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Pet Talk: Prepare to care for baby chicks before taking them under your wing

By Monique Balas
The Oregonian

Easter may inspire you to welcome baby chicks into your flock, but you should nix that idea if you’re not prepared to care for them long after the holiday is over.

Easter may inspire you to welcome baby chicks into your flock, but you should nix that idea if you’re not prepared to care for them long after the holiday is over.

“You have to understand that these animals do live longer than a couple years,” says Lacy Campbell, operations manager at Audubon Society of Portland’s Wildlife Care Center. “You have to plan accordingly.”

Chicks are live animals, not disposable toys, and require very specialized care.

First, chicks are social, so you should get at least two or three, says Robert Litt, owner of the Urban Farm Store and co-author of "A Chicken in Every Yard" with wife Hannah Litt.

“If you get just one chick by itself, it will be very lonely and noisy, and may essentially die of loneliness or stress,” Litt says.

The city of Portland allows up to three hens (not roosters, which are prohibited) without a permit.

They’ll need a properly equipped area called a brooder, which simulates the warmth and protection of a mother hen.

This area should have an infrared heat lamp, and special food and watering devices that they can reach but not drown in, Litt says.

The brooder should be a large enclosure – he suggests nothing smaller than 18 inches high by 18 inches wide by 36 inches long. You can use a cardboard box, Rubbermaid container, or even a bathtub or stock tank.

The heat lamp should be in a place where it won’t cause the container to burn or melt, and the temperature must be carefully regulated (about 95 degrees when they first come home).

Ideally, the brooder will have a warm zone where they can regulate their body temperature and a cool zone where their food is kept.

Line it with pine shavings or paper towels - not cedar chips, which can cause respiratory failure.

The chicks will spend the next six to eight weeks in the brooder. They start growing in their feathers after only two or three weeks and begin to look like miniature chickens by five or six weeks.

“I like to tell people, once they get the chicks, the clock is ticking,” Litt says.

Once they’ve grown enough feathers and the weather is warm enough, you’ll want to move the birds outside. They should have access to a run, or fenced-in area in your yard, where they can safely exercise and forage.

Digging in the yard puts them at risk for parasites, so it’s a good idea to routinely de-worm them, Campbell says.

They’ll also need to eat special poultry feed.

At night, you’ll need to provide them with a secure coop to ensure they’re warm and safe from predators. In city limits, the raccoon is poultry enemy No. 1.

“They can smell a chicken from a mile away,” Litt says.

As you make sure to provide proper care for your new feathered friends, make sure your family stays healthy too.

Chicks can carry salmonella, but infection can be easily avoided with common-sense behaviors, like washing your hands after handling chicks. Never put them up to your face to kiss or snuggle with them.

“With very young kids, that’s what they want to do,” Litt says. “They want to treat them like stuffed animals.”

The chicks at the Urban Farm Store are sexed with 95 percent accuracy. If your baby chick turns out to be a boy, it will be re-homed through the store’s “rooster relocation program” at a farm out in the country. The store will offer credit for another chick or pullet.

If you simply can’t keep your chick or chicken, you can also relocate it (but not for store credit). Just make sure to come on a Saturday and call ahead first.

Whatever you do, don’t release it into a field or park. For one thing, it’s not humane.

“Releasing them into the wild is actually cruel,” says the Audubon Society’s Campbell. “A lot of these species can’t even fly. You’re releasing the animals to their death.”

Not only that, releasing a domesticated animal like a chicken or rabbit into the wild is illegal. Animal abandonment is considered a Class B Misdemeanor in Oregon, punishable by a maximum jail sentence of six months and a $2,500 maximum fine.

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