Sunday, May 22, 2011

one week old

the new brooder
It has been a busy week and weekend--including moving the girls to their new and improved digs today-- but I will kick myself if I don't take a few minutes to document the girls' first week. All week long I've felt as though the most extraordinary thing has happened to me and all week long I've had the urge to tell complete strangers about my chicks. I've mostly refrained from telling strangers (and clients!) about them, but my co-workers and friends have not been spared. And I can't tell you how many times I've noted that each displays her own strong personality only to be met with the kind of look that suggests I've become one of those people who might have 25 cats or dress up my dog. I once heard of a woman who had a pet squirrel and made a hobby of dressing it up in little costumes and placing it in dioramas and photographing it. That's what some people seem to think I've become when I talk about the girls' personalities. I'm not sure why it is that we have no trouble observing the individual personalities of each member of a litter of kittens or puppies but can't imagine that five little chicks could be every bit as full of character. I suppose it has something to do with the fact that we eat chickens and thus have erected a mental barrier to imagining them as anything other than future egg-producers or leg-and-thigh quarters.

But these birds truly do have distinct personalities right off the bat. Millie, who appears, like Gertie, to be either a Barred Rock or a Dominique, is the brash tomboy of the bunch. When I reach my hand into the brooder the rest generally chirp and scatter at first, but Millie comes running to see what new entertainment has appeared and then follows my hand wherever I move it. She is troubled by my wedding ring and pecks insistently at it and my freckles, my bracelet and the hair band around my wrist. She is always game to try a new taste treat and her appetite is massive, despite her small size relative to the others. It takes a lot of calories to fuel her mercurial activity!

Gertie on her perch

Gertie looks very much like Millie but is now nearly twice as big and has the most developed feathers of the lot. Overnight, she seems to add plumage, mostly on her wings, but today she is sporting the beginnings of tail feathers. Gertie is also an enthusiastic eater but more deliberate than Millie. She has a bit of a gimlet eye and a way of sizing you up that feels just so slightly judgmental. Gertie, perhaps because of her superior size, has been the first to avail herself consistently of the perch I made for them today, although Hattie is not far behind.

Hattie is the beautiful blonde of the bunch, most likely a Buff Orpington. She also has the softest, richest coat. Right from the beginning she was the groomer of the group, the one to spot a bit of dust or a splatter of yogurt on another chick's coat and to set about tidying up. When I reported this to a friend at work, she observed that Hattie was a typical blonde, concerned with appearances! Hattie also has the sweetest way of eating. One of the treats I give them is plain Greek yogurt, which they almost all adore, although it has been challenging finding methods of delivery that avoid getting yogurt EVERYwhere. One of the most successful has been simply to coat my fingertip in yogurt and let them peck it clean. Hattie, however, nestles her beak against my fingertip and wiggles it, scooping the yogurt in rather than pecking. As you can imagine, Millie has a vigorous pecking style.

Hattie ("look at my feet!") and Sadie
Sadie's breed is shrouded in mystery, although today we're leaning towards a Gold Laced Wyandotte. She was my problem child at first, showing signs of pasty butt. Pasty butt appears to be fairly common in young chicks, caused by stress or the temperature changes of shipping or who knows what, really. A chick with pasty butt ends up with poo dried on and around her "vent" (the term for the hole in the hen's backside through which everything--poo, eggs, mating--seems to happen) which can lead to an inability to eliminate and, ultimately, death. The cure is hygiene. For anyone who has never performed the delicate operation of cleaning a 2-day-old chick's backside with a warm, wet towel while said chick squeals and squirms...well, just hope you remain in ignorant bliss. Fortunately, Sadie's condition resolved itself quickly, especially once she started snacking on yogurt and acquiring all those beneficial bacteria to regulate her digestion. Poor traumatized Sadie is the most gun-shy when it comes to being picked up but she is in every other respect the model of a vigorous little chick.

Rosie, who appears to be a Rhode Island Red and has developed the most beautiful wing feathers, is the shrinking violet of the group. I'm slightly disappointed that she doesn't have the chutzpah of her namesake, but I suspect she'll develop more self-confidence as she grows. She shows only the slightest interest in the food treats (scrambled egg, yogurt, strips of lettuce) and hangs back while the others eagerly descend on the plate. She will eventually mosey over and check it out, but even after the others have finished and left her an ample portion she pecks at it disinterestedly before heading to the feeder and partaking long and heartily of the starter feed. She is also the most interested in digging and pecking at the floor of the brooder so I will be interested to see whether she gobbles up bugs and worms with greater interest once I move them outdoors. For a while I worried that her disinterest in the treats was a sign she was not well (nothing does a mama's heart good like seeing her babies eat!), but watching her I have concluded it's just a matter of taste and she is perfectly fine.

One other note about this week: I have never owned a bird before. Hank has. He had an African Grey Parrot when I first met him. But I've never lived with birds before and I'm finding that observing the chicks this closely has transformed how I experience all birds. I notice them everywhere--the way they move, their feather patterns and their songs.  It has been open-window weather at our house this week. We are so lucky to be surrounded by bird habitat and, therefore, birdsong. This morning I awoke to three sharp cries outside the window that I instantly recognized (even half asleep) as alarm and outrage--they sounded so much like the cries the chicks make when one of the others has clumsily flapped over the rest or otherwise upset the peace in some particularly outrageous way. But as quickly as I registered the alarm I also realized that never before would I have identified those calls as alarms. Although the chicks and the robins don't speak precisely the same language, it was only because of my growing understanding of my own birds and their language that I could have any hope of interpreting the robins' calls. Yet another reason this has been an extraordinary week.

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