TAYLORS, S.C. (AP) — Sporadic peeps ring out from beyond the four walls of heated cages as chicks poke their heads out to feed from a tiny trough.
Most of the dozens of week-old chickens congregate in one cage, except a single chick separated from the others. Sophia Pahnke opens the lid and pulls it out.
She cradles the brown and yellow speckled baby, no larger than her fist. After arriving on a plane over a week ago from a commercial hatchery in New Mexico, all the birds rely on Sophia as their temporary caregiver, especially the one she cups in her hand.
When the other members of the flock realized that chick was the most vulnerable, they ganged up on it. For now it stays alone. Once it’s stronger, it will return to the flock.
“She’s probably going to be a really sweet chicken,” Sophia’s 12-year-old sister Jill said of the tiny one.
Sophia loves chickens and their personalities. She counts them among her hobbies along with painting, working out, exploring the outdoors and playing the piano.
“A lot of people want them for the production,” Sophia said. “But, I see them as pets a lot of times because, if you really spend time with them, you see all their individual personalities, especially with my chickens. I look at them, and I’m like, ‘I know what you’re gonna do in this moment.’”
Sophia is 15, preparing to start 10th grade this fall. She spends her fleeting summer days caring for the chicks, nurturing them into pullets — the term for young hens.
She will sell them this September as part of her newly created small business, Bird Brains Chickens. The chicks are five breeds: Easter eggers, black copper marans, buff Brahmas, brown leghorns and silver-laced Wyandottes. They range in cost from $15 to $25. Sophia was excited because one Easter egger had already been reserved at the end of July.
“I think it’ll be very successful if I can get it up and running,” Sophia said. “So many people have an interest in chickens, and so many people want a little piece of farm wherever they are.”
On multiple acres in North Carolina, Sophia’s grandmother and aunt care for four cows, a donkey, two horses and 15 chickens.
Thanks to her family, Sophia has been around barnyard animals most of her life. She could be found sitting in her grandmother’s coop whenever she visited.
When her family moved to its current home in Taylors almost a decade ago, she played pretend in the vast backyard, acting like a fairy or princess and running through the thick woods. She and her sister sometimes imagined they lived in colonial times, picking up rocks and calling them “eggs.”
Over a year ago, the Pahnke family was at a Tractor Supply Co., and Sophia itched with the desire for her family to care for their own chickens. The siblings banded together and wrote a poem to convince their parents.
Under towering trees in the family’s yard, their birds — Snooki, Scarlet, Amelia Egghart, Gale, Gerty, Eloise, Millie, Penny, Olga and Diesel — now strut inside the coop and cage, safe from predators.
The Pahnke kids have chores to care for the chickens and their dog that rotate weekly. One fills the food bowls, locks up the coop at night and gathers the eggs. Another handles the water, and the third feeds and washes their German wirehaired pointer, Blue.
Sophia calls caring for the birds therapy. When she is inside the large cage, the chickens jump on her head and back, pecking at her freckles. She hung up toys to keep them entertained — a swing made up of a stick and rope, and a mirror adhered to the wall.
Sometimes if Diesel catches a glimpse of himself in the reflection, he’ll peck at it, trying to knock out any potential competition for his top spot in the coop. Gerty also managed to eke her way up to the top of the coop’s pecking order — a task often done aggressively — by being a kind bird, Sophia said.
The Pahnkes now buy their family chickens from Ayman Kaddouri, a seller in Hendersonville, North Carolina, nicknamed “The Chicken Man.” Sophia once told him on a visit to his place: “I think you have my dream job.”
Kaddouri encouraged Sophia to start her business. So this summer she launched Bird Brains.
Sophia’s mother, Tara, discussed the nuances of her daughter starting a business with a Greenville County employee a few weeks back. Neither she nor her husband, Richard, come from a business background. The family is in the process of obtaining a business license and working through insurance issues.
Sophia started by first choosing the breeds to sell, creating business and contingency plans, launching a website and buying brooders — the temperature-control cages. In late July, the chicks arrived. Her business cards recently came in the mail and she is printing flyers to advertise. Sophia is funding part of the venture on her own, using the money she makes from piano lessons.
She checks on her chicks four or five times daily, sometimes just for fun. She conducts temperature checks and head counts, fills up their food and water troughs, and frequently cleans the cages.
“My greatest worry right now is that I worked really, really hard, and it could totally, like, flunk the first time around,” Sophia said. “But I think I’m doing all the right things. So I just have to work in the right direction pursuing it.”
She has decided to sell her chicks at eight weeks old because while chicks are “super cute,” they are a lot of work and vulnerable to stress, disease and infections. Not all owners want to deal with that. Pullets are fully-feathered, less sensitive to temperature changes, can go into coops with bigger birds and are closer to laying eggs.
Once the birds hit four weeks old, Sophia will separate them across her two cages to give them more space. Sophia wants to intellectually stimulate her chicks by placing swings in the cages to practice balance. It will help give them “brains” she laughed while looking at the name of her business written on a piece of wood above their cages.
The first day the pullets will be ready for pick up is Sept. 24. The birds can be reserved on her website.
Sophia starts 10th grade at Greer Middle School in the coming weeks. In the future, Sophia wants to study business formally and run a hobby farm on the side, perhaps adding goats to her lineup. For now, she dreams of coming home from school one day and checking her email to see multiple requests for chickens.
“I really want people to basically enjoy them as much as I do,” Sophia said.