Raising Baby Chicks: The Basics

Baby chick
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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 supplies, including feeders, waterers, bedding, a brooder with a heat lamp, and special chick feed, as well as closely monitoring the young birds' health in their early days. Following some basic steps to set up your coop and keep the babies healthy will help your new chicks grow into viable adult birds that can thrive in a communal coop environment.

Set Up Chick Feeders

For the first week or two, plastic chick feeders will make life a lot easier for you. (As the birds 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 pick 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 (and defecate) on them. Also, the feeders are at just the right height when placed on the brooder floor.

Chick feeder
Lauren Ware

Fill the Waterers and Feeders

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. 

You likely will be receiving a box of loudly peeping, hungry, thirsty, and somewhat stressed baby chicks. If you're getting them via the mail, they've probably been inside a box on a truck or plane for several days with just a bit of gel-like food to keep them happy. Immediate access to food and water will help to calm them and provide critical nutrition.

Chick waterer
Lauren Ware

Set up the Brooder

Set up the brooder before the chicks arrive to ensure you have a warm, cozy spot ready for them. If you wait until they arrive to turn on the brooder lamp, they might get chilled. In the box, the chicks keep each other warm with their body heat packed into the small space. But once in the brooder, they'll spread out and not be able to use each other as much for warmth. This can lead to stress and even illness.

To set up your brooder, scatter the bedding, and place the full waterers and feeders around the edges of the 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 degrees Fahrenheit. Depending on the outdoor temperature, it can take a few hours for the brooder temperature to stabilize, so keep checking and adjusting the lamp height as needed.

Brooder setup for chicks
Lauren Ware

Bring the Baby Chicks Home

If your chicks are coming into your post office, be prepared to pick them up as soon as they arrive. Often you will get a call right when the post office opens in the morning.

Make sure you have a warm, secure place for them in your car. It can be helpful to 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. Drive straight home, place the chick box inside the brooder area, and get ready for the fun to begin.

Chicks in their shipping box
Lauren Ware

Check Your Shipment

Open the box, and examine the chicks. It's possible some didn't make the trip. 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 two of a box of 25 chicks are dead, or if many chicks in the box are sick, contact the hatchery immediately because this is not acceptable. 

Open shipping box of chicks
Lauren Ware

Dip Their Beaks in Water

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

  • Dip its beak in water. Use a finger to push its head into the waterer tray. Don't be overly gentle about this; make sure its beak is submerged. You should see the chick 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 chick and try to distinguish them by colors 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 you got what you ordered.
Dipping chick's beak in water
Photo © Lauren Ware

Observe the Chicks

Once they are 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 chicks for 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 under the lamp and cheeping loudly rather than sleeping, they might be too cold. On the other hand, if the chicks are avoiding the reddish light cast by the lamp, staying only at the edges, this likely indicates that conditions are too hot.

Chicks happily set up in a brooder
Lauren Ware

Check for Pasting Up

Pasting up is a condition where the baby chicks' feces get stuck on the downy feathers outside their anal vent, potentially preventing them from defecating. This condition can be fatal if ignored and is usually caused by stress or disease. Check for pasting up every day for the first week or so. 

To do so, 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 might have to use scissors to carefully cut away the dirty feathering near the vent. Another method, if the feces are dry, is simply to pull out the dirty feathers. Without the feathers, 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, so be judicious about checking each chick. And minimize excess handling, especially by young children, to limit the chicks' stress.

Checking for pasting up
Lauren Ware

Keep the Bedding Clean

Check the baby chicks' bedding daily for spilled water and buildup of feces. Remove any wet bedding as soon as possible because it can chill the chicks and breed disease. (As the birds mature and gain feathers, they'll be less susceptible to chilling from wet bedding, so you won't have to be as prompt about removing it.) Moreover, when the bedding gets saturated with feces, scoop it all out and put down fresh bedding.

Furthermore, baby chicks often get their waterers and feeders dirty with bedding. Clean them out when you spot this. You don't want the chicks ingesting large quantities of bedding, as this can irritate or block their digestive tract.

Bedding that needs replacing
Lauren Ware

Move the Chicks to the Chicken Coop

As your chicks grow, you can slowly acclimate them to outdoor temperatures before moving them to their permanent chicken coop. Here are some basic steps to take before their big move:

  • Gradually lower the brooder temperature. Each week, lower the temperature by 5 degrees Fahrenheit until the brooder temperature reaches outdoor temperatures. For the first week, keep the chicks at 95 degrees Fahrenheit; change to 90 degrees Fahrenheit the second week; and so on. Adjust this as necessary, so the chicks are comfortable and not huddling under the lamp (too cold) or scattering to the edges (too hot).
  • Give the chicks outside time. Starting at around two or three weeks old, if the outdoor temperatures are over 65 degrees Fahrenheit, 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 old, 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 roam freely. This way, they'll 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 old.

A chicken coop