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The Feathered Killers

It's chick season again, so for God's sake please protect the little ones from your murderous hens



So here we are in chick season. Again. They're at the feed stores right now -- just follow the plaintive peeping sounds and there they will be, all fluffy and adorable under the heat lamps. They are impossible to resist, so don't even try. Chicks are easy to raise, as long as you follow a few basic rules. Keep them warm. Give them cute names. Don't tell the cat. Teach them tricks. That sort of thing.

Over the years I've tried to offer whatever backyard chicken-raising advice I could based on the adventures of my own small flock. (You can find those columns on the Journal's Web site -- just type "chickens" in the search box.) But this year I've encountered a whole new set of chicken challenges: the difficulty of introducing new chicks to an existing flock. I only hope you can learn from my mistakes.

We started out three years ago with four hens. One died -- of cancer, which is strange but not, I suppose, entirely unexpected, considering the fact that chicks seem to all come from the relatively limited gene pool of a couple hatcheries in central California -- leaving us with three. They'll be laying fewer eggs as they get older. So we thought it would be a good time to add two new chicks.

This year we chose another Ameraucana, the breed that lays blue and green eggs, and a lovely blonde Buff Orpington. They're known for their placid dispositions -- a Buff likes nothing more than to sit on your lap or on a clutch of eggs. All our hens are named after First Ladies; we named the Ameraucana Ida (after Ida McKinley) and we named the Buff Lady Bird.

All was well for the first seven weeks. They lived in our downstairs bathroom under a heat lamp. On warm days we took them outside for short bouts so they could meet the older hens and get used to being out there with them. Sometimes the older birds would rear up, fluff their feathers and flap their wings to scare the little ones off, but that was about the worst of it. Dolley, the leader of the pack and another Ameraucana, lunged at them a couple of times to let them know who was boss, but never actually drew blood. And this is important, because even a small injury can be dangerous for a chick. Chickens are attracted to the color red and will pick at a wounded chick out of instinct. So we wanted them to get exposed to the older hens, but we didn't want them to get even the smallest injury.

Roaming around the backyard together seemed to work fine, but what would happen when they had to be locked up? We put them in the coop with the older hens a few times and stood around to watch how they did in close quarters. So far, it seemed okay. They basically ignored each other. Nobody got pecked. We read all the advice about how chicks should be kept in a separate wire enclosure for a while so that they could look at each other without getting too close. But building yet another structure would be expensive and complicated, so we hoped that this gradual get-to-know-you approach would work.

And then we made our terrible mistake.

One morning we put the chicks out in the coop with the adults, watched them for a little while, and, believing that all was well, left to run a couple of errands. I was gone 45 minutes. When I got back, Ida was hopping around in the coop, but Lady Bird was face-down on the ground, looking like a little dead creature. When I got closer, I saw that she had a horrific head wound. One of our hens had pecked her so badly that all of the feathers and skin on the back of her head was ripped off -- an area about the size of a quarter -- exposing a mess of veins and whatever lies underneath skin. Flesh. Matter.

Her eyes were barely open, but she was still alive. I snatched her up and ran inside with her, then returned for Ida, who clearly could not be left alone with our murderous hens. Once I had them inside, I realized that Ida could also not be left alone with Lady Bird. Chicks, as I said, will pick at a red, bloody injury. It's just instinct.

For the rest of the day Lady Bird slept in a box on my desk. She wasn't eating or drinking much, and she looked like something out of a horror movie. Although her skull was intact, there was no getting around the impression that half her head was missing. As you can imagine, I felt horribly guilty: after all, I was the one who locked her up with those psychopathic killers I used to call my pets.

A week has passed and Lady Bird is still with us. We put a little hydrogen peroxide and antibiotic ointment on her wound, but it only seemed to reopen the cuts and traumatize her all over again. So now we're just keeping her isolated and making sure the wound stays basically clean and dry.

Ida, meanwhile, isn't able to hang out with Lady Bird and also can't be left along with the adults. So for her I did what I wish I'd done in the first place: I bought a dog enclosure at a pet store and put it inside the chicken run, wrapping chicken wire around it to keep the adults from flying over the top or reaching in. There's a tarp on top to keep the rain out. It looks like the kind of chicken enclosure that the Unabomber would build, but it keeps her safe and it lets the adults get used to her without being able to actually kill her in cold blood.

Aren't pets fun?

At the moment, Ida comes indoors to sleep at night (in a separate box) because it's still pretty cold outside. We try to let the two chicks spend a little time together every day; chickens are social creatures and don' t like isolation. Last night, Scott spread a tarp out in the living room and let them run around together while he kept an eye on them to make sure no picking took place. They were immeasurably happy in each other's company. Lady Bird even tried to fly around a little. Clearly she felt better if she could spend some time with another bird.

As you can tell, our lives have become insanely complicated as a result of our stupidity. So please -- don't make the same mistake. If you're introducing new chicks to a flock this year, follow the standard advice in all the chicken books and make some kind of wire enclosure inside the coop, no matter how complicated it sounds. Borrow a dog cage, fashion something out of chicken wire or rabbit fencing, use cinderblocks, old plywood, or whatever you have around. Just don't do what we did.

We're still not sure if Lady Bird will survive or if she will grow back normal skin and feathers. She might look bald and weird for the rest of her life. Don't let her baldness and weirdness be in vain. Protect your chicks. Good luck.


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