To keep your chicks healthy, they need airy, but draught free housing, lined with something like sawdust, rice hulls, or some other friction surface. They can also be placed on small hole wire to avoid contact with their own droppings. They find newspaper, straw and dried grass a bit hard to walk on at this age, but shredded newspaper works OK. This bedding material needs to be changed regularly (every three days at least, this avoids contraction of Coccidiosis, the major cause of droopy chickens and their subsequent death). The sides of your container should be at least 30 cm high to stop chicks from flying out. Additionally, it is a good idea to cover the top with a mesh that will keep mice and rats out. Your box or container should not be too big as the chicks can stray and not find their way back to the heat, food or water.
When you get your chicks home, they need to be kept warm. They would normally have a mother hen to nestle under, but an electric light bulb will do the job. A 60 watt bulb is a good size. If you have nothing else, use a reading lamp, with an incandescent bulb, over them (not a fluorescent one which generates no heat!). It should be placed about 20-25 cm from the bottom of their box. If it is too hot for them, they’ll all move away – too cold they’ll huddle together, so adjust the height of your heat source to allow an even spread of chickens underneath it. If they are lying flat as though dead, they are probably content (they will often look like this in the first few days). If you have a brooder to use, you probably don’t need these notes.
The best feed is probably chicken crumble (also called Chicken Starter). This is anywhere from 18% to 21% in protein and provides a balanced diet to allow for good growth in chickens. If you are dead set on organic type feeds, avoid crushed oats or rolled oats as this may cause bowel problems. The major feed requirement is protein and some breeds need more than others. Canary mix may be OK, but may still lack some of the vitamins and minerals needed for strong growth. Green vegetables like silver beet and spinach (or even a clump of grass!) should be provided regularly too. Many breeders use Turkey Crumbles, which contain around 24% protein (You may need to add an anti-coccidiosis medication to this mixture or to drinking water to guard against this disease). The problem with all these propriety mixes is that to boost the protein level it is usual to add meat meal. Given the world wide concerns about BSE and Foot & Mouth Disease, we try to avoid meat meal in the diet of our poultry to prevent such diseases entering our food chain.
Keep older chooks away from chicks as they will bully them and even kill them until they are big enough to escape and hide – rarely before 10 weeks – and fend for themselves. Large breeds move more slowly than smaller layer breeds and have little chance when cornered by a hen or rooster in a nasty frame of mind. Chickens are also best kept in groups around the same age to prevent bullying by older birds. Bullied birds become stressed and are more prone to disease, so freedom from this form of stress can be as significant as other health factors. Sick birds will be stood on or bullied too, so it is always good practice to keep sick birds separated until their health recovers (apart from the obvious reasons to avoid spreading disease by contact with water, food or exhaled breath).
|Keeping young birds with others about their same age and size prevents bullying and victimization – especially of slower, gentler or unusual breeds|
Foxes are the main scourge of the poultry yard, so it goes without saying that your chicks should be locked up at all time. The “fox of the sky”, the crow or raven, will take as many chickens as you can provide. They must be treated with as much respect as hawks and a covered enclosure provided until your chicks are big enough to avoid being carried off, usually from 12 weeks of age onwards. Rats and snakes will carry off chicks too, so your enclosure should be covered or meshed to prevent their entry.
Chicks don’t have many problems, but many breeds can contract Marek’s Disease at around 12 weeks and older. This disease is activated by a virus and causes paralysis to one side or both sides of the bird’s body. The chick can die within days. There is an immunisation that can be given at day old which provides good protection. If your area is known to have had this disease, I would recommend that you buy only Marek’s vaccinated chicks.
All breeds are sometimes susceptible to coccidiosis, which is a lung and intestinal infection. All birds come in contact with the coccidiosis protozoa, and eventually develop immunity to the disease. Some breeds fend this disease off better than others. Birds will be wheezy and gasp for air. They may take weeks to finally succumb. Chicken crumble contains medication against this and many grower feed mixes for meat birds include a medication (DOT), or else a preparation can be obtained through pet shops, produce suppliers or your vet.
Chicks hatched earlier in the breeding season (spring) are generally hardier than those bred in late autumn, but this is usually because the autumn hatched chick is exposed to low temperatures that induce stress when they are going through their growing moults. So keeping them warm or with access to warmth for a longer period than normal will keep them fit and stress free.
Over several hatchings during the year, the balance of male to female birds tends to average out evenly. But there are as many opinions as chicks as to how to ensure a better supply of hens to roosters. None, that I know of, work.
Feather picking can occur amongst chickens as young as two and a half weeks. It is usual to see a bird picked at around the vent, parsons nose or on the shoulders. You must act quickly to isolate victims and treat the wound with something like “Stockholm Tar” which tastes nasty and stops the pickers from attacking other birds. There is no conclusive explanation why birds feather pick. Explanations include: low protein levels, lack of vitamins, bright light and boredom. My experience is that any group of chickens over 20 in number are more prone to this problem but birds kept on soil seem to have lower potential to feather pick. It does not seem to be focused on specific breeds, although some breeds have been given a bad reputation in this regard. If all chicks could run in a forest and not run into any predators, there would probably not be any incidents of feather picking. But who has such an environment? So just keep close watch and act fast to protect victims.
Chickens are certainly very hardy creatures that will always be true to their breed characteristics, if you treat them well. They take from 5 months to 8 months to reach maturity depending upon the breed. Pullets (young hens) can normally begin laying anytime after 5 months of age, but much depends upon the breed characteristics and the time of year that the birds were hatched – generally the later the bird is hatched, the later it will come into lay. It is fun raising chickens and probably more rewarding for children than letting a modern electronic pet live or die.
Other Breeds – Poults (Young Turkeys)
Poults need to be raised off the ground for at least 8 weeks to avoid contracting the disease blackhead. They need a high protein diet (around 24%) and are much more curious and they are friendlier than chickens. Some day old poults can flip themselves over and be unable to right themselves. This seems to be caused by a delay in the development of their leg co-ordination. To right this problem, return them to the incubator for a day, or stand them in a cut down light bulb box until they can push with even strength with both legs. They are usually fine after that.
The major disease affecting turkeys is blackhead. They do not go black in the head, but look droopy and have bright yellow droppings. The disease is caused by a small protozoa that attacks the bowel and can eventually destroy the liver. Poultry spread the protozoa but it does not seem to affect them. This why turkey keepers are usually advised not to run fowl and turkeys together. However, we run them together but we keep poults off the ground for the first eight weeks to stop them coming into contact with the bug. The medication to prevent blackhead (Emtryl) can only be purchased through your vet in Australia and is added to their drinking water. Peafowl and Guinea Fowl can also contract this disease. Some advocate regular additions of slippery elm bark powder to the diet as a preventative, but we have not found this very effective.
Ducklings are less fussy to keep than chickens but are generally messier. They need fresh water regularly as they dirty it in cleaning their heads and themselves. They should always be provided with stepping “stones” to get in and out of the water else they can drown. They can be fed chicken crumble, which needs to be changes regularly to prevent it from becoming mouldy. Ducklings need a heat source for a week or two but care must be taken to ensure electrical safety in wet areas.
Treat them much like ducklings and feed them on chicken or duck starter crumble. You need to begin providing them with access to grass (they are grazers like sheep!) from about two weeks on. They can imprint themselves on humans, so if you expect them to behave socially as normal geese, you should keep several together rather than just one on its own. Konrad Lorenz’s books give some interesting insights into “how to” and “how not to” raise geese.