For Easter: Chicks?

I see the signs that spring has arrived at the Kelly home: hours of planting, barbecue dinners on the patio, wafts of jasmine floating in the kitchen window, and loads of requests for baby animals. So, for this Easter, hubby Patrick and I are thinking live chicks — none of those marshmallow Peeps.

“When I was a kid, we hatched eggs,” I told Patrick. “I can still smell the chicken feed.”

He was intrigued, but Patrick wanted to know what it would take in terms of time and money. I called around to get some answers.

“You need an incubator to hatch in, and it takes 21 to 23 days,” explained Debbie at Flinn Springs Feed & Supply in El Cajon (619-561-0391). “The incubator keeps the temperature precise. Plug the incubator into the wall and turn the eggs at the same time twice a day. You can buy a machine that turns the eggs. The best way is to put a mark on one side, so if you have several eggs you will know which ones you have turned.”

Once the chick has pecked its way out of the egg, “Leave them in the incubator for a little while to dry and get their balance. Then put them in a container, such as a cardboard box or a cage. You need bedding in it, the heat-lamp shining on them, a food dish, and a waterer. The chicks start with chick-starter, which is medicated and has lots of protein. They eat that until they are four to six weeks old, and then they go to a developer for another four weeks. They won’t start laying eggs until they are five or six months old.”

Flinn Springs Feed & Supply sells baby chicks for $3.95 apiece. “We have the hatchery sex them. They guarantee us a percentage of 90 percent hens, because most people want hens for eggs.”

How do you tell you have a rooster and not a hen? “You can tell it by its tail feathers. They come up and curve down. Hens’ tail feathers go straight. The roosters won’t crow until they are lot older.”

Flinn Springs Feed & Supply does not sell fertile eggs, but they sell an incubator for $59.95.

“I order my chicks from Privett hatchery in New Mexico,” offered Marty Barnard, owner of East County Feed & Supply in Santee (619-562-2208). “Every time we order we try to get two or three different breeds, so we have a selection. There are a whole mess of breeds.”

Barnard doesn’t sell fertilized eggs and recommends beginners start with baby chicks rather than fertilized eggs. “All you need to do is keep the chicks warm for the first six weeks. They are not fully feathered until then, and without a mom for them to get under to stay warm or a heat source for them, they won’t survive. Our chicks go for around $3.99.”

She cautioned about letting the chicks free-range when they are really young. “We have hawks and crows in our neighborhood, and if they saw a chick, it would just be lunch.”

For those determined to hatch their own, “An incubator runs $71.99 and holds 50 eggs. The egg turner costs $64.99. A lot of people don’t realize that egg shells are absorbent. If you go in there to turn the eggs twice a day and you have bacteria on your skin, it can transfer into the embryo and it won’t develop properly. The brooder lamp, which is the heat source, costs $13.99 plus $3.99 for the bulb. You can use a regular bulb or a red-colored bulb. There is a philosophy that the red color is calming to the chicks, reduces stress, and tends to keep them from pecking on each other. The chick-starter runs $11 a 25-pound bag. For water, you can’t just put a bowl in there because the chicks fall in and get chilled and they won’t survive. We have water units from $3.99.”

Armstrong Feed & Supply in Valley Center (760-749-2223; armstrongfeed.com) sells day-old chicks for $3.50. “Currently, the baby chicks we have in our feed store are more boutique birds,” offered Ryan Armstrong. “They are prettier to look at. It’s like with cows — you wouldn’t put a dairy cow in your backyard; you’d probably put a nice Angus cow.”

Armstrong’s feed store sells starter-feed for $5 for a five-pound bag, $15 for 50 pounds.

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Please, please don't buy adorable tiny Easter bunnies for your kids! As rabbits mature, they become difficult to deal with unless you know what you're doing. Every year, most six-month-old bunnies that looked so cute on Easter day are either thrown out of the house (certain death by coyote/hawk) or taken to shelters that are overloaded with the rejects. Please read up on rabbit care before you buy one. They get big, they get feisty, they need special diets (not just cartoon rabbit food of carrots and lettuce), and they can be destructive. They must be spayed/neutered. Rabbits need a responsible pet owner, just like a dog or a cat. Do yourself and the rabbit a favor and don't buy one unless you're willing to make the commitment!

The same is true with any potential pet you have your eyes on. They may look cute now--but be prepared to spend up to decades caring for the newest family member. Pets are like kids--if you cannot make the committment, do not adopt! Otherwise, it's Heartbreak City for all hands! --RKJ

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