Bringing home a peeping box with fluffy little chicks can be scary, but Elizabeth Mack has lots of excellent advice to help you. Photos by author.
For new chicken owners, nothing is more exciting — and more terrifying — than bringing baby chicks home for the first time. Hopefully, you’ve done lots of pre-planning, and have at least started on building (or buying) their coop. While most new chicken owners focus their energy on the perfect coop, there are many other details to consider and decisions to make before the little bundles arrive.
Many new chicken enthusiasts purchase a few chicks at a local farm or feed supply store. However, if you’ve ordered your chicks from a hatchery, you’ll need to know the ship date and the delivery date so you can be available to pick them up from your local post office.
Most large poultry hatcheries box up new chicks for shipment in a ventilated cardboard box with a hot gel pack to keep chicks warm. Hatcheries ship chicks out as soon as possible after hatch. Chicks can live off their own yolk sack for 48 hours after they’ve hatched, and hopefully your chicks arrive in this window.
Baby chicks can’t go directly into the coop, as they need special care and an extremely warm environment. Assuming you don’t have a broody hen to keep your new chicks warm, you’ll need a brooder. The first time I kept chicks, I used a large, sturdy cardboard box. You can use a plastic container, a metal tub, or an enclosed space on a concrete floor. It doesn’t have to be fancy, just safe and warm.
You’ll want to have your brooder set up ahead of delivery day. Once you get the chicks home, they’ll go straight into the brooder. They’ll need about ½ square foot of floor space per chick for the first few weeks. Their space requirements will increase as they grow—and they grow fast! Your new chicks will eventually need about 2 to 3 square feet of brooder space before they transition into the coop. It’s convenient to have a brooder that can be increased in size as they grow. I use a piece of cardboard or wood to block off part of a large box, and scoot the divider as they grow. Place some paper towels on the floor of the brooder, which will make it easy for stumbling chicks to get their footing.
One of the most important requirements for baby chicks is a constant heat source. Chicks won’t survive in a basement or garage at room temperature. New chicks must have supplemental heat of around 100 degrees Fahrenheit at floor level. Hang a heat lamp securely above the brooder floor. Point it directionally so that you leave an area in the brooder where chicks can get away from the heat if it’s too warm. Invest in an inexpensive room thermometer, and place it on the brooder floor. If the chicks huddle together under the heat lamp, they’re too cold. If they’re spread out and hugging the edges of the brooder walls, it’s too warm. Be sure to keep them out of drafts. If they’re chirping loudly and seem agitated, adjust the heat lamp. New chicks should chirp quietly, drink a little, eat a little, and collapse into several power naps each day.
Baby chicks will have a natural instinct to peck—at food, the floor, and each other. Bright light causes stress in chicks and can lead to pecking, so use a red lamp bulb for heat. Each week or so, raise the heat lamp higher so that the floor temperature gradually decreases about 3 to 5 degrees. After the 8th or 9th week, they should be comfortable in room temperatures of about 65 to 68 degrees. Make sure to turn off any overhead lights at night.
Check for Problems
As you get your chicks home and open the box, you might find an extra chick or two. Some, if not all, hatcheries ship extra chicks. This is because it’s not uncommon to find a chick fatality, or lose one in the first few hours. This happened to me my first time, but I had received two extra. Still, I felt I had done something wrong, but this is normal, and part of keeping chickens.
You’ll want to check for a common chick ailment known as “pasty butt.” Sometimes, a chick’s vent or bottom will become blocked with feces, preventing the chick from having a bowel movement. This can be fatal, so it’s important to check all bottoms right away, and for the first few days. If you find any dirty bottoms, wipe gently with a warm, wet paper towel. It’s difficult for new chick owners to differentiate between a normal dirty bottom and pasty butt. A few droppings on the bottom is normal, and the chick (or a friend) will preen it off. Pasty butt causes their bowels to seal off and is fatal, so if you’re not sure, it’s better to clean it off. They might cry and become chilled, so you can dry them with a blow dryer on a low setting. If you do find a chick with pasting, keep a close eye on it, as the ailment can return.
Water and Feed
As you place the baby chicks in their new brooder home, they’ll need to find their bearings. Pick chicks up and dip their beaks into the water, making sure they’re swallowing. Baby chicks will drink lots of water, so it’s good to invest in a chick waterer. Avoid using open bowls, as tiny chicks fall into bowls face first and sometimes don’t make it out. They’ll also walk into open bowls and get wet, causing a chill, which isn’t good for them.
Chick waterers are easy to refill and clean, which you’ll be doing a lot in the beginning! You’ll find that baby chicks make a mess, and will poop in the food and water, so it’ll need to be cleaned often. You can raise the waterer a bit off the floor to keep out the mess, but not too high that they can’t reach it. For the first few days, keep the water warmer, at about 98 degrees.
When I brought home new chicks for the first time, I put their chick feed in a small pan. After they ate, they just climbed in for a nap. Needless to say, I had a constant mess. Use a chick feeder, which will make your life easier and cause less waste. I use a small gravity feeder, which has several openings in a circle where chicks will gather and eat. As they feed, gravity forces the grain to come out the bottom. Feed trays are okay but require more work, as chicks sit and poop on the trays, and you’ll need to continually refill them as they eat.
Only use a chick starter feed of about 18 percent protein, which promotes muscle development and growth. You can supplement grain with some mashed egg yolk. If they’re not eating their feed, putting a little egg yolk on top of their feed will entice them to eat.
Handling New Chicks
While the urge to hold and cuddle new chicks is understandable, avoid handling them for the first 24 hours. They’ll be stressed from the trip, and may appear clumsy and lethargic. Give them time to de-stress and perk up. If they’re chirping loudly, or if they seem frightened, let them be for a day or two.
Once they’re settled in their new home, introduce yourself by laying your hand, palm up, on the floor of brooder floor. Avoid reaching at them from overhead, or standing over them. To a tiny chick, you’re a giant predator.
If you hope to have tamer birds, it’s important for chicks to learn to be handled regularly. They will grow to be tamer, and will be easier to handle when needed. Your kids might want to eventually show your chicken at the county fair, or you might have to treat them for mites or other parasites at some point. Taking some time to get them used to human touch and handling will pay off. Treats, especially meal worms, work well. However, a lot of their attitude has to do with their breed, so choosing a more docile breed is essential if you hope to handle growing chicks.
Baby chicks grow into gangly teenagers and young adults in a matter of weeks. If they’re in your basement, consider transitioning them from the indoor brooder to the garage or porch. This will help acclimate them to fluctuating temperatures, but continue to supplement heat, if needed, until they’re fully feathered.
Bringing new chicks home for the first time is one of the most fun aspects of keeping chickens. Careful preparation will take the stress out of bringing babies home, and make the transition to their new home smoother.
Freelance writer Elizabeth Mack keeps a small flock of chickens on a 2-plus-acre hobby farm outside of Omaha, Nebraska. Her work has appeared in Capper’s Farmer, Out Here, First for Women, Nebraskaland, and numerous other print and online publications. Her first book, Healing Springs & Other Stories, includes her introduction—and subsequent love affair—with chicken keeping. Visit her website Chickens in the Garden.