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by Rebecca Krebs It’s spring, mail order chicken season. You might be starting out with chickens, or maybe you’re a poultry veteran with your eye on a rare new breed. Either way, you’ve decided to bring girls into your life. But you’ve heard the recent horror stories about deliveries of chicks that are dead or so stressed that they die shortly after arrival. How do you make sure this won’t happen to your chicks? There are several steps you can take to reduce the risk of your chicks experiencing shipping stress and save them if they do.
The first step is to select the best place to order chicks. Besides the reputation of the company, the most crucial factor is the distance girls have to travel to reach you. They will enjoy less travel time and less weather variation if shipped from a nearby hatchery. Even better, you can take the stress out of shipping by picking up chicks from a reputable local breeder. Refrain from buying in a specific region if you find better options elsewhere; be aware that shipping conditions are more unpredictable the farther the chicks travel, although they usually survive long-distance journeys without adverse effects.
Now that you’ve found a hatchery, it’s time to plan your order. Chicks are vulnerable to exposure and shipping delays caused by weather, but you can avoid this by timing their arrival during a mild season. Mid-March to mid-October is generally a safe time in the north, and in the south avoid hot summer temperatures. The fewer chicks in the shipment, the more cold weather affects them, something to keep in mind when buying from small order chicken hatcheries.
How chicks are shipped is almost as important as when. USPS Priority Mail has been the most common service used to ship live chickens to the United States. No shipping method is immune to delays or rough handling, but Priority Mail Express is the most reliable, usually arriving within three days. Mail-order chickens can handle three days of shipping, although two days is preferable. Losses are high if they are in transit for more than three days. Still, I recommend paying the extra charge to ship via USPS Priority Mail Express if the hatchery offers that option.
Your order is placed, and you are impatiently awaiting your chicks. In the meantime, buy everything you need to raise them. Set up the brooder and stabilize the temperature under the heat source at 95-100 degrees Fahrenheit for at least 24 hours before expecting the chicks. Time is running out if chicks arrive stressed and you want to be ready when they need help recovering.
Please collect the chicks as soon as the post informs you of their arrival. Keep your vehicle warm for the drive home, but don’t put the chicks directly in front of the radiator.
Reviving Stressed Chicks
Naturally, mail-order chickens are always somewhat stressed by shipping. It is normal for the chicks to huddle together in the box and peek loudly. In most cases, they recover soon after you move them into the preheated brooder with warm water (with chick electrolytes added) and food. Gently dip each chick’s beak in the water to help it find it, and you may need to dip its beak several times before it coordinates. After they drink, show them the food by imitating a mother hen’s quick tuk-tuk-tuk food call while sprinkling food.
Some chicks are inconsolable if they arrive very stressed, while others are too weak to stand up or cry. They may not open their eyes when handled. If they have been in transit for more than three days, if there are dead chicks in the box, or if the box is damaged, assume that the surviving chicks are extremely stressed.
Consistent warmth is essential for stressed chicks, and those that arrive shivering or weak from the cold should be warmed up quickly. Ten to 15 minutes under the hair dryer does the job. Monitor the temperature by holding your hand at chick level. They’re too hot if they’re panting.
When chicks are dehydrated and too weak to drink, you can hand-hose them with an eyedropper until they are strong enough to drink on their own. Tilt the head back, open the beak, gently squeezing the corners of the mouth, place a drop of warm water inside and let the chick swallow. Repeat until you feel a slight bulge of water in the chick’s crop. Use the same method to hand-feed weak chicks with your fingers or tweezers, dropping a millet-sized piece of food at a time into the back of the mouth. Keep them dry and warm while you work with them.
Eggs are the perfect food to boost the nutrition of stressed chicks for rapid recovery and good early growth. For this reason, I recommend giving scrambled or soft-boiled eggs to all chicks shipped. Offer one finely chopped, well-cooked egg per 15 standard breed chicks or 20 Bantam chicks twice a day for a week.
The environment of stressed chicks should be unobtrusive and they should not be unnecessarily picked up or taken out of the brooder. However, they can lose their will to live if they feel abandoned, so spend time nurturing them while they stabilize. They thrive on baby talk.
Even after chicks begin to recover, it is essential to monitor them for stress-related issues that develop several days after their arrival. The most common problem is mushy ass – droppings stick around the vent, potentially preventing waste disposal. Clean the chicks with warm water and mild soap and dry them completely with a hair dryer before putting them back in the brooder. Gravel and probiotics in the diet relieve pasty buttocks.
Also watch out for chicks not learning to eat or drink. They chirp grumpily, hunker, and run aimlessly. Show them the water and food again; if that doesn’t work, try hand watering/feeding until they get the hang of it.
Despite everything you do to prevent and alleviate transport stress, sometimes chicks don’t survive due to circumstances beyond their control, and you shouldn’t blame yourself. However, you can save many highly stressed chicks and watch them grow into strong adults with care and persistence.
Originally published in the March/April 2023 issue of Journal of the campaign and the small stock and regularly checked for accuracy.