Raising Baby Chicks: The Basics

Baby chick
KarenMassier/Getty Images
  • 01 of 11

    Raising Chicks Into Hens: An Overview

    Chickens are relatively easy animals to maintain once they are adult birds, but mortality rates can be high during the period when baby chicks are growing into mature birds. A good deal hinges on having the right equipment and accessories, and on making sure the young birds are healthy and properly cared for in the early days. 

    Follow these basic steps to ensure your baby chicks grow into viable adult birds that can thrive in a communal coop environment. 

    Continue to 2 of 11 below.
  • 02 of 11

    Gather Your Supplies

    Chick feeder.
    Chick feeder. Lauren Ware

    First things first: make sure your baby chicks have everything they'll need on the first day home. Raising baby chicks into gorgeous, healthy, productive laying hens for eggs is easy, but having the right supplies helps a lot.

    As they get older, you will use different feeders, but for the first week or two, plastic chick feeders will make life a lot easier for you. Chicks love to stomp in their feed, tip it over, and generally make a mess. They're also not terribly smart and can eat quite a lot of shavings or bedding as they are picking spilled feed off the floor. These plastic feeders are perfect: the chicks can find the feed easily because they're attracted to the color red; they can't tip the feeders; they can't roost on the feeders (and therefore defecate in them), and the feeders are at the right height when placed on the brooder floor.

    Assemble all the supplies you need, including waterers, bedding, a brooder including a heat lamp, and special chick feed. 

    Continue to 3 of 11 below.
  • 03 of 11

    Fill the Waterers and Feeders

    Chick waterer
    Chick waterer. Lauren Ware

    Making sure the waterers and feeders are full before the chicks arrive may seem obvious, but it's surprising how often this critical step gets overlooked.

    You will be receiving a box of loudly peeping, hungry and thirsty, somewhat stressed-out baby chicks. They've been in a box in a truck or plane for several days with just a little bit of gel-like food to keep them happy, and immediate access to food and water will help calm them and provide critical immediate nutrition. While chicks don't require food for the first three days or so after hatching, they may still be hungry and feeding them immediately will greatly calm them.

    Fill the waterers with fresh, clean water and top off all the feeders you have with fresh chick starter. It's recommended that you do this two days before you expect the chicks to arrive. Sometimes, like babies, they make an early appearance!

    Continue to 4 of 11 below.
  • 04 of 11

    Set Up the Brooder

    Brooder set up for chicks.
    Brooder set up for chicks. Lauren Ware

    This is another critical step. Before the chicks arrive, you must have a warm, cozy spot all ready for them. If you wait until you get them home from the post office to turn on the brooder lamp, they are going to get chilled. Until you open that box, the chicks are all keeping each other warm with their own body heat packed into a tiny space. Once in the brooder, they won't have that anymore and it won't take long for them to get chilled—which leads to stress, which leads to pasting up (more on that below). 

    So, make sure your brooder is set up, the bedding is scattered, the filled waterers and feeders are placed around the edges of the heat lamp's influence—not too far away from the center but not right under it, either. And turn on that lamp, get your thermometer probe on the bedding underneath the lamp, and make sure you have a nice, toasty 95-degree F.  environment.

    Depending on the outdoor temperature, it may take a few hours for the brooder temperature to stabilize, so keep checking and adjusting the lamp height as needed. You'll tweak it again later, but you want to be in the ballpark of 95 degrees now.

    Continue to 5 of 11 below.
  • 05 of 11

    Bring the Baby Chicks Home

    Chicks in their shipping box
    Chicks in their shipping box. Lauren Ware

    When the post office receives your chick shipment, they will usually call you as soon as they open in the morning—typically 7:00 or 7:30 am. Be prepared to pick your chicks up immediately. Since you might be heading to work shortly, all that preparation you did to get their brooder ready is about to pay off.

    Make sure you have a warm, secure place for them in your car. The back of a pickup truck is not a good idea. Place the box of chicks on the floor of the car so they don't go flying in a sudden stop and don't take the family dog. Drive straight home, place their box inside the brooder area, and get ready for the fun to begin.

    Continue to 6 of 11 below.
  • 06 of 11

    Check Your Shipment

    Open shipping box of chicks.
    Open shipping box of chicks. Photo © Lauren Ware

    Open the box and examine the chicks. Although they may all seem adorable, some may not be so cute, and it is important to examine them closely. Some birds might have gotten squished, stressed, or otherwise not made the trip. If you have small children, take the first peek without them present if you think they might be upset by the sight of a dead baby chick. 

    Don't stress about one or two dead chicks. That's par for the course, and any good hatchery will send an extra or two to make up for the potential loss. But if more than one or two of a box of 25 chicks is dead, or if they're wet or otherwise messed up in some way, contact the hatchery immediately, as this is not acceptable. 

    Continue to 7 of 11 below.
  • 07 of 11

    Dip Their Beaks in Water

    Dipping chick's beak in water
    Dipping chick's beak in water. Photo © Lauren Ware

    As you take each chick out of the box and place it into the brooder, do two things immediately:

    • Dip its beak in the water. Use a finger to push its head forcefully into the waterer tray. Don't be overly gentle about this—make sure its beak is submerged. You'll see the chick actually take a little drink within a second or so. Once it has had its drink, gently place the chick on the bedding (preferably near the feeder).
    • Count your chicks. This is the time to count each variety as best you can, distinguishing them by color and markings (they won't look quite like adult patterns yet, but you can get a general idea). Forget about sexing them at this point. Just make sure that everything you ordered is there.
    Continue to 8 of 11 below.
  • 08 of 11

    Sit Back and Watch The Chicks

    Chicks happily set up.
    Chicks happily set up. Photo © Lauren Ware

    Once everyone's out of the box, watch the chicks behavior for a while. There is both entertainment value to this, as well as information to be learned. When the chicks first arrive, everyone should find the water and the feed within an hour or two. If you see a baby chick wandering around lost and peeping loudly, it's either cold or is having trouble finding water or feed. If it's outside the circle of warmth cast by the brooder, you can gently usher it back underneath.

    And you can catch the chick (if you can) and dip its beak in the water again, or put some food on a small piece of cardboard. Once one chick's beak is tapping on the cardboard, it attracts more of them, and soon there will be a feeding frenzy. This is a good technique if you have any worries about chicks eating enough. 

    Also, pay attention to the temperature. Chicks should be milling around happily under the lamp and venturing out to the edges of its warmth to eat and drink. If they are huddled together in a clump under the lamp, they might be too cold. Although chicks often like to sleep in a heap, if they are cheeping loudly and not asleep, the huddling may be due to cold. On the other hand, if the chicks are avoiding the area of reddish light cast by the brooder light bulb, staying only at the edges, then it indicates that conditions are too hot. Keep a watch on this a few times a day for the first day, and one each day thereafter, for the first week or two.

    Continue to 9 of 11 below.
  • 09 of 11

    Check for Pasting Up

    Checking for pasting up.
    Checking for pasting up. Photo © Lauren Ware

    Everyone's home, set up, fed and watered, and doing well. But there's one more thing.

    Every day for the first week or so, you'll need to check for pasting up, a condition where the baby chicks' feces gets stuck on the downy feathers outside their anal vent and prevents them from defecating. This condition, which can be fatal if left unattended, is usually caused by stress from shipping or overhandling.

    Pick up the chick as shown in the photo and inspect its anal vent. If you see feces stuck to the vent area, use a warm wet washcloth to wipe it clean. If this doesn't work, you may need to use scissors to cut away the down feathering near the vent, although this can be hard with very young chicks. Another method if the feces is dried is to simply rip it off like a band-aid. The down comes off, too, and without the down, the pasting up is less likely to happen again.  

    Pasting up is nothing to joke about. You can and will lose chicks to it if you don't clear their anal vents. Check every day. Also, using electrolytes or gel can help minimize the chick's stress and thus prevent pasting up.

    If you have children, be careful of overhandling. If chicks are pasting up, make the kids leave them alone until the problem is gone. Chicks that are pasting up are stressed chicks.

    Curious dogs are also a risk to baby chicks. Put a screen door or other cover over the brooder to keep the chicks safe.

    Continue to 10 of 11 below.
  • 10 of 11

    Keep Bedding Clean

    Bedding needs replacing.
    Bedding needs replacing. Photo © Lauren Ware

    Check the baby chicks' bedding daily for spilled water and buildup of feces. Remove any wet bedding because this can chill the chicks and stress them. Replace old bedding with fresh bedding. When the bedding gets saturated with chicken feces, scoop it all aside and put down fresh bedding—or, if that's not possible, put a nice thick fresh layer on top of the existing bedding.

    Keeping bedding fresh will keep things smelling good and will prevent health problems such as chilling. After the first couple of weeks, as the birds begin to feather in, they're less susceptible to chilling and a lot easier to care for.

    Baby chicks will get their waterers and feeders filthy with bedding. Clean it up as much as you can. You don't want them ingesting large quantities of bedding.

    Continue to 11 of 11 below.
  • 11 of 11

    Move the Chicks to the Chicken Coop

    A chicken coop.

    As your chicks grow, you can follow these steps to slowly acclimate them to outdoor temperatures and eventually, once they're large enough, sturdy, and feathered in, move them to their permanent chicken coop.

    Lowering Temperature

    Each week, lower the temperature by five degrees until the brooder temperature reaches outdoor temperatures. For the first week, keep the chicks at 95 degrees F; the second weak, 90 degrees; the third week, 85 degrees, and so on. Adjust this as necessary so that the chicks are comfortable—not huddling under the lamp (too cold) or scattering to the edges (too hot).

    Outside Time

    Starting at around two or three weeks of age, if the outdoor temperatures are warm (over 65 degrees F), you can bring the chicks outside for short periods of sun and foraging. Make sure to add grit to their feed if they will be eating anything other than chicken feed. Grit is small stones that chickens keep in their crop to help them grind up bugs, grass, and other food.

    Moving the Chicks to the Coop

    By four or five weeks of age, the chicks are ready to move to their main coop full-time. Or, if the brooder is already in the main coop, the heat lamp and brooder can now be removed. When you move the chicks, keep them closed in the coop for a day or two rather than letting them free-range, so that they learn that the coop is "home."

    Once the chicks are established in the coop,  follow basic chicken care to keep them growing strong. Your young hens will start laying eggs at around four to six months of age.