Last summer we spent two months traveling in Kenya and Tanzania, spending a fair bit of time in small, off-the-track villages. There, nearly everyone keeps chickens, which roam free in the dirt roads, alleys, fields, and schoolyards. Most homes have a shelter for their chickens, with a roof and a nestbox, but the hens and chicks are never fed or locked away from predators. They scratch for their sustenance and get by (or not) on their chicken-wits.
So it is with a measure of self-directed irony that I tell you we are raising our chicks in the kitchen, where I hover over them and cater do their every desire as if they were newborn humans. There’s a lot of advice available on raising baby chicks and creating a good biddy box, which will provide all a young chick needs: warmth, clean water, clean bedding, food, and space to run around. Here’s our method–it’s simple, cheap (using stuff you probably have around the house), and works great.
We use a large plastic (Rubbermaid style) tub–110 quarts for 3-4 chicks. Yes, they are hunks of evil molded plastic, but they’re nice because they allow light in, keep the chicks from drafts, and you can watch the chicks through the sides. They are also light and easy to move around, and they’re entirely re-usable. Cover the bottom with two or three inches of white pine (or other white, non-cedar) shavings. Cut a length of hardware cloth or “chicken wire” to cover the top of the box, and overlap the sides by three or four inches. Fold the edges over so the top fits tightly, and if the edges are sharp, trim them with wide tape.
For food and water you can use any dish or tray, but it is totally worth it to buy the little chick feeders and waterers at the feed store–they are just $2 each, attach to any mason jar, and will help keep the food and water clean and tidy. When the chicks are several days old and starting to get taller, I put the water up on a half of a brick to help keep it from filling with shavings. Just make sure everyone can still reach it.
For warmth, we just use an incandescent bulb in a flex-arm desk lamp. A 100 watt bulb will keep the temperature at 95-100 degrees F for the first week. You’ll want to lower the temperature by 5 degrees/ week: lift the bulb further away from the lid, or lower the wattage. Tuck an inexpensive thermometer in the lighted area–I couldn’t find our chicken-house thermometer, so I’ve been using my instant-read bread thermometer, which works fine! The chicks like to pick at it, of course. Allow the chicks some control over their thermoregulation–put the light in a corner so they can move in and out of the heat.
We put our biddy box in the bathtub at night, then we close the door so Delilah the cat doesn’t get any Terrible Ideas while we sleep.
When the girls are just a couple of weeks old, they’ll want to start roosting. We’ll fix a branch to one corner of the box, so they can start playing Big Chicken.
That’s it! When the chicks start to feather out, and if the weather is warm, this box can easily be carried outside for part of the day. And when the chicks are ready to move into their permanent coop, you still have a nice functional box for, say, storing chicken feed, or for next year’s chicks!
Chicks are available at most feed stores until mid-May (our local fave is The Grange Supply in Issaqhah–nice place, good folks, well-cared for chicks), after which chicks may not have enough time to grow large and strong before winter temperatures hit. This means you still have a couple of weeks to get chicks, if that’s what you want, and work on the coop while they grow up in your kitchen.
A little encouragement: People are sometimes worried about starting with chicks–they look so tiny and, well, ephemeral. But they are strong, hearty little things. If they come from a reputable source, you can have every reason to expect that they are healthy and will thrive.
Claire’s Prime Chick Advice: “Cuddle them!”
Also see my recent post on Why We’re Raising Chickens in the City!