Bringing home a new voyeur box with fluffy little chicks can be scary, but Elizabeth Mac has lots of great tips to help you out. Photos by the author.
For new chicken owners, nothing is more exciting – and more terrifying – than bringing home chicks for the first time. I hope you’ve done a lot of pre-planning and have at least started building (or buying) their co-op. While most new chicken owners focus their energy on the perfect chicken coop, there are plenty of other details to consider and decisions to make before the little bundles arrive.
Many new chicken lovers buy a few chicks from a local farm or feed store. However, if you ordered your chicks from a hatchery, you will need to know the dispatch date and delivery date in order to be available to collect them from your local post office.
Most large poultry hatcheries package new chicks for shipment in a ventilated cardboard box with a hot gel pouch to keep the chicks warm. Hatcheries ship chicks as soon as possible after hatching. Chicks can live off their own yolk sac for 48 hours after hatching, and hopefully your chicks make it through that window.
Chicks cannot enter the chicken coop directly, 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 will 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 will want your incubator set up before the day of delivery. Once you bring the chicks home, they will go straight to the brooder. They will 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 moving into the coop. It is 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 move the divider as they grow. Place paper towels on the brooder floor, which will allow stumbling chicks to easily gain footing.
One of the most important requirements for chicks is a constant heat source. Chicks will not survive in a room temperature basement or garage. New chicks should have an additional heat of around 100 degrees Fahrenheit at floor level. Hang a heat lamp securely above the brooder floor. Point it in the right direction to leave an area in the brooder where the chicks can get away from the heat if it gets too hot. Invest in an inexpensive room thermometer and place it on the brooder floor. If the chicks huddle under the heat lamp, they are too cold. If they are spread out and hug the edges of the brooder walls, it is too hot. Be sure to keep them away from drafts. If he is chirping loudly and seems restless, adjust the heat lamp. New chicks should chirp quietly, drink a little, eat a little, and slump in several naps each day.
Baby chicks will have a natural instinct to peck – food, the ground and each other. Bright light causes stress in chicks and may cause them to peck, so use a red bulb for warmth. Every week or so, raise the heat lamp higher so that the floor temperature gradually decreases by about 3 to 5 degrees. After 8e or 9e week, they should be comfortable at room temperatures of around 65-68 degrees. Be sure to turn off overhead lights at night.
Check for issues
By taking your chicks home and opening the box, you might find an extra chick or two. Some, if not all, hatcheries ship extra chicks. Indeed, it is not uncommon to find a deadly chick or to lose one in the first hours. It happened to me the first time, but I had received two more. Still, I felt like I had done something wrong, but that’s normal and part of raising chickens.
You’ll want to check out a common chick ailment known as “mushy butt.” Sometimes a chick’s vent or bottom will become clogged with feces, preventing the chick from having a bowel movement. This can be fatal, so it’s important to check all funds right away and for the first few days. If you find soiled bottoms, wipe them gently with a warm, damp paper towel. It’s hard for new chick owners to tell the difference between a normal dirty ass and a mushy ass. Some droppings on the bottom are normal and the chick (or a friend) will smooth it out. The mushy butts seal their intestines and are deadly, so if you’re not sure, it’s best to clean them. They might weep and cool down, so you can dry them with a hair dryer on a low setting. If you find a chick with stickiness, watch it closely as the disease may return.
water and feed
As you place the chicks in their new brooder, they will need to find their bearings. Pick up the chicks and dip their beaks into the water, making sure they swallow. Chicks drink a lot of water, so it’s a good idea to invest in a chick waterer. Avoid using open bowls, as the little chicks fall into the bowls face first and sometimes don’t make it out. They will also get into open bowls and get wet, causing them to chill, which is not good for them.
Chick drinkers are easy to fill and clean, which you will do often when you start! You will find that the chicks make messes and poop in food and water, so they will need to be cleaned often. You can raise the waterer a little off the ground to avoid messes, but not so high that they can’t reach it. For the first few days, keep the water warmer, around 98 degrees.
When I first brought home new chicks, I put their chick food in a small pan. After eating, they just went upstairs to take a nap. Needless to say I had a constant mess. Use a chick feeder, it will make your life easier and cause less waste. I use a small gravity feeder, which has several openings in a circle where the chicks will congregate and eat. As they feed, gravity forces the grain out the bottom. Feeding trays are ok but require more work, as the chicks sit and poop on the trays, and you will have to continually refill them as they eat.
Use only a starter feed for chicks with approximately 18% protein, which promotes muscle development and growth. You can supplement the grain with a little mashed egg yolk. If they won’t eat their food, putting a little egg yolk on their food will entice them to eat.
Handling new chicks
Although the urge to hold and cuddle new chicks is understandable, avoid handling them for the first 24 hours. They will be stressed from the trip and may seem clumsy and lethargic. Give them time to relax and cheer themselves up. If they are chirping loudly or seem frightened, leave them alone for a day or two.
Once they are settled in their new home, introduce yourself by placing your hand, palm up, on the floor of the brooder. Avoid reaching over your head or standing above them. For a little chick, you’re a giant predator.
If you hope to have tamer birds, it is important that the chicks learn to be handled regularly. They will become more docile and easier to handle when needed. Your kids may eventually want to show off your chicken at the county fair, or you may need to treat them for mites or other pests at some point. Taking some time to get them used to human contact and handling will pay off. Treats, especially mealworms, work well. However, much of their attitude is tied to their breed, so choosing a more docile breed is essential if you hope to handle growing chicks.
Baby chicks grow into lanky teenagers and young adults within weeks. If they’re in your basement, consider moving them from the indoor brooder to the garage or porch. This will help them acclimate to temperature fluctuations, but continue to add heat, if needed, until they are fully feathered.
Bringing new chicks home for the first time is one of the most fun parts of raising chickens. Thorough preparation will take the stress out of bringing babies home and ease the transition to their new home.
Freelance writer Elizabeth Mac keeps a small flock of chickens on a 2+ acre hobby farm outside of Omaha, Nebraska. His work has appeared in Capper Farmer, Out there, First for women, Nebraskaland, and many other print and online publications. His first book, Healing Sources and Other Stories, includes his introduction – and subsequent love affair – with raising chickens. Visit his Chickens in the Garden website.