty sure it’s a fox.  There was nothing edible in the graves.  That didn’t stop the creature from digging them up again the next night.  Now they are weighted with rocks.chick2

All the chickens must now spend most of the day penned up.  I have no idea when this fox may try another sortie against my birds.  They are allowed to free-range for about two hours in the evening while I and the German shepherds are outside.  So far no fox has shown its face.  The older birds are indignant about the restrictions, but the younger one actually seem relieved.  They happily go to roost in their safe, locked-up house at night.  During the day they act content to be within the protective wire of the run.

Watch out, Mr. or Mrs. Fox.  Your days are numbered.  If I see the animal in the yard, I will get rid of it for good.


Chick Adventures


The Ameraucana chicken fledglings are three weeks old in these photos.  They are just beginning to explore the big world beyond the enclosure where they were kept safe as hatchlings.  The chicks stare out from the safety of the barn into the great green world.  The lure of grass, sunshine and tasty bugs helps them overcome their fear of the unknown.

Sunlight streaming through the barn door makes a wonderful place to stretch out.  Chickens originated as jungle birds.  The love of warmth is in their genetic code.  The little guys plop down wherever the sun is bright to spread their wings and absorb the heat.  Their response to sun seems automatic.ck3
Hatched in early May, these chicks are growing fast. Their fully feathered wings and relatively light-weight bodies make them good fliers. I have to cover any buckets holding water to avoid calamity. Chicks have accidentally flown into water buckets in the past and drowned. Because they are not swimmers, they panic, inhale some water and quickly succumb. The same thing happened to a wild turkey poult in my horses’ watering tub last year. Very sad.ck2

These young chickens grow more brave every day.  In a gang, they adventure farther from the barn and discover new places where they can hide quickly if danger threatens.  Soon their sixteen little siblings that hatched last week will join them in the barn.  With plenty of exposure, the two ages of chicks will come to tolerate each other.  When this winter arrives, they will be friendly enough to form one big flock.

Teaching Chicks to Roost


Ameraucana chicks from first hatch 5/7/2014

Ameraucana chickens rarely become broody.  That means the hens do not often act like they want to set on a nest of eggs and hatch them.  Some breeds of chickens are prone to broodiness, not Ameraucanas.  These hens would rather lay their eggs every day then spend the rest of the time in carefree pursuit of bugs and seeds, or dusting under the hedge.  Setting on a clutch of eggs is hard work.


First hatch chicks

Twenty-one days of patient incubation are required to hatch a chicken egg.  An incubating hen leaves the nest only for a quick drink and bite of food.  She turns the eggs daily, talks to the embryos in the eggs and assures the proper temperature and humidity are maintained on the nest at all times.  Only one of my Ameraucana hens ever successfully hatched babies. Most get bored after a week and abandon the nest for more fun activities.


Ameraucana chicks from the second hatch 6/3/2014

To have new generations of Ameraucanas, I use an incubator with a fan and automatic egg turner.  As the babies grow in the eggs, I talk to them like a mother hen, using the same sounds I’ve heard hens use.  When the chicks are hatching, I encourage them with excited clucks and chirps.  The first face the babies see and the first voice they hear is mine.  I use the ‘time to eat” call to show the babies their first bites of chick mash.  All my chickens think I’m their mother hen.  Being mother to so many babies carries responsibilities.  One of my jobs is to teach chicks how to roost, just as a hen would do with her chicks.


Second hatch huddling together, getting ready for a nap

Roosting is done at night.  Adult chickens sleep well above the ground on a limb or other handy perch, safe from most night-time predators.  Baby chickens sleep in a huddled mass on the ground.  If they had a real mother, they would sleep under her, protected by her body and wings.  Alas, I can’t spend the nights in the barn sheltering chicks.  As soon as the babies get a good covering of body feathers so they don’t have to huddle together for warmth, I teach them how to roost.


Fifteen chicks in the second hatch, all roosting successfully

You would think roosting comes natural to chickens.  During the day it does.  The babies fly up and rest on any convenient surface all day long. Yet, when dark falls, they want to mass together on the floor. Without light, chicks often stay frozen in one place. This works to my advantage.  In the dark, I scoop up the chicks and place them, one or two at a time, on the perch.  At first they tend to squawk and drop back off.  But, with persistence, all the babies will stay on a roost.  This is hot, dusty, sweaty work in the dark with a small flashlight clenched in my teeth.  My upper thighs get sore from all the crouching to pick up chicks.  The life of a mother hen is not easy.


First hatch getting the idea of roosting

The first three to five nights are for training.  I must go out in the barn after dark and put chicks on roosts. Every night is a little easier.  More have flown up to the new sleeping spot on their own.  The stubborn ones on the floor stay put on the roost after one or two tries. Finally, all are where they belong, safe above the rats and other undesirables roaming the barn in the dark. When the babies make their special trilling noise that means ‘let’s go to sleep,’ I know the training is over for the night.

This year I am training both my first and second hatch to roost at the same time.  The younger ones are learning faster than the older babies.  Perhaps the older ones have been sleeping on the floor longer and the habit is more ingrained.  This evening will be the third night of roosting lessons.  I am hoping a few hop up on the perches by themselves.  Once one or two birds go up on their own, the rest of the clutch will follow within a few days.


Second hatch in background, older chicks in front


Sixteen chicks in the first hatch

The two hatches share space for eating and drinking, but are wary of each other. They have separate perches for roosting.  As they grow and get closer in size, the younger chicks will begin to sleep with the first hatch.  Right now the little ones are half the size of the bigger babies.  The first hatch stands about 7″-8″ at the shoulder and the second hatch, about 4″.  The small ones are nimble and scurry under their older siblings, usually before they receive a warning peck for getting too close.  These are free-range chicks.  They spend the day in outside adventures, detouring into the barn for food at regular intervals.  At dusk, all the babies return to the barn to sleep.