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The Great Chick Shortage 

First, find the damned things. Then read this.

In case you haven't been to a feed store lately, I've got news for you: It's chicken season. Every feed store in town has a little wire cage rigged up with heat lamps, and under those heat lamps are -- nothing.

Nothing. We are in an oversold situation with regard to baby chicks this spring.

Maybe it's the economy. Maybe it's the local food movement. Maybe it's the fact that those baby chicks are so damn cute and you've been trying to resist them for years but the overwhelming force of their fluffy, downy, peeping cuteness finally overcame you. Whatever the reason, the feed stores around town are telling me that when their shipment of peeps arrive, they go out the door with loving new chicken-parents in a matter of minutes.

Now, don't panic. You're going to get your baby chickens, but it just might take a little strategizing. A&L Feed in McKinleyville tells me that they're going to keep ’em coming until October. That's right, October! As long as the raccoons are eating them, they told me, they will keep selling them. (Calm down. A raccoon is not going to eat your little Sasha and Malia or whatever you decide to call them. You're going to build an impenetrable fortress for your girls, surrounded by sturdy hardware cloth, which will also be buried a foot or two underneath the pen so that creatures cannot climb over, reach inside, or tunnel under.)

All the other feed stores have more shipments coming in as well. Several of them seem to get their shipments on Friday, so plan your week accordingly. The Farm Store, Fortuna Feed, Nielsen and Three Gs are all expecting regular shipments throughout the spring. And in case you don't frequent feed stores, let me tell you that they are staffed by the friendliest people you'll ever meet. You can call them and find out what breeds they are expecting to receive and when, and you can also hit them up for chicken advice any time.

Feed stores will also have the heat lamps, pine shavings, feeders, books of nursery rhymes, adorable little chicken-sized baby bonnets and, of course, feed that you will need to get started. Okay, I'm not quite sure about the baby bonnets, and instead of a book of nursery rhymes you might rather check out their selection of helpful chicken-raising manuals, but other than that, they've got all that stuff. There's some sort of powdery medication you're supposed to put in the drinking water of baby chicks, and different kinds of food for different stages of growth, so you'll need some help putting all that together. Do this ahead of time so that when you get home with the baby chicks, you can put them right into their new home under the heat lamp they so urgently need.

You'll have about two months to get their outdoor coop ready, and if you're not sure how to go about building one, I suggest that you cruise through the feed stores and take a look at the ready-made animal shelters and nesting boxes they sell. Again, I cannot stress how important it is to have an overbuilt, ultra-reinforced housing situation for your birds. We tested our coop ahead of time by locking cat food in there. In a couple of days the food was gone, and the critter who got it left a telltale tunnel for us to patch. We repeated this procedure a few times until we were certain that no one was going to get inside the coop and eat our chickens for dinner.

If you go to the Journal's website and type "chickens" into the search box, you'll see a few articles on chicken-keeping from the past few years that might be helpful. I won't repeat all that here; instead I'll mention one aspect of raising chickens that you won't read about much in books, and that is the issue of veterinary care.

For the most part, your chickens are going to be happy, healthy, uncomplicated creatures who live a surprisingly routine and predictable life. But if they get sick, you'll search through your chicken-raising manual and find out that you're expected to either perform veterinary care on the animal yourself, or chop her head off and eat her for dinner. Really, those seem to be the only two options most chicken experts offer.

But there is another way. When our hen Dolley got an impacted crop, we called around and found a bird vet who would see her. They were, in fact, delighted to have a chicken in the office, or at least that's what they led us to believe in that way veterinarians have of allowing you to think that your pet is the most interesting and wonderful creature they've ever seen. They gave us a simple diagnosis and few treatment options; in the end, Dolley has simply learned to live with a stretched-out crop that doesn't really digest food very well. And we have learned that she loves to sit on our lap and have her crop massaged, which helps get the food moving again and is kind of pleasant for all of us.

Another hen, Eleanor, developed problems at the other end of her digestive system. Sometimes when a chicken lays an egg, she pushes so hard that some of her innards end up -- well -- outward. It's called a prolapsed vent, and it's dangerous for a variety of reasons. This happened while I was out of town, so Scott was left to don rubber gloves, obtain various ointments, and become more intimate with the back end of a hen than any man ever wants to be. She wasn't getting any better, and in a moment of desperate misery he took her to an emergency vet on a Saturday night, thinking she would have to be put to sleep but not wanting to do the deed himself. Lo and behold, that vet used to keep chickens and believed that he could save her. He gave her a cortisone shot and recommended some other ointments, and within a week or two Eleanor was back in business.

And although my husband has been known to grumble about the vet bills we've incurred over a two-dollar bird, I remind him that we paid nothing at all for our cat, and the cat has yet to lay an egg, eat a snail, pull up a weed, produce manure for the compost pile, or even come when called. Chickens are great pets. You're going to love it. And the first time those little peeps fall asleep in the palm of your hand, you'll wonder why you ever bothered having kids. This is way more fun. If you've got any chicken-raising questions, send them to me at amystewart@northcoastjournal.com and I'll answer them in a future column.

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Amy Stewart

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