Raising Baby Chicks: The Basics

Baby chick
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  • 01 of 11

    Raising Chicks Into Hens

    Chickens are relatively easy animals to maintain once they are adult birds, but mortality rates can be high while baby chicks are still growing. Success hinges on having the right equipment and accessories as well as making sure the young birds are healthy and properly cared for in the early days. Following some basic steps to set up your coop and keep the babies healthy will ensure your new chicks grow into viable adult birds that can thrive in a communal coop environment. 

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  • 02 of 11

    Gather Your Supplies

    Chick feeder.
    Lauren Ware

    First things first: Make sure your baby chicks have everything they'll need on the first day home. Assemble all the supplies you need, including feeders, waterers, bedding, a brooder with a heat lamp, and special chick feed. 

    For the first week or two, plastic chick feeders will make life a lot easier for you. (As they get older, you will use different feeders.) 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 offer the perfect solution. The chicks can find the feed easily because they're attracted to the color red, and they can't tip over the feeders or roost on the feeders (and defecate in them). Also, the feeders are at just the right height when placed on the brooder floor.

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  • 03 of 11

    Fill the Waterers and Feeders

    Chick waterer
    Lauren Ware

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

    You will be receiving a box of loudly peeping, hungry and thirsty, somewhat stressed-out baby chicks. They've been inside a box on a truck or plane for several days with just a little bit of gel-like food to keep them happy. Immediate access to food and water will help calm them and provide critical 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 help to calm them.

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  • 04 of 11

    Set Up the Brooder

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

    Set up the brooder—also before the chicks arrive—to ensure you have a warm, cozy spot 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 combined body heat, and it won't take long for them to get chilled. This can lead to stress and pasting up. 

    To set up your brooder, scatter the bedding and fill the waterers and feeders. Place the waterers and feeders around the edges of the heat lamp's heat—not too far away from the center but not right under it, either. Place a thermometer probe on the bedding underneath the lamp, and turn on the lamp. The lamp should heat the area to 95 F.

    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 F now.

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  • 05 of 11

    Bring the Baby Chicks Home

    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 up the chicks immediately. 

    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 if you have to make a sudden stop. And don't bring the family dog. Drive straight home, place the chick box inside the brooder area, and get ready for the fun to begin.

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  • 06 of 11

    Check Your Shipment

    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 one 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. 

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  • 07 of 11

    Dip Their Beaks 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 have patterns quite like adults, but you can get a general idea). Forget about sexing them at this point. Just make sure that everything you ordered is there.
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  • 08 of 11

    Observe the Chicks

    Chicks happily set up.
    Photo © Lauren Ware

    Once everyone's out of the box, sit back and watch the chicks behavior for a while. There is entertainment value to this as well as information to be learned. When the chicks first arrive, they should all 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 heat lamp, you can gently usher it back underneath.

    You can also try to catch the wayward chick and dip its beak in the water again, or put some food on a small piece of cardboard. If the chick begins feeding and tapping its beak on the cardboard, it will attract 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, this indicates that conditions are too hot. Keep a watch on this a few times a day for the first day, and once each day thereafter, for the first week or two.

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  • 09 of 11

    Check for Pasting Up

    Checking for pasting up.
    Photo © Lauren Ware

    Check for pasting up every day for the first week or so. Pasting up is a condition where the baby chicks' feces gets stuck on the downy feathers outside their anal vent and prevents them from defecating. This condition can be fatal if ignored and is usually caused by stress from shipping or over-handling.

    To check for pasting up, hold the chick upside down 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 difficult 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 chicks' stress and consequently help prevent pasting up.

    If you have children, be careful of over-handling. 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.

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  • 10 of 11

    Keep the Bedding Clean

    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 cause them stress. 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.

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  • 11 of 11

    Move the Chicks to the Chicken Coop

    A chicken coop.

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

    • Gradually lower the temperature. Each week, lower the temperature by 5 degrees F until the brooder temperature reaches outdoor temperatures. For the first week, keep the chicks at 95 F; the second weak, 90 F; the third week, 85 F, 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).
    • Give them outside time. Starting at around two or three weeks of age, if the outdoor temperatures are warm (over 65 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.
    • Move them 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.