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Thursday March 19, 2007
Chicks Arrival -- Sad Story

Today the phone call came at 6:30 a.m. "Your chicks are in. Come pick them up right away." As usual the Postal Employee who called sounded worried. I dressed and plugged in the brooder in my cleaned and setup chicken house and headed out to the Post Office. Traffic was bad and I ended up taking about a half-hour to get there.

When I rang a the worker came to the door, she said "Oh, you're here for the chicks," and went to get them. Their shipping box was small, always the box seems too tiny to bring so much life to the ranch. It was also quieter than normal. In the past I've usually ordered chicks later in the year, often in early summer or fall. Prices per chick were lower before April first and it has been so hot here I thought they would be fine. Those of us who live in California forget that when it is warm here it may not be toasty everywhere else.

I didn't worry about the chicks being quiet. "They're a bit cold," I thought and so I put the car heater on and set the box down under the floor vent. The chicks immediately stopped peeping and I thought maybe they were happy to be in the warm air. The trip home was much faster.

Carefully taking the little box to the chicken brooding house I unpacked it. The moment I opened it things just didn't look right. Normally the chicks are vigorous, running around in the box and peeping loudly and being disturbed. (The video shows normal chick activity.) These chicks peeped softly and some of them seemed to be almost asleep. As I unpacked them and set them in the preheated brooder, I discovered a squashed chick had perished in the bottom of the box.

I made sure a few of the most vigorous ones knew how to drink and eat and that none of them could escape the brooder. When they seemed settled, after about a half-hour I left them to get used to their new home.

My sister came out to check them fifteen minutes later and found two the chicks had died. Over the next eight hours, despite all our efforts, twelve more died. They just stretched out to sleep deeply and never awakened. The mysterious spark of life that is the difference between a joyous peeping puffball and a limp tiny body slipped away.

me in the henhouse

This is me at work on the blog and my dog Sandy. The chick brooder is in the foreground with a sheet over it to reduce drafts.

Tonight I sit in my chickenhouse, working on this blog and saddened by the loss of so many small lives. The hatchery said they would "credit me" for the chicks that died, and told me to call them back after 48 hours. My sister wondered if they had been caught in the terrible storm back East that grounded so many planes.Sitting in a freezing airport or on a cold plane is not what baby chicks need and the chill may have been too big a shock.

Before I ordered chicks, my original plan was to get six or ten female chicks or young hens from one of the show competitors that I'd met doing the latest version of the video.

But it is too early, no one had chicks for sale and I decided to get a hatchery shipment by mail because in all my previous chick orders, hundreds of birds, I'd never had a shipment where they all didn't survive.

It just goes to show like the placard above my chair says "Don't count your chickens before they hatch." In this case, survive the shipment. And as a caution for beginners, starting chicks too early in the season may mean heartaches like the one I am living through today.

As I wrote the above, soft peeping of the suviving chicks in the background was a soothing sound, but another chick slipped away and died. She was still warm when I picked her up, limp and lifeless.

Washing my hands after I put her into the freezer with the other twelve dead chicks, I thought about how I hadn't mentioned biosecurity measures in this blog.

Every time I handle these new chicks I wash thoroughly afterwards with soap and water and I change my shoes before going out to our existing hen yard. The chance that these small birds have brought an avian disease to my farm is a serious possibility for me. The double-bagged plastic sack of birds in my freezer is something I learned from the local avian scientists -- if you have a bird die they want to see it right away, so freeze it to preserve it so they can see in an autopsy what it died of.

I think these chicks got chilled but if they did bring in a disease, I want to be able to find out what it was by taking them to the local extension specialists. More tomorrow on the overnight survival rate -- about half of the chicks that are left look healthy right now -- but the other six are that splayed out sleeping look weak. This entire shipment may be a loss. I'm sad.

PS. The next morning five more chicks were dead. The other eight are still alive but aren't loudly cheeping. All this is a big reminder...

Each day is a gift.