An Expert's Guide to Raising Healthy Chicks (and Surviving Chick Days)
Whether you have dedicated yourself to extensive research before getting chicks, or unexpectedly found yourself the new owner of baby chickens with no idea what to do, getting baby chicks for the first time can be a daunting process. Not to worry, as caring for chickens is actually quite simple.
Baby chicks will need food, water, warmth, bedding, and security to thrive. They will grow quickly, so be prepared to transition them to a larger living space—perhaps sooner than you are presently expecting. If all else fails, do not be afraid to reach out to the chicken-keeping community for help. There are several helpful groups online, so check them out.
What to Know Before You Begin
Before you even go to the store or hop online to purchase your chicks, you need to have certain things prepared ahead of time. You should already have a brooder set up and ready to move chicks into as soon as you get them home. Brooders should be secure on all sides, top, and bottom. If your brooder is indoors, you will need to ensure household pets will not be able to access it or harm the chicks inside. If it is outside, you will need to secure it against predators both wild and domestic.
Brooders will need to be large enough to accomodate the number of chicks you plan to raise until they are large enough to be transitioned to their permanent coop. A lid or cover on the brooder is crucial, even if you don't have pets who may threaten the chicks, because chicks are excellent jumpers and will be able to hop out of most containers by the time they are two or three weeks old.
Your brooder should be something that will be easy to clean and access. Dust will be an issue, so do not set up your brooder near sensitive electronics. If you are setting up your brooder outdoors, consider the ambient temperature and overnight lows, as well as any challenges in running electricity to the brooder to operate a heat source.
Your brooder will need a bedding material to absorb the moisture of your chicks' abundant poops. Pine shavings are a popular choice, but you might also opt for sand, pine pellets, corn cob bedding, or straw. There are pros and cons to all of these methods, so research and ask around to figure out what will work best for you. From personal advice, pine shavings and straw are a nightmare if they stray onto carpeting—and they will. If you are brooding your chicks indoors, avoid these materials. Sand may produce extra dust in addition to what the chicks already do, so plan for that as well.
Chicks will also need appropriate feeders and waterers. To prevent chicks from kicking their waterer full of pine shavings, you might consider a horizontal nipple waterer. Horizontal water nipples can be purchased at a variety of online retailers, and can be used to convert a variety of containers into chick waterers, making them far more versatile than the traditional vacuum-style chick waterers.
Chick feeders should be something they can easily reach, but that they cannot stand in and kick all of the feed out. For this reason, using a food dish as you would for a dog or cat isn't recommended. Chicks should be fed a commercially-produced chick starter for their first few weeks of life, then transitioned to all-flock or flock-raiser feed. Chicks should never be fed layer feed, as this feed contains supplemental calcium which can be harmful to birds who are not using the calcium to produce eggs.
One thing chicks need that adult chickens do not is supplemental heat. Heat sources are a tricky issue, because some can pose a fire hazard. Heat lamps in particular are extremely hazardous, even when used properly, so it is the advice of this author to avoid using them if at all possible.
Alternatives to heat lamps include brooder plates such as the Brinsea Ecoglow, or a "mama heating pad", which is essentially an improvised version of the brooder plate. Research your options thoroughly and choose the one that will work best for you. Remember in your planning that chicks will need a place to go in the brooder to cool off as well as a place to warm up. The entire brooder should not be kept at temperature for this reason.
Before you bring your chicks home, it is strongly recommended that you have your permanent coop built and ready to go. You may think you have time to finish the coop after you get the chicks, but you don't. You really don't.
Prepare Yourself for Shopping
Once you are ready to bring your chicks home, you have a few options as to how to go about getting them. You might buy them from a feed or farm supply store, purchase them from a local breeder, or order them online and have them shipped to your post office. As with most things, there are pros and cons to each of these options. Buying from a feed store or ordering online means that the chicks will have to endure shipping, but since shipped chicks have to be NPIP-certified, you have some guarantee that they will have a clean bill of health when they arrive.
Local breeders can also be NPIP-certified, but you will want to request to see their certification if that is important to you. Independent breeders are not always certified, which does not necessarily mean their birds are sick, but you will want to know what you are buying before you buy it. Research common poultry ailments such as mites, lice, and chronic illnesses so that you can spot the signs in the stock you intend to buy before you bring them home.
Another thing you should research before purchasing chicks is the actual breed you are interested in. Look up photos of the breeds and color varieties you want to add to your flock so that you know what they look like as chicks. Look at more than just the color of the chick's down, including the color of their legs, whether or not they have feathered feet, crests, beards/muffs, or extra toes. Research what the common going rate for this breed is—for example, if you're looking for purebred ameraucana and don't want to be mislead into buying easter eggers instead, look at the price. Ameraucana will be much more expensive than their easter egger counterparts, which is an easy way to spot if you're getting the real deal.
It is also important to make sure you are getting breeds that are going to be a good fit for you needs. If you plan on keeping your flock confined, leghorns may not be a good choice, whereas if you plan to free range your flock in an area with a lot of predators, you will want to avoid silkies or polish. If you want fat hens that you could eventually butcher for meat, avoid lean mediterranean breeds or bantams, and if you want hens that will produce lots of eggs, avoid breeds offered exclusively for meat production.
Once you start shopping for your chosen breeds, you will discover the next hard truth of chicken ownership: It will be almost impossible to get everything you want on the first try. Prepare yourself mentally for the lack of instant gratification that will come with shopping for your dream flock. Hatcheries typically announce their availability for the upcoming season in December, so if you must get a certain breed, your best bet is to place an order and reserve your chicks at that time. Inquire with your preferred hatchery or breeder to find out when the best time is to reserve your chicks in order to get everything on your list.
Labels, Terms, and Lingo
Once you are actively shopping for chicks, you may encounter several terms, phrases, or words you are unfamiliar with. To avoid costly mistakes, it's important to know what these words mean and plan accordingly.
Americana, Aricana, etc.
Although "ameraucana" and "araucana" are both actual breeds of chicken, they are quite rare. Ameraucana are presently available only from two established hatcheries: Meyer Hatchery and Cackle Hatchery. Araucanas are currently only available through private breeders. What most feed stores and hatcheries call ameraucana/araucana (often misspelled) are actually easter eggers. Easter eggers are still wonderful birds that will most likely lay blue or green eggs, but they are not a recognized breed, nor are they purebred. They are also much cheaper however, and so would make an excellent addition to most hobby flocks.
Young male chickens are identified as "cockerels". It is rare that you will see chicks labeled as such in a feed store, but cockerels can be ordered specifically through hatcheries.
Cornish Cross or Cornish X
When these cute, little fuzzballs arrive in a shipment of chicks, they don't look any different from the other cute little fuzzballs, but in just a few weeks they will will be fat and gnarly poop factories that do nothing but eat, grow, and defecate. Cornish cross are a hybrid variety produced for only one purpose: meat production. When you buy chicken meat in a store, cornish cross is what you're getting. Although they are often extraordinarily affectionate and docile chickens, their rapid growth means they suffer short lifespans even when they are not butchered for meat. Cornish cross, kept under ideal conditions, do not live much beyond a year of age and are poor layers even in the best of times.
When an assortment says "hatchery choice" that usually means an assortment of all the extra chicks (sometimes sorted by sex, sometimes not) that had nowhere else to go.
Panfry or Fry Pan Assortment
Fry Pan assortments are a popular way for hatcheries to "dispose" of their extra roosters that hatch out. Although some retailers may label these assortments as "straight run" it's a fairly safe bet that all of the chicks in that assortment are male.
Young female chickens are known as "pullets". Be aware when purchasing pullets that accuracy in sexing is about 90%-95%, so roughly 1/10 to 1/20 "pullets" will turn out to be a cockerel unless you purchase a sexlink breed.
"Rainbow Layers" is a fancy term for an ordinary assortment of dual-purpose and laying breeds. Often these assortments will include only breeds that lay brown eggs, so if you're looking for a rainbow of eggs, research and purchase the breeds you need for that colorful egg basket individually.
Sexlink chicks are hybrid varieties bred to demonstrate their sex in the color of their feathering at hatch. These chicks do not breed true, so breeding sexlink to sexlink will not produce more sexlink, but purchasing sexlinked pullets is a good way to avoid accidental roosters if you know what to look for. Sexlinks typically come in two varieties: red sexlink and black sexlink, but red sexlink go by many names including golden comet, golden buff, isa browns, etc. Black sexlink may also be referred to as "black star" or some other proprietary name.
"Straight run" simply means that the chicks have not been sorted by sex at the hatchery. This does not mean the chicks are an even split of males and females, but your odds of getting a hen or rooster are 50/50 with such an assortment.
Keeping Your Chicks Healthy
Once you've set up the brooder, built the coop, ordered the chicks, and brought them home, it's time for the real work to begin. The waterer will need to be kept full, and depending on what waterer you use, it may need to be cleaned a few times a day to remove the bedding that has been kicked into it. Food will need to be filled, litter changed, and heat source monitored, but you will also need to monitor the health of the chicks.
A common malady that affects chicks—especially those that have been shipped—is pasty butt. Pasty butt is a condition wherein dried feces accumulates on the chick's bottom and can ultimately obstruct the vent. This can be fatal if left unresolved, so it must be watched for and removed promptly. To remove pasty butt, carefully soak the chick's bottom in warm water or run it under a warm tap. Allow the dried poop to soften before breaking it off piece by piece. Be very careful not to pull or tug, as this could actually tear the chick's delicate skin. Patience is crucial.
Another malady that can afflict chicks is a condition called wry-neck. Wry-neck is a result of a nutrient deficiency, and it can be treated in older birds. For very young chicks who hatch with the condition or manifest it a few days after hatching, it is unfortunately usually fatal. In these cases, it is a result of insufficient nutrition in the egg itself, and the chick is usually too far gone to be saved once it hatches. If you wish to try anyway, you will need to supplement your chick's intake of selenium and Vitamin E. There are several, far more detailed resources on this topic from authors who have had more success with this than I have, so that will be the extent of my advice on the subject.
Another common malady that befalls new chicks is hypothermia. Maybe they escaped the brooder and couldn't reach the heat source, or they got dunked in the water dish, or lost in a rainstorm, but whatever the cause, hypothermia can be fatal for chicks. It's important to remember the adage when dealing with hypothermic chicks: It's not dead until it's warm and dead. Many times I have had a chick that was cold and lifeless, only to place it in the warmth of the incubator or brooder and have it revive, often good as new. Do your best to avoid your chicks finding themselves in situation where they may become too cold to survive, and if a chick does end up chilled, put it someplace safe and warm where it can hopefully recover.
Injuries, particularly to the vent area, are another common chick malady. Chicks in the brooder with a bloody wound should be separated to avoid the other chicks pecking it to death. Chicks do not know better than to eat anything that tastes good, even if it is to the detriment of their broodmate. Chicks can and will cannibalize each other (and adult chickens are not much better). Have a plan in place before you bring your chicks home in case you need to isolate one.
There are certain threats to chickens' health and safety that are obvious. Predators are one common threat, illness another, but many things that can sicken, injure, or kill your chicks may not be as obvious. Here are a few common dangers to avoid.
A common coating on cookware, self-cleaning ovens, and even some light bulbs, teflon emits toxic fumes as it is heated that can kill birds, chickens included. If you are brooding chicks indoors, avoid using teflon-coated cookware and do not operate an oven's self-cleaning function. Additionally, avoid light bulbs that market themselves as "shatter proof" or "impact resistant" as these are often coated in teflon to make them stronger.
It is possible to love your chicks to death, particularly if you spoil them with too many treats, the wrong treats, or offer hard-to-digest food without also offering grit. Chicks need a fairly balanced diet. In nature, they would eat wild bugs and plants as instructed by their mother hen. In your brooder, they will eat their chick starter feed which is perfectly balanced nutritionally for optimal growth. Treats shouldn't comprise more than 10% of their diet, and no treats (with few exceptions) should be offered without also offering "chick grit", coarse sand, or access to natural soil so that chicks can find their own grit to grind the food in their crops. Since birds don't have teeth, they must consume grit to substitute for chewing. Without it, food will rot in their crops and potentially kill them.
Additionally, chicks should only be fed safe, healthy treats such as mealworms, scrambled eggs (cooled to room temperature), or finely-chopped greens. If in doubt, consult the chicken-keeping community. Most things we can eat, chickens can also eat, but baby chicks are a bit more delicate and must require special consideration.
It may seem counterintuitive since chicks need a heat source to survive, but keeping the brooder too warm can kill them as well. Chicks need areas to warm up and areas to cool off in order to develop properly, and if you notice your chicks are panting or lethargic, that means the temperature is too high.
Mouse and Rat Droppings
Mice and rats are already problematic in any chicken coop, but with babies there is extra danger. Chicks mistake the droppings for food, consume them, and can become fatally sickened. It is important to find a way to prevent mice from infiltrating your brooder area to avoid this fate.
I do not recommend using poisons as this can, in turn, poison your chickens, family pets, or wildlife when they find the sick or dead rodents and consume them.
As your chicks grow, you may need to graduate them from the brooder to a larger "grow out" pen before they are ready to move into the coop. You may choose to switch from chick starter to an all-flock or flock-raiser feed before they are old enough to consume layer crumbles. You may need to upgrade to larger feeders and waterers, or change the type of bedding you use. Your chicks will grow fast, and the next several weeks will rush by before you know it. As you learn and research and ask questions, don't be afraid to just enjoy the experience. You only get to be a first-time chicken owner once, after all!
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.