Learning from Chickens

March 24, 2020

With coronavirus closing schools, millions of parents have unexpectedly become home school teachers. They are learning how valuable trained professional teachers are as they attempt to help their kids expand their math, reading, and problem-solving abilities.

It’s a great time to buy a few baby chicks. Start them soon and by late summer they’ll be laying delicious eggs in the backyard. Having the ability to produce food is comforting in this age of anxiety. A flock of six hens will give a family over two dozen eggs a week.    

Hoover’s Hatchery reports record chick orders, probably because people want to be more food secure. Many people are tending chicks for the first time. It is an outstanding opportunity because chickens provide learning opportunities as they mature into laying hens.

Remember, though, this is a long-term commitment to compassionately raise and husband living creatures.

The Needs of a Small Chicken Flock

Dozens of Internet Websites, printed books, and the Hoover’s Hatchery On-line and printed Catalog give information on how to care for chicks, so this blog won’t cover that in depth. Rather it’s a summary of what’s needed to keep baby chicks for the short term until they move into their backyard coop.

Chicks: Baby chicks need to be warm – just under 100 degrees-until their feathers grow and the outside temperature warms. A brooder is simply a box heated by an incandescent light bulb. One can easily be made from a plastic recycling or storage bin or even a camping cooler. At the farm store buy a bag of wood chips to place on the floor of the box, a bag of chick starter feed, a small waterer and a small feeder and a thermometer. Set up the brooder and make sure it’s warm inside. Then return to the farm store and buy chicks. First time chicken keepers should stick with easy to care for rugged breeds with a calm temperament. Usually these are chickens that lay eggs with brown, blue or greenish shells. ISA Brown, Rhode Island Red, Australorps, Orpingtons, Barred Rocks, and many other breeds are ideal.  Avoid flighty, white egg layers and Cornish-Rocks. This last crossbreed is suitable only for producing meat and won’t mature into good laying hens.

Older Chickens: Chicks grow quickly and need to be moved into the coop after a few weeks in the brooder. Farm stores sell small coops that work well in backyards. The Internet is loaded with plans for DIY coop makers. Sometimes the corner of a garage or storage shed can be modified into a sturdy coop. It needs to be big enough so each hen has at least four-square feet of floor space. The more spacious the coop the better because your hens will be healthier. It will need nests and roosts, too, but Internet plans show how to set these up and most purchased coops already have them. Normally, a fenced in outdoor run is attached to the coop to allow the hens to enjoy fresh air and sunshine. They need to be securely locked indoors at night to keep hungry predators like raccoons out.

Using Chicks for Education

Kids love baby chicks, and these tiny peeping birds offer outstanding education, but there are two cautions: First, chicks are delicate. They should always be handled gently and not any more than necessary. Second, chicks can carry salmonella. After handling chicks or anything in the brooder or coop thoroughly wash your hands. It’s never a good idea to let kids kiss chicks or get them close to their face.    

Much of the fun and education that chicks can provide is showing how each bird is an individual with a distinct personality and maturity traits. So, when buying them choose chicks that look different from each other. Then they can be easily told apart. For example, in a six-chick batch choose one that’s blond, one reddish, a black one, and two that have other different colors or patterns.  Or, select any other combination that lets an observer identify individual birds. 

Once the chicks are settled down in their brooder here are some experiments that parents and children can do:

Reading, Writing, and Recording Data

Parents can help children hone reading skills by going on the Hoover’s Hatchery website or any of dozens of chicken related sites. It is an outstanding way to hone reading skills while learning about chicken breeds and care. It even works in geography, as some breeds were developed in Europe, Asia, and even South America while others originated in New Hampshire, Rhode Island, New Jersey, Ohio, and other states. 

Recording data and chicken behavior traits is an awesome way for kids to practice writing. They will also learn the scientific method of gaining knowledge by:  Making and recording observations (data), analyzing data, and drawing conclusions based on analysis. Even very young kids can do this. They become scientists!

Determining How Many Hours Chicks Sleep in a Day

Quietly visit the brooder once every hour. Note how many and which chicks are sleeping or active. Record the data on either a computer or notepad. For example, the notes for 10:00 a.m. might be as follows:

       Black, blond, and red chicks sleeping. Others are awake and eating.

Do this for at least six hours. Twelve hours will provide better data. Then, analyze the data with your child and answer these questions:

Which chicks spend the most time sleeping? Eating?    

Then extrapolate the data to slip in a math exercise.  For example, if the black chick is sleeping on four of the 12 observations, she’s sleeping 33% of the time.  How often does she nap in 24 hours?  How much of the day do chicks spend eating?

Observing if Chicks Grow Feathers at the Same or Different Rates

Some chicken breeds feather rapidly, while others grow theirs slowly. Every day observe and record when and where tiny feathers appear. Note which chicks first sprout feathers and continue noting feather appearance until all birds have feathered out. 

Which feathers appear first?  Wings? Back? Other parts of the body? Does the blond chick grow blond feathers or another color? How about the black or red ones?

Noting if Some Chicks Grow Faster Than Others

There’s no easy way to weigh these tiny babies but visually it’s possible to watch as some chicks grow faster than others. Record this in the baby chick diary.

Recording Whether Chicks Seem to Develop Friendships

Every hour have the child take note of where the chicks are positioned, especially if they are sleeping. A pattern may or may not develop.  For example, the blond chick may usually be sleeping next to the black one. If this is consistent the child has observed a pattern. If not, sleeping is random. It’s a great way for children to learn the concept of patterns and randomness.

Listen to Learn if Chicks Have a Varied Vocabulary

Chicks make many sounds. Some may be contented sounding peeping while others may be calls of distress. Encourage a child to listen for different chick sounds and attempt to interpret what each means.  

Writing

Children often start learning about chickens by reading in catalogs, books, and websites. Then they observe their chicks and follow the scientific method to analyze data and draw conclusions. It’s all science, which helps us understand the world. And, there’s more. Encourage your child to use the imagination as a stimulus for creativity.  

Art. Even young kids can use Crayons or pencils to create chicken portraits. Perhaps they can sketch an individual chick every few days so their art records growth and change, blending the scientific with the creative. They could also take photos periodically to record changes. 

Then there are stories. Stories are fun to read and write. So, after a few days or weeks of watching the chicks grow have the child, or together with the child, write a story.  It might be as simple as THE BLOND CHICK GROWS UP or TINY RED IS A SLEEPYHEAD.  Possibilities are endless and are a fun way to stimulate imagination and develop writing skills. An added benefit is sharing with family and friends via social media.

Chicks are a pathway to increasing food security.  A tiny flock will keep a family well supplied with protein-rich, delicious food. They do more. Chickens are an outstanding template for learning, and because families are confined by coronavirus, 2020 is a great year to start a poultry hobby.

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More about Rich & Marion Patterson

Rich Patterson is a retired naturalist that enjoys raising chickens in his urban backyard. His experience in practical chicken keeping and homesteading will keep you enjoying life your with chickens!

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