Raising mail order chickens is easy and a lot of fun. You can order chicks from poultry hatcheries — or simply purchase them from a local farm store.
Right before hatching, a chick absorbs and stores the remainder of the egg yolk it's been feeding on throughout incubation. This last amount of yolk can nourish the chick for several days before its first drink or meal, offering a window of opportunity for mailing chicks from a poultry hatchery to your home.
When the chicks arrive, open the package in front of the postal clerk or carrier. Deliveries from a reputable hatchery are insured, and the hatchery will usually replace losses if there are a significant number of fatalities. It sounds scary, but I've rarely had problems. It is not strange, however, to have a few losses (either in transit or within the first few days) of frail chicks that just didn't have a good start. Even in ideal circumstances, transport through the postal system is stressful for chicks. Supply them with warmth, water and feed as soon as possible.
Begin With a Homemade Brooder
A brooder is a warm and draft-free environment designed to replicate a mother hen's body heat. You can purchase a commercial brooder, but it is inexpensive and simple to construct a homemade brooder from materials you have (a large cardboard box will do for a few chicks).
The brooder must include a heat source. Any lamp with 100- to 250-watt bulbs will provide heat for approximately a dozen chicks. It is possible to purchase a special brooder heat lamp or use small electric heating elements. To control temperature, lamps may be raised or lowered. The lower the lamp, the warmer the air at the chicks' level. Safeguard the lamp or heater so it's not near combustible surfaces (litter, cardboard or wood sides) usually 18 inches or so, as suggested by the manufacturer.
Another alternative is a "hover," a boxlike configuration of metal or plywood, hanging a few inches above the brooder floor and having a heat source. The chicks retreat under the hover for warmth, and back away for feed, water and exercise in the cooler area outside.
The typical recommendation is for the brooder temperature to be a constant 95 degrees Fahrenheit for the first seven days, and that it then be reduced by 5 degrees each week until the chicks' bodies are entirely covered with feathers. Just watch the behavior of the chicks: If they huddle together under the heat, the brooder is too cool. If they retreat to the outer edges of the brooder, the heat source is too hot. If they are running about like water bugs, the temperature is "just perfect." Of course, like all babies, they need a lot of sleep, so don't be concerned if you see chicks immobile on the litter.
The brooder must inhibit direct drafts (which would chill the chicks) but permit fresh air to flow.
Protect the bottom of the brooder with loose, absorbent matter such as straw, wood shavings (kiln-dried, not "green"), or shredded cardboard or paper. A slick surface like sheets of newspaper or cardboard can trigger leg problems, particularly in ducklings and goslings.
Be certain the area in which you set up your brooder basement, garage, barn or other outbuilding is protected against pets, rodents, snakes and all predators, any of which could destroy your helpless brood.
Water and Nutrition
The first order of business to teach your chicks is how to drink. As you take each one out of the shipping carton, dip its beak into the water. Then set it onto the floor of the brooder. Do not leave open water sources in the brooder. Chicks splashing in water could become cold and die. Use a waterer with a controlled "lip" so the chicks can drink but cannot wade.
Commercial chicken feeds are almost always sold in three main formulas: a high-protein, medicated chick "starter"; a medium-protein "grower ration" or "pullet developer"; and a lower-protein, higher-mineral "layer mash" for adult hens. In a well-tended home brooder, supplements to the diet such as antibiotics, growth stimulants or hormones are totally unnecessary. To sidestep the additives, begin the chicks on the grower ration, or equivalent, and increase protein with fish meal; ground, raw beef liver; earthworms; chopped hardboiled eggs; milk; Japanese beetles or other insects. (You must not feed layer mash to young chicks the extra mineral content may hinder adequate development of their reproductive systems.)
I like kiln-dried pine shavings as floor litter. I conceal the shavings with empty burlap coffee bean sacks at first, because the chicks haven't learned what to eat, and they might try to eat the shavings. I spread out some feed initially over the sacking so the chicks understand about feeding. Then I remove the sacking and provide feed exclusively in a special chick feeder intended to minimize spillage of feed. A hanging feeder is preferred; raise it to maintain the feeding level at approximately shoulder height of the rapidly growing chicks.
In addition to feed, provide your brood free-choice "grit,'' tiny bits of rock they swallow to grind their feed in their gizzards. You can purchase commercial granite grit (which is offered in various sizes appropriate to different ages and species of fowl), or you may locate chick-size grit, approximately the size of radish seeds, around your home.
Chicken Litter and a Homemade Brooder
The means to success is regular monitoring of the brooder, plus common sense. The main obstacle to success is stress, such as overcrowding, extreme hot and cold temperatures and running out of food or water. Keep your nose alert for the slightest hint of ammonia coming from the chicken litter, and add fresh material as needed.
Adequate sanitation in the brooder is essential to avoid disease and distress. But do not assume that absolute sterility is possible or desirable. You want to prevent the "caking" of manure in the brooder, produced by overcrowding or improper litter materials (those that are not absorbent and do not fluff up easily). While brooding successive batches, I recommend topping off the old litter with fresh material (instead of removing it completely and sterilizing the brooder). The litter becomes biologically active as decomposition continues (as in an active compost heap), resulting in microbial metabolites that actually toughen the immune systems of the growing chicks. An earth floor is ideal for this system. Raising purchased chicks is simple, but don't forget that they rely on you for their every need.
For more information on raising chickens, read "Enjoy Heritage Chickens" at Mother Earth News.