Families flock to chickensIt's that time of year again… Baby chicks and ducks! If you go into many of the farm feed stores around this time of year, you will likely see a warm red light and hear a lot of cheeping. It is the time of year that the farm feed stores get in their baby chicks and ducks that they offer for sale. Many people in this area have what are commonly called “backyard flocks.”

Now, don't go running to your local Southern States or Tractor Supply to get yourself a few chicks. One — many of them are sold out of them almost as soon as they come in, and two, they don't make great house pets.

(Yes, another thing I know from experience — we actually hatched eggs in my suburban Maryland home when my sisters and I were kids. Fortunately, we had a friend who had a small farm and wanted our University of Maryland fancy chickens. All two dozen of them!)

They do make great outdoor pets. They love to eat bugs. They can become quite friendly. They will follow you around the yard. They will dig up your mulch and throw it out of your once-lovely flower beds. (OK — so that's a downside.)

However, before you go and get yourself a few, first find out if they are allowed in your neighborhood. Then, do some research and make sure you really want the undertaking. If you are only going to get a couple this one time and don't plan on replacing them when something happens to them, the cost of supplies may not be worth it. Now, if you are going to start a small flock and maintain a flock for many years, the cost is worth it.

Most of the ones sold locally are what they call dual-purpose, meaning good for eggs and good for meat. Most of them are also females. Once in a while, a store may have some males, but not often. Generally speaking, most people are looking mostly for females.

So, what are we speaking of in the way of supplies? For the baby chicks, one of the most important things to have is a heat lamp. Baby chicks need to be kept warm for several weeks. So, you will need someplace free of drafts to set up their temporary home.

Now, you can start a few chicks off in a basic small animal cage with a heat lamp suspended over it and keep it in a warm area free of drafts for the first couple of weeks, but then you will need somewhere outside to house them as they grow. You will also need a chicken feeder and a chicken waterer. They are not very expensive — a few bucks a piece.

You will need some baby chick food. You will need some aspen or pine shavings — not cedar, as the oils and fumes can be fatal to the chicks. You will want a thermometer and some cleaning and sanitizing supplies.

You will also need a chicken coop or house for them to eventually live in. You will also need to decide if they will be free-range chickens, or if they will live in a pen. Either way, you need their house or coop. It needs to be a place where the hens can roost and nest.

It needs to be large enough to allow you to get inside so that you can clean it and gather the eggs. It needs to be able to keep your chickens safe from predators. It needs good ventilation and drainage. If your chickens are not going to be free-range, it needs plenty of yard space for them to peck around and spread their wings.

Chicken coops can be very elaborate or very simple. Many places sell already-made ones that you can simply carry home and set up. There are also many plans online to build your own. Some are even portable, so you can move them around to different areas of your lawn. Have your coop ready before you buy your baby chicks, though.

Depending on how many chickens you have, you may need several feeders and waterers. Waterers need to be cleaned, sanitized and refilled daily. Feeders can be cleaned and sanitized every couple of days.

Hens will start laying eggs at about 18 to 20 weeks of age, with peak production starting at about 30 weeks. Around 80 to 90 percent egg production is considered excellent (100 percent would be one egg per day per hen).

Eggs need to be collected at least two times per day, with three times per day being best. Chickens like routines, so egg-collecting, feeding, water changes, etc., should all be done as close to the same time every day as possible.

Chickens also get used to a particular person doing a particular job. This means if the wife collects eggs in the morning and the husband in the evening, the chickens may get upset if that changes.

If several people are going to randomly be caring for the chickens at varying times, do this right from the start. Don't get them used to the wife doing it every morning for six weeks and then abruptly change to the husband in the morning. If it happens a time here or there, it might just throw egg production off for a couple of days, but if it happens often, it might really stress the hens. So, if several people are going to share all aspects of caring for them, start them off that way right from the start.

Also, if you are going to be going away for a few days and are going to have someone come to care for your chickens, you will need to introduce that person slowly. And, if there's going to be a change in schedule times, you will need to also make that change gradually.

Chickens do not handle change easily. It can throw off egg production, and it can also stress the hens enough to make them sick. Be calm and patient with your chickens. Many people actually sing or hum to them as they are doing the chores.

Most chickens will generally lay eggs well for about three to four years and then, generally, they may still lay eggs, just not as many or as often. Many people will often retire that hen to the meat freezer then; however, often in the small-flock families, it has become more of a pet and may continue living as an unproductive member of the family.

Realize though that if you are feeding that hen, she is now costing you money to keep. So you need to decide before you even come home with that first chick, are they pets or farm animals, or both, and how will you handle these types of situations, and it is best if the entire family knows all of the rules from the start?

So, why did I choose this topic? Well, right now we currently have 12 baby chicks and three baby ducks — we being myself, my daughter Jessica, her husband, Kyle, and their son, Samuel. We had talked last year about getting chickens for eggs and for meat, but with Samuel's severe egg and dairy allergies, we had changed our minds.

Then, as spring started and all of the little creepy crawly bugs started to come out, Jessica decided let's go ahead and get the chickens for bug-control assistance, and she can barter and trade with some of her friends — eggs for other stuff.

Of course, I jumped at the opportunity to go get chickens, and off we went. We were only going for chickens, but I was there, so, of course, we got the ducks, too, when one of the stores still had some available. However, no one argued with me, either. We actually purchased more chicks then we were planning on, too, and we actually have a few more chickens on order. They were of a different variety.

Now, we have several acres and several outbuildings and barns, and a large pond, and we had most of the supplies we needed, so it was not a very large expense, and because we had looked into raising them before, we already knew what we were getting into.

Of course, with having me there, we came home with more than we planned on, but, like I said, we have several acres. So, currently the cages are set up in the kitchen and will probably stay there for two to three weeks, depending on Mother Nature's temperament, and then they will gradually get moved outside to their chicken coop home. The ducks will have a separate home.

We even got some little bantam chicks. Now the bantams are what they call a “straight run,” meaning it will have both males and females, so we don't know what we are getting there, and they were of assorted variety, so, again, only time will tell. The ducks are also from a straight run. The other chicks are 90 percent guaranteed females.

Now, our chickens will be for both eggs and meat. These first ones we get may end up being mostly for eggs, but eventually we want to raise them for both eggs and meat.

Yes, I realize some of you may think this is horrible, especially coming from me an animal lover. I grew up with my father and grandfather both hunting and, yes, we ate what they killed. I will not be able to turn them into dinner myself; someone else will have to do that part.

Part of the reason we got the bantams were so they could be pets. The good part about raising your own meat is that you can decide exactly what goes into your food. They will be fed an organic feed as babies, and they will be free-range, eating a healthy diet. This is something that is very important to my daughter.

So, remember, if you decide to go and get a few of these cute little chicks, they will grow up to be hens. And those cute little baby ducks will quickly turn into large ducks. We just obtained five more ducks, because those cute little ducks someone bought a few weeks ago were already bigger than they thought they would get, and they are not even near adult size yet.

Also, remember, ducks and chickens can be very messy and dirty birds. They are a lot of work.

Remember, the chicks will need a place to live outside that is safe from predators, has some where to roost, has a nest box and is kept clean and dry. They will need clean, fresh water daily and, in the winter, you need to keep it from freezing. If you want them to lay eggs year-round, you will need to provide them with artificial lighting.

So, think twice before bringing those cute little darlings home with you. (We can only take so many!)

Cheryl Loveland is a semi-retired dog groomer. Her pet menagerie has shrunk to Bo, her bloodhound; Noel, her bichon frisée and Bootsie, her cat. She currently resides between Keymar, Md., and Millsboro and Selbyville. She is currently not doing rescue work but hopes to resume that when she returns to a more permanent residence. She is a member of Colonial Bloodhound Club and membership chairperson for Misspillion Kennel Club in Milford. She also still helps out at a local boarding kennel in the Bethany Beach area. She has been working with all varieties of pets since she was a child growing up in Montgomery County, Md. She may be reached at countryservice@comcast.net.