Caroline Cummins is Culinate’s managing editor. She lives with her husband, two daughters, and cat in Portland, Oregon.

Cheep thrill

Raising chicks

April 21, 2008

The basic principle of mimetic desire is this: You notice your friends and neighbors doing something intriguing, which makes you want to do it, too. In my urban, food-focused little universe, the latest mimetic desire is chickens.

First on the scene was Jes Burns, who bravely raised three chickens in a postage-stamp yard (and wrote about it on Culinate). Then it was our neighbors three blocks away, who also have three large hens. And editorial director Kim Carlson’s next-door neighbors, who have chickens. And Health+Food columnist Catherine Bennett-Dunster, who tends fowl. And Culinate blogger Sarah Gilbert, who keeps her own. And — well, you get the idea.

chicks in box
Six chicks on their way home from the store.

When we told a non-chicken-owning friend that this year was the year, finally, that we were going to raise our own chickens, he snorted. “Chickens are so trendy,” he said. “They’re like, the new iPod.”

Indeed. At our local nursery and chicken-supply store on a wet weekend afternoon, people were lining up to buy books on chicken-keeping and coop-building. But the birds themselves were in short supply. Three weeks ago the store had several breeds, all “sexed” — i.e., the breeders had made their best guess as to which gender the chicks were and separated out the hens from the roosters. On Sunday, however, when my husband and I showed up to buy chicks, the roster was down to two breeds — Araucanas and Black Australorps — and they were “straight run,” also known as “take what you get.” Each chick, in other words, had a 50/50 chance of being a hen. Or a rooster.

In the city of Portland, you’re allowed to have three hens without a permit. (Roosters are banned.) We had planned, therefore, to buy three sexed chicks. “But you’d better buy more than three,” said the nursery staffer who was helping us. So we got more — six, in fact.

cat and chicks
A cheep babysitter.

The staffer crammed the little birds — three Araucanas and three Black Australorps — into a small cardboard box and taped it shut and put it on the counter. While she grabbed a chick feeder and chick waterer and we bagged some chicken feed, the box peeped and shuffled around the counter. We held it carefully all the way home and then unloaded the birds into our homemade chick coop: the sides of a big cardboard box, propped atop lots of shredded paper and covered with a chicken-wire lid. Add food, water, and a heat lamp, and you’re done — at least until you have to change the bedding, which, we soon learned, is pretty darn often, or about once every 24 hours.

If you’re into mathematical permutations, this is what my husband’s best guess was on our odds of getting hens from our six chicks:

all hens: 1 in 64
h h h h h h

5 hens, 1 rooster: 6 in 64
r h h h h h
h r h h h h
h h r h h h
h h h r h h
h h h h r h
h h h h h r

araucana chick
An Araucana bird in the hand is worth . . .

4 hens, 2 roosters: 15 in 64
r r h h h h
r h r h h h
r h h r h h
r h h h r h
r h h h h r
h r r h h h
h r h r h h
h r h h r h
h r h h h r
h h r r h h
h h r h r h
h h r h h r
h h h r r h
h h h r h r
h h h h r r

Pretty, no? He also concluded that the chance we’ll get at least three hens is 42/64, or almost 66 percent. This conclusion, alas, is also true for getting at least three roosters.

At the nursery, the staffer had named a store that would, supposedly, “give away” any roosters we might turn out to have. Hm. We’ve only had our chicks for a few days, and can’t tell them apart at all (although the Araucanas are bigger and brown, and the Black Australorps are smaller and — duh — black), so we’re not exactly emotionally attached. Roosters? Sounds like dinner to us. But maybe in a few months we’ll change our minds.

There are 9 comments on this item
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1. by Liz Crain on Apr 25, 2008 at 3:21 PM PDT

They are so cute! We keep saying we’re going to get chicks too but never have. How long do you keep the heat lamp on them?

2. by Caroline Cummins on Apr 27, 2008 at 9:06 AM PDT

Heat lamp stays on 24/7 until they’re big enough to go live in the coop outside — and even then, they might need the lamp turned on in the winter. Brr!

3. by Liz Crain on Apr 28, 2008 at 10:12 AM PDT

I hope you’ll post again about them b/c they are looking super cute. Our neighbor’s hen (she doesn’t have any roosters) set up a little roost last summer and was sitting on several of her eggs thinking they would eventually hatch -- which of course they wouldn’t. We get a lot of her chickens’ eggs because she doesn’t really like eggs. Lucky us.

4. by Caroline Cummins on Apr 28, 2008 at 10:56 AM PDT

Dude, eggs every day was our major motivation for getting chickens. I mean, birds are fun and all, but stealing their unfertilized, unhatched babies is kind of the main point, at least for us.

5. by anonymous on Jul 3, 2008 at 6:32 PM PDT

I’m worried about poor little black and blue Stevie, still. How’s s/he doing? Please report on social, physical and emotional development.

6. by Em on Feb 14, 2009 at 4:01 PM PST

What is the life expectancy of the average chicken?

7. by Caroline Cummins on Feb 16, 2009 at 4:49 PM PST

Em -- According to The Chicken Health Handbook by Gail Damerow, the maximum lifespan of a chicken is 30 to 35 years. That sounds VERY long to me, especially as many urban chickens raised as egg-laying pets get picked off within a few years by urban predators (raccoons, hawks, dogs, etc.).

Commercially raised chickens have abbreviated lifespans, of course. Chickens raised for meat are slaughtered in the first two or three months of life. Chickens raised to lay eggs are generally slaughtered after a couple of years, when their egg production starts to slack off. (Chickens raised to lay eggs as pets, however, can lay for 12 to 15 years.) And boy chickens from a batch of birds raised to lay eggs? They’re gassed.

8. by Emilie on Jul 22, 2009 at 3:50 PM PDT

Hi Me and hubby just got some black australorps as well. I realise these posts are old. Ours are about 5 weeks old now. Can you tell me how to figure out their sex? Do the males have longer tail feathers than the females?

9. by Caroline Cummins on Jul 26, 2009 at 10:51 AM PDT

Hey, Emilie. I’m sorry to say that unless you are an experienced chicken sexer (yes, this is an actual agricultural job description), there’s really no way to tell which gender your birds are until they start to crow — or not. You should know for sure either way by about 8 weeks of age. And yes, if they’re boys they will be loud. Very, very loud.

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