Nature Diary

Chicken Ship

Last year she raised a couple of seagulls. This year there were no baby gulls to rescue, and so Roxanne has been trying her hand as a chicken farmer.

Free Range Chicken aboard the good ship MaamariBefore I was born, when my family were sailing around in their yacht off West Africa, they decided to try keeping chickens. Captain Cook kept chickens on his ship and so they thought they would do the same thing. They thought they would have fresh eggs everyday. However, the result was not what they had expected. The hens all died – after having been left on deck in a torrential thunderstorm, I may mention – and so there were no eggs to be had.

When this story was told to me I was not upset. I was greatly encouraged. I knew that I would do a much better job of keeping chickens than my family.
“When can I get some chickens?” I kept asking.
“Oh… one day. When the deck is clear…”
Parents! They knew very well that the deck would never be clear – it would always be covered in junk – and so they were safe saying that.
But I didn’t give up.

The Goat FarmOne day we were anchored in the south of Gran Canaria and some friends took us to visit a goat farm. The farm was not far from the sea, but it was in a dry barren valley. There were about 600 goats which roamed around the hillside, not to mention a handful of sheep, and – yes – a few chickens.
The goat farm has been there for centuries. It belonged to the grandfather or the great grandfather of the old man who owns it now, and it may have belonged to the great grandfather’s grandfather. The man who owns it now is called Juan and he and his son, Juan Junior, spend all morning milking their goats and feeding them.

Juan the Younger Milking GoatsIt was very intersting watching the goats being milked. They line up very eagerly, because while they are being milked they get an extra ration of maize. One of the little goat kids had lost his mother and so he was hand-raised and had become very tame. His name was Cirillo, and it was fun picking him up. But I was actually more interested in the chickens.

The chickens seemed to live a life of their own, running around on the stony hillside hunting for beetles. Fluffy chicks scurried along behind their plump mothers, wandering around beneath the legs of the goats and scavenging the pieces of maize that they had dropped. When I tried to pick up the chicks they ran fast, and if I managed to catch one his mother would spread her wings and rush at me, trying to look fierce.

“Can I have a chick?” I asked Mummy.
“Hmm… Ask Daddy.”
I asked Daddy, and he said, “Hmm… Ask Mummy.”
Grown-ups are so predicatable.
I said, “It will lay eggs for us.”
“It won’t,” said daddy.
“Why not?”
“It will turn out to be a boy.”
“No. I’ll make sure I choose one that’s going to grow into a hen.
“It will die.”
“No it won’t; I won’t let it.”

Mummy said, “Where will you keep it? There’s so much clutter on deck…”
“I’ll build it a cage.”
“I thought it was going to be a free range chicken. I don’t want a battery hen…”
“A very big cage.”

“Where will you get a chicken?” asked Daddy.
Aha! “From Juan!” I answered. Now I knew that I had won – just as long as Juan would give me a chick.

The next time we went to the goat farm I persuaded Mummy to ask Juan about the chicks. She asked him, “Where can we get a chick for Roxanne?” and he said, “I will give her a chick.”
He said, “Next time you come, bring a box with you.”

I hurriedly made a cage, using the net that I had used for my seagulls’ cage, and the next day Mummy and I went back to collect my chicken. Mummy had lent me one of her baskets to carry it home.
Juan Junior was busy feeding the goats, and Mummy ran around busily photographing and filming them. Then, suddenly, Juan came striding towards me, with his fist held out and cheeping madly. He scooped up our basket and opened it. I caught a glimpse of not just one but two tiny black heads.
“Two!” I said in delight.
“Three!” he said proudly as he tossed the ball of fluff into the basket and shut it again.
Then Juan the Elder came and gave me a bag of maize and a lecture about how to care for newborn chicks.

A Handful of FluffWhen we got home we found that the chicks were too tiny for their cage. They slipped through the holes in the netting, and so we put them in a big cardboard box. None of them could have been more than a day old – they all still had their egg tooth (which is the little nobble on top of a baby bird’s beak that it uses to break out of the egg). They were all cheeping frantically and at first I thought they were afraid, but then I realised they must be either cold, or hot, or hungry. I found Daddy’s biggest hammer and I wrapped the maize in a sock and smashed it up, as Juan had said I must. I also broke up some rice and some lentils, and then I put the food into their box. The chicks ignored it and at first I was afraid I might have to force feed them, as I did the seagulls. Then Mummy began tapping with her finger, in amongst the grain, and the baby birds rushed across to see what that bigger beak had found. They stopped cheeping and ate the pieces slowly and delicately.

From L to R - Negrita, Juanita, and CirilloOne of the chicks was grey-brown with a brown head. I decided to name her Juanita.
The smallest one was black with a brown face and so I named her Negrita.
The last chick was black with a white throat and I called her Cirillo. That was so that I could fool Caesar and Xoë, who were in England at this time. They had heard about Cirillo the baby goat, and I wanted them to think that I had a goat on the boat!

After they had eaten as much as they could the chicks started cheeping again. I scooped them all up in my hands and held them, and they promptly fell asleep. I suppose they wanted their mother’s warm wing to hide under. Juan had told me that they would need to spend the night under an electric light, but we can’t run a powerful electric bulb on the boat and so we had to find another way to keep the chicks warm. We put their box into a bigger one, and we filled a hot water bottle, wrapped it up in towels, and put it between the two boxes. Then we shut the lid, leaving just a small air gap at the top of the chickens’ box. In the morning when I opened the box, my babies were still sound asleep, huddled up against the side of the box where the bottle had been put.

The next day they went for their first sail, but the weather was quite calm and so I don’t think they really noticed it.

Cirillo liked to be cuddledI soon learnt that these tiny birds already had different characters. If I put my hand into their box, with a handful of food, Juanita would rush up and begin eating. Little Negrita would run away, until she realised that there was no danger. Then she would hurry back. Meanwhile, Cirillo would be climbing all over my hand, asking for a cuddle. As she grew Cirillo continued to be very friendly, and she soon became my favourite.

“They are like children. They spend a lot of time quarreling, mostly over one particular crumb of maize while they are surrounded by food. The biggest arguments begin when one bird notices a piece of food on another’s beak. She leaps over and pecks at it, and the other bird pecks back – of course. Then the third one comes and gets in the way and gets pecked too, until they all end up rushing round and round the box. Finally the crumb of food gets swallowed, and they all calm down again.”
My baby seagulls didn’t do this sort of thing. In fact, they never fought.

Various websites that we looked at all said that we must clip the birds’ beaks, or else they would attack each other and become cannibals, but that sounded horrible. We decided that chickens probably only attack each other viciously if they don’t have enough room to run around. My chicks were still tiny but their box was much bigger than the cage that battery hens have to live in, and I gave them plenty of time to play outside, sometimes on the table in the cabin and sometimes in the cockpit. when I let them run about in the cockpit they would speed up and down the seat like little toy cars. It was amazing to see how fast they could go!

The Chicks, at one week old, taking a stroll on the dining tableBy the end of the first week of their life the chicks had already begun to develop little blue quills on their wings. As soon as their tiny stumpy feathers began to appear they started to try to fly, and soon they could cross the room. This was interesting, because although my seagulls also started to flap their wings as soon as their feathers appeared they couldn’t actually fly until they were full grown. Soon I couldn’t let my chicks play on the seat anymore, in case they flew into the sea!

From the very beginning the chicks loved the sun, but they over-heated very quickly. Then they went very quiet, and eventually they would sit and pant. I always had to pay attention to their box, making sure that they had both sunshine and shade.

They continued to eat a mixed diet of crushed maize, lentils, and rice, supplemented with canary seed and oats, left-overs from the galley, and the odd fly or caterpillar. They certainly liked insects better than anything else, and if I dropped one into their box they would rush up and down, struggling to be the one who got the special treat.

When they were seven days old the chicks were big enough to live in their big cage. On the next day we took them sailing again, with the cage occupying the whole of one side deck. They seemed to quite like it. When the boat rolled, they perched together on the edge of their water bowl as it slid up and down their cage!
But they hated the engine just as much as the dog does. When that big scary beast roars, the dog still whimpers, even after all these years, and the chickens, when they heard the first brrr-chug-chug-chug, leapt up into the air and then rushed round and round the box.

Eventually it got a bit too rough and we had to get the cage into the cockpit. That made things a bit difficult – for us, that is. The chickens seemed perfectly happy still. Finally we had to get the cage down into the cabin, and that was very hard as it would hardly fit.

At four weeks of age the chicks had enough feathers to be able to tuck their heads under their wings.

Juanita, at about 5 weeks, free ranging“The day starts with the chickens waking up, in their night time box (in the cabin) and cheeping loudly. I get up and clean their cage, which is always very messy. While I clean the cage Mummy lets the chickens fly around the cabin. She doesn’t really like it though, because they make a lot of mess, and so all the while she keeps calling, “Haven’t you finished yet, Roxanne? Hurry up, please!”
As soon as I am ready I bring the birds outside and put them in the big cage. I have tried keeping them tethered on deck – the way Mummy kept her chickens aboard our last boat – but my chickens are a lot cleverer. They always manage to get free from their tethers and then I have to grab them before they fly into the sea.”

The chickens grew so fast that soon they were shedding their first feathers and growing new ones. They grew at different rates, so that Cirillo was soon much bigger than the others. Her feathers were black and white now, and Mummy said she looked as if she was a type called a Plymouth Rock.

Cirillo (left) had an injured footOne day we found that Cirillo had an injured foot. The foot just dragged along behind her and she kept tripping over it. It was obviously painful, and so she kept sitting on her knees, the way birds sometimes do. Even then she was still taller than little Negrita. We wondered whether she had somehow broken her ankle. We never found out how the leg became injured, but after a couple of days Cirillo was walking properly again.

Negrita and Cirillo at 2 monthsBy the time the chickens were two months old they were becoming too big for their cage. Perhaps because of that, they were starting to be more aggressive to each other. One day there was a lot of squawking and when I hurried on deck I found that Juanita had attacked Cirillo and made her bleed. I had to put Juanita back into the big cardboard box where the chicks used to live when they were tiny. Juanita had always been the most aggressive chick. She always bullied Negrita, and once, when she was still quite small, she pecked me on the face and cut me.

Juanita at 2 monthsI had hoped that I would be able to keep my chickens until they were big enough to lay eggs, but there were three complications.
Firstly, we had found that they could not run about freely, as I had planned, and they could not live on the side deck while we were sailing, as they would get wet.
Secondly, Juanita was too aggressive and couldn’t be left alone with the other two.
Thirdly, two of my chickens were turning out to be roosters… Right from the beginning I had suspected that Cirillo was actually a boy, and now he and Juanita had begun trying to crow!

Cirillo and Negrita on the day we parted companyIf it weren’t for the fact that my family are vegetarians I think that my chicks might have come to a sticky end, at this stage, but fortunately we don’t eat meat. After a lot of searching we managed to find a lady who kept free range chickens, and we gave them to her. Now they will be able to spend their lives running around in a huge garden. I am sure that they will be happier there than they would be living in a cage on the boat, but I do often think of my sweet little Cirillo, who used to fall asleep in my lap.

3 Comments

  1. Cant understand why my baby chicks dont survive. Legs dont work properly. Please help me urgently! I just bought them today! It is like there is to little light. only have one big light i am planning to get a few more lights. I think they step on each other and then the legs dont work anymore. Please Pleaese please HELP me.

    1. Hullo Jackie

      Sorry to hear that you are having trouble with your chicks. I’m afraid we don’t have any advice for you as we are not experts in this field.
      I recommend that you take a look at this site: http://www.backyardchickens.com/
      It seems to have lots of useful information.

      Jill

  2. Hello! I had a wonderful time reading your artical. We recently visited my grandma who has 6 chickens (all hens) I instantly fell in love and spent much of my time with them. We live on a 40 foot sundeck trawler and we have a small dog who’s very sweet, a guinea pig, 3 parakeets, and a hermit crab. I have been looking up all kinds of stuff and I am now very well informed about chickens. My parents are not to keen on the idea of having yet another pet on our boat. Any tips? (P.S. if we were to get a chicken it would be a miniature chicken)

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