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Chickens at home in Hillsboro High School

Staff writer

There is a phenomenon taking over the Hillsboro High School agriculture department.

In the shop, next to the normal tools for welding and pieces of scrap metal, are three separate pens for chickens. On Thursday, the students in Sonya Roberts’ class were huddled around the barrel sized enclosure filled with baby chicks and turkeys.

Although chick raising has not been uncommon in the history of Hillsboro High School’s agriculture programs, Roberts had originally vowed to not put the class incubator to work. She did not long for the smell and mess associated with chicken pens. She said if she could find air freshener infused wood chips she would use them.

However, Roberts’ resolve melted when it was the suggestion of student Nathan Unruh that the class raise chickens as a project. Unruh takes care of 23 hens and two roosters at his home 20 miles outside of Hillsboro. It is his personal flock, and he had experience to apply to the animal science class.

The class has recently hatched its third round of chicks since December. A change this time around was also having turkeys in the mix. About 14 birds hatched in the from the class incubator. The students have taken to the birds. Taylor Carlson said she has gotten attached to the chicks easily especially a turkey she named Doug who has struggled to walk. Turkeys, being bigger birds, take a longer time to develop, which is one of the lessons Roberts’ animal science class has learned raising birds.

A lesson related to animal science is determining the sex of each bird. Before the chicks mature and the males grow the signature combs on top of their heads, it is not obvious to determine which birds are male and female. Students learned to tell by the feathers on the chicks wings — female birds have two sets of feathers hidden underneath fluffy plumage. They are also learning how to check by venting, which is investigating the reproductive system.

Other lessons center more around creating a successful chicken operation. They have learned to separate chicks after they hatched so the one who have hatched will not peck into other shells in search of food. They have learned that if chicks heads are placed in sweetened water that they instinctually begin to eat and drink. They have learned that birds that are held when they are young are much tamer when they grow in three months. They have learned that humidity is important to the hatching process after only 10 percent of chicks hatched in the coldest part of the winter.

The program has also been a commercial success. Unruh has sold 10 hens and two roosters. There also buyers lined up for multiple chicks in the recent hatch class. One unexpected buyer is classmate Maci Schlehuber, who has planned to purchase a full-grown hen from the class. She has named the bird after herself, and it is tame enough that it will perch on students’ arms.

There is also a harder lesson to come. The class raised more roosters than it can handle. They learned that there is not much call for layer breed roosters from prospective buyers. Roberts is planning a day to slaughter the birds during the last week of school.

Despite this, the program has been a success, a ball Roberts cannot stop from rolling. Unruh is planning to take the incubator home and continue to hatch chicks this summer. With the interest of students from all seven of her classes — during hatch time all the students crowd to the incubator — the HHS animal science class will raise chickens and other birds next year.

“It’s a great experience for the kids,” Roberts said.

Last modified April 26, 2012

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