The first of many lessons for us in poultrydom was that when you mail order from a hatchery, you will get more than you ordered. We ordered 25 and received 27. They call the extra chicks packing peanuts, to add warmth and to make up for any that might die during shipping or shortly thereafter. As you can imagine, being shipped is difficult on the little buggers, so losing chicks after you receive them is not uncommon. Be prepared, as I have heard very few people talk about 100% survival rates for shipped birds. I bought them this way so that I could get healthy birds from a reputable breeder, rather than buying chicks at a feed store who have come from parts unkown and might be sick. As there are no hatcheries nearby, I ordered from Estes Hatchery in Springfield Missouri.
The post office called at five in the morning to tell us to come and get our noisy package. After Blake and I had filled ourselves with coffee and could not endure the pleading of our children any longer, the girls and I loaded up in the car to get our new chickens. We had purchased the chick feeders and waterers, the heat lamps and packs of wood chips. We had prepared a HUGE plastic bin for them to be in while they were tiny, and we thought we were ready to be chicken parents.
Wrong. Things never go the way you think they will on a farm.
We brought the biddies home and put them all in the plastic bin. WAY too small. As is normal procedure around here, Blake began to scramble to find and build a solution to the problem I had created. He build a lovely giant brooder out of wood with a plastic liner on the bottom. Those chicks had so much room, it really was adorable to watch them run around and do their little chicken business. I could sit there for hours observing tiny little chicken behavior that I had never seen before; strecthing their wings and legs, tilting their heads back to swallow one drop of water at a time. And sometimes I did just sit and gaze at them, watching my new charges as I dreamt of grown chickens roaming the farm and producing eggs, daydreaming of my girls carrying baskets full of our own eggs straight from our own coop. No more factory eggs; could we, the city slickers, actually achieve that?
Within 24 hours of bringing the babies home we noticed that their poo was sticking to their behinds. Now, when you have farm animals, birthing and death, food and manure become a part of your new life. If you are easily grossed out, farming might be a difficult thing for you. I have been around animals my entire life, dogs and cats, hamsters and horses, I even volunteered at the zoo to shovel elephant poop just so I could be around the elephants. In addition to all of those furry creatures, I am a mom, so someone else's bodily fluids have been a part of my entire life. Dealing with a crusty chicken butt? I can handle it.
Researching how to deal with this pleasant issue, I come across the common name for it; pasty butt. I'm not kidding. It can be deadly, too, and not in a pleasant way (if there is such a thing). During shipping, chicks can get stressed, causing all manner of problems.
When you receive your chicks, the first thing you do is take each one out of the box, one by one, and dip their tiny beaks into their water so that they take a drink and so that they learn. These babies have never had anything to drink. If they congregate under the heat lamp in a big pile, it is too cold. If they are scattered to the four corners, it's too hot. You MUST have a thermometer to know precisely what the temperature is, because too hot or too cold will kill them. Any kind of stressors can make them sick in the first few weeks. A couple of days after bringing the chickens home, several of them got pasty butt. That requires warm water and some paper towels (or cotton balls or q-tips or something). You have to remove that poop several times a day or it will build up, it will block their heiny, and they will die. Not a good way to go, so WIPE THOSE BOTTOMS!! :)
We did end up losing one Buff Orpington chick. She had the worst of the pasty butt. Some said give them oats, others said add apple cidar vinegar to the water, some hardened and experienced farmers said cull her, one chick isn't worth the time it takes to try and save it, and they are probably right. In spite of all the advice, she just couldn't make it no matter how hard I tried. The girls buried her in a little box and we had a tiny bird funeral for her out by the garden, the first of many life and death issues to be faced on the farm. Those first lessons are always the most difficult, especially for kids.
Not long after the death of that chick, one little Buff Orpington chick decided that her legs would go wonky. She couldn't walk correctly, and sometimes not at all. We segregated her in a see through plastic bin within the brooder so that she could see the other chicks and not get lonely. I tried various q-tip splints and even sports tape (I even began making a chick sling chair out of a cut up cottage cheese container, but I gave up on that), and nothing really worked well. We decided to let nature take it's course, and just left her alone. After a couple of weeks she healed up on her own just fine, and now we can't even tell which one was injured.
The chicks soon grew into teenagers, and we had to get them out of the house. But to where? It was still too cold to put them outside, the coop wasn't 100% finished yet, and the chicks hadn't fully feathered out. Solution? There was an old round metal horse trough on the property when we bought it. We rolled that thing into the shop, filled it full of wood shavings, put the heat lamp above it and voila! Improvised brooder. We had bought enough time to finish the coop and keep the teenage chicks warm enough until spring.
We put the goofy looking adolescent birds into the chicken coop when they were about three months old and we have never looked back. Blake put a four foot fence around the chicken yard, and some of the hens fly out to free range while others are content to stay within the fence and eat scratch, scraps and whatever else we throw over the fence for them. We gave three hens to a good friend, one rooster got killed, one rooster was butchered, three guineas were butchered, and now we have ten ducks, ten guineas and 23 laying hens. We currently get +/- two dozen eggs per day, and the girls have started selling them. We now make enough to buy chicken food and pay the girls a little bit too.
You can read and read and read about how to take care of things when it comes to plants and livestock, and everyone seems to have a different opinion of what works well. That is when you realize that there really is no "right" way to live this life. You do the best you can, learn from your mistakes, and move on, hopefully helping others with what you have learned along the way.