Raising baby chicks can be scary, especially at the beginning. They’re tiny and fragile and completely foreign. Raising chickens is a whole different ball game than say, raising a puppy. From their strange anatomy to their even stranger habits, you’ll need all the information you can get before you bring home those tiny baby chicks.
We’ll start off with a list of what you’ll need to raise chicks, then get into the specifics.
The Ultimate Guide to Raising Baby Chicks
Baby Chick Shopping List:
- Heat lamp or Brinsea EcoGlow
- Chick fount
- Chick feeder
- Chick Starter Feed
- Dowel for roost
Raising Baby Chicks in a Brooder
The brooder is very simply the place in which the chicks live for their first few weeks. There are many options when it comes to brooders, basically anything with sides tall enough to keep the chicks contained will work.
A good brooder is easy to clean and safe for the birds. The sides should ideally be 24 inches or taller, and for added safety, we suggest placing a layer of chicken wire, hardware cloth, or screening on top of the brooder. This will not only keep the birds inside, but will help to keep out curious pets, kids, and improperly secured heat lamps.
- Plastic Bin
- Cardboard box
- Small animal cage
- Play pen
- Kiddie pool
Heat Lamps for Chicks
Speaking of heat lamps… if you choose to use one, make sure it’s high quality, with a strong clamp, and protective wire around the bulb. It’s utterly and completely essential that you properly secure the heat lamp above the brooder, should it fall into that dry litter, it will not only kill your chicks but very quickly set a fire.
The clamps that come with most heat lamps can not be trusted all on their own. Most are flimsy and will break if bumped. Be sure to secure your lamp at least three different ways to ensure safety. We like to clamp it, then thread the cord around a hook on the wall, and add a chain to secure as well.
Arrange the heat lamp so that it’s situated over just one side of the brooder, that way there’s a warm side and a cooler side to the environment. If you set a thermometor directly under the heat lamp it should read at 95 degrees for the first week.
Don’t stress too much about temperatures inside the brooder, when your chicks arrive, you can be sure they’ll let you know if they’re too cold. Cold chicks will make quite the racket, and pile on top of each other to stay warm. It’s smart to hang the heat lamp on a chain from the ceiling so it can be lowered and raised to adjust temperature. If the chicks are too hot, they’ll pant and sleep spread apart with their wings out to cool down.
A better option for raising small batches of chicks is the Brinsea EcoGlow. This heater sits right inside the brooder and creates super safe heat for the baby chicks. There’s no risk of fire or loss of life with one of these babies on your side!
Reduce the temperature in the brooder by 5 degrees every week that the chicks are in there. This can be accomplished by simply raising the heat lamp up a bit every week.
Feed for Baby Chicks
For the first week, don’t give the chicks anything but their chick feed. I know it’s tempting to give them treats, but it’s best to hold off until they’re older. We wait until 4-6 weeks old to give treats or let the chicks out for free range time.
Their digestive system is fragile at this age, and there’s too much that can go wrong. Eating too much green leafy matter can clog their crops, leading to illness and death. Eating foods that are too rich can give them diarrhea. It’s best to hold off and only feed chick starter until they’re older.
Purchasing a chick feeder is a really good idea, although not entirely necessary. The benefit to a chick feeder is that it will keep the birds from kicking their feed all over the brooder, and prevent them from sitting or sleeping in the feed bowl and contaminating the feed with the inevitable poop. In short, spending eight dollars on a feeder will save you lots of money on feed in the long run.
Medicated vs. Unmedicated Chick Feed
Many new chicken keepers are unsure of the differences between medicated and unmedicated feed, and therefore don’t have a clue which to choose for their chicks. To make it a tad easier we’re breaking down the very basic differences here for you, but encourage you to check out the links below to make an educated decision.
Medicated chick feed contains Amprollium, a medication meant to help chicks fight coccidiosis. If your chicks are mail order, check with the hatchery first to see if they’ve already been vaccinated against Coccidiosis, if so there’s absolutely no need for medicated feed.
Unmedicated feed is, just as it states in the label, free from any sort of medication. It’s just plain feed.
Whether or not to medicate your chicks through feed is a very personal choice. We personally do not medicate our birds, but I highly recommend you do plenty of research on chicken health, medication, and vaccinations before making a decision.
If you’d like to read more about medicated feeds to help you make this decision, here are a few articles to get you started:
Many stores sell something called chick grit. It’s a very fine version of chicken grit. We’ve never purchased chick grit and have never needed it. If your chicks are eating only chick feed and are not free ranging or eating treats, there’s simply no need for chick grit. The grit would help their bodies to break up those harder to digest foods, but if they’re not eating them, no need to waste your money on this one.
Water for Chicks
Chicks need a constant supply of fresh and clean water. This can be more challenging than it sounds. Chicks love to dirty their water, whether they’re playing in it or pooping in it.
For this reason, buying a Chick fount is a good investment. It will keep their water clean because they can’t get into it, saving you a lot of time cleaning out and re-filling their fount.
If you don’t have a chick fount, there are other options! A simple shallow bowl will suffice. The bowl needs to be short enough that the babies can easily get out of it if they jump inside. It also needs have a layer of small rocks or marbles on the bottom. Day old chicks are very clumsy and sleepy, you definitely don’t want one drowning or catching a deadly chill by falling into the water bowl.
Our fount system is a little different, but still works well. We fill a shallow bowl with water then invert a cup or glass in the middle of the bowl. This keeps the chicks from getting inside the water bowl, but still allows them to drink from the outer edges of the bowl.
Many times when I mention litter, people ask “Cat litter?!” or ask what litter means. Litter simply refers to the material that is laid down inside the brooder. It’s what the chicks live on, sleep on, and poop in. It is removed when it’s soiled and replaced with clean litter.
There are some materials that work better as litter than others. Good litter is biodegradable, cheap, absorbent, and safe for the chicks. Chicks can and will ingest the litter when they’re just a few days old. They aren’t clear yet on what’s food and what isn’t.
If you choose to use a layer of paper towels as litter in the first few days, you don’t need to worry about the chicks eating it. If you choose anything else on the list though, it’s smart to lay down a piece of screen or rubber shelf liner on top of the litter to keep the chicks from pecking at it. The screen will need to be cleaned off when the litter is changed. Once the first week is over, the chicks will understand that their litter isn’t food and the screen will no longer be necessary.
Good Litter Options for Raising Baby Chicks
- Paper towels
- Pine Shavings
- Sawdust or newspaper based litter pellets
Bad Litter Options for Raising Baby Chicks
Clay cat litter: very dusty, bad for little lungs, and it can make chicks sick if they eat it, and they will.
Cedar shavings: Cedar is a highly aromatic wood, and using its shavings can be tough on little lungs.
Flat newspaper: I see this being used as litter in brooders every spring. It seems like a good idea, but in reality, the surface is far too slippery for those little feet. Chicks being unable to get a grip can lead to splayed legs (legs bending in the wrong direction at the knee) and will end in suffering. If you do wish to use newspaper, it can be shredded and used as litter, but we’ve found it’s not very absorbent and just makes a big mess.
Handling Baby Chicks
Limit handling the chicks on their very first day home. They need some time to acclimate to their new environment, and you don’t want to add stress to the situation. Stressed birds get sick more easily.
After the first day or two, feel free to gently handle the chicks. The more they are handled from the start, the more friendly they’ll be as adult birds.
Make sure to supervise small children while playing with the chicks, as they may accidentally harm the fragile chicks.
Normal Chick Behavior
The first time you see a chick laying on her side or belly, seemingly dead, just may terrify you. Chicks have a tendency to fall asleep instantly, and sometimes in very alarming positions. This is nothing to worry about, as long as they’re still breathing they’re just fine.
I assume you’ve heard of the pecking order in hens? It starts to establish itself in these early weeks. Chicks will peck at each other and pick on each other while they’re young. This is completely normal. Keep an eye on the birds, as long as no one ends up injured, or no one chick is getting the brunt of the abuse, they will be fine. What’s NOT normal is chicks ending up severely injured from this behavior. Read below.
Abnormal Chick Behavior
Feathers Missing, Blood, or Injuries
Some pecking is normal, but excessive bullying is not. Some chicks obsess over picking at others to the point of causing injury.
This behavior stems from chicks being over crowded or bored. Make sure the brooder is big enough to accommodate the number of chicks. If you find the brooder is too small, either find a bigger option, or separate the chicks into two brooders and place the heat lamp over both. If the birds seem bored, adding in a small roost, or hanging a safe object from a string can keep them occupied.
Lethargic, Weak, or Ill-Looking Chicks
Healthy chicks are energetic, bright eyed, and spry. They run, jump, play, and have no troubles eating or drinking. Signs that something is wrong would include chicks hanging their heads, shaking their heads, laying down frequently (not sleeping), glazed over eyes, coughing or sneezing, or limping. If any chicks exhibit strange behavior, inspect them for injuries and separate them. Sometimes chicks just need an hour or two to stabilize, but if something is seriously wrong, the chick will need some extra first aid and support.
As mentioned before, slippery surfaces can cause splayed legs in chicks. They can also develop crooked toes, although that’s more a more common ailment straight out of the shell. If you notice any of these issues in your chicks, use bandaids to create a hobble so the chick can stand properly and her legs/toes are in the correct place. Give her a little extra attention, letting her out for some run around time to speed her healing.
Phew! That’s all for today folks! I hope this post will help to calm your new chicken parent nerves. As always, feel free to leave comments if you have questions or concerns, I’m always here for ya!