Baby Chicks: The Definitive Care Guide

Baby Chicks The Definitive Care Guide Blog Cover

Raising chicks is fun, educational and is one of the most rewarding things you will do!

Chicks are cute and endearing, but they do have some special needs and we hope to guide you through the process of raising a baby chick to a hen.

In our complete guide to raising chicks we will cover everything you need to know from brooder requirements, care to health problems and much more…

We will also discuss the equipment you will need to successfully raise chicks.

First Things First: Why Do You Want Chicks?

ChicksNow that you have decided to get some chicks, what’s next? Hopefully, during the process of deciding on chicks, you have read lots about them.

It’s important to know what breed you want and how to take care of it. As an example, a friend was lured by pretty pictures in a hatchery catalog and ordered a dozen broilers because “they looked fat and sassy”.

She had neglected to read that broilers will only live for a few months at best before they die. Needless to say she was heartbroken when she realized what would happen when those cute little chicks grew up.

You need to know what you want from your birds, are you raising them for:

  • Eggs: Hens that can be considered egg-laying only are typically hybrids (Red Ranger, Red Star and several heritage breeds).
  • Meat: These are generally a Cornish Cross variety.
  • “Lawn Ornaments”: Usually birds that are not renowned for laying or meat, but look wonderful.
  • Pets: Silkies, Polish and bantams in general.
  • Or perhaps a combination of a couple of things.

Reading through catalogs, books and online items will start you off with the basics. Try not to be in a rush; taking your time and choosing wisely will save you some headaches down the line.

When I first decided to get chickens I spent a whole year researching chicken breeds, how to care for them and what to expect – it was time well invested for me.

Things you may not think about:

  • How will your climate affect your choice of breed
  • Docile and manageable or flighty and difficult
  • How many eggs per year will they lay

A list to start you off in the right direction is our A-Z of chicken breeds. This list is a great place to start doing research on your prospective breeds. It will tell you the expected temperament, egg laying capability and personality of each breed,

Chick Terminology 101

Salmon Faverolles
Salmon Faverolles Chicks

The world of chickens is filled with new words to learn. There are some terms you need to know before you buy, so here’s a quick guide to these important terms.

  • Straight Run: If you buy straight run birds you will likely get a 50/50 mix of hens and roosters. They are also known as unsexed birds.
  • Sexed Birds: As it implies, these chicks have been sexed so you know if you’re buying a hen or a rooster; generally when you buy sexed chicks they will cost you a few pennies more.
  • Pure or Straight Breed: A bird that has only been bred with its own kind.
  • Hybrid: A mix of two or more breeds.
  • Strain or Line Breed: Each hatchery will have its’ own ‘line’ (breed) of birds.
  • NPIP: Here in the US there is a Federal program called the National Poultry Improvement Plan. Anyone who is NPIP certified has had their birds tested for Pullorum and Avian Influenza and the birds are free of the diseases they were tested for.

A word of caution here, just because a flock is NPIP certified does not necessarily mean they are free from other diseases. If for example you are concerned about Lymphoid Leucosis you would have to specifically ask the breeder if the birds have been tested for that.

Alternatively, just because a breeder isn’t NPIP certified doesn’t mean the birds are unhealthy, it simply means the birds haven’t been tested.

Where Do I Get My Chicks From?

There are a few choices for you here. Buying online from a reputable hatchery is a good bet. If anything goes wrong you can call them and ask questions. If you do buy from a hatchery it’s a good idea to get your baby chicks vaccinated for Marek’s disease.

Although it does not guarantee total immunity, it certainly helps the chicks get off to a good start.

The chicks will be shipped via USPS and delivered to your nearest Post Office for you to pick up. Always open the box in front of the Postal worker to check and see if the chicks are alive. If there are any dead or dying, start a claim immediately.

The second option is the feed store; they usually have a good selection of starter birds for sale. Sometimes this can be problematic as the store is just a holding area for the hatchery so often the staff will probably have no idea about the chicks.

When picking chicks always get the lively ones – the ones’ sitting in the corner or sleeping may be healthy but activity is a key indicator of energy and health.

Your third option is to get to know a local chicken person. The fact that you can ‘meet the parents’ and check out the premises will tell you how likely your chicks are to be healthy.

The fourth option is to get your own hatching eggs. I do not recommend this for a first time chicken owner. Incubation is never straight forward (in my experience) and there are certain subtle things that ‘old timers’ can pick up on that newbies would not yet know.

If you are interested in learning more about this, read our guide to incubators here.

What Supplies Do Your Chicks Need?

Brooder

Baby ChicksProbably the largest piece of equipment you will get is the brooder. A brooder is essentially a container in which to keep the chicks so they are safe while growing up. It can be as simple as a cardboard box or it can be a purpose built box that you can buy or make.

A brooder needs to do a few things:

  • It must be secure. Small chicks are good at escaping, so the brooder must keep them securely confined within.
  • The second part of security is keeping other animals out (the house cat, dog etc.). If you are setting up the brooder in an outbuilding it will need to be rodent proof too.
  • It must be draft proof. Nothing will kill baby chicks like a draft of cold air.
  • Good ventilation. There should be good air flow above the brooder to allow air exchange.
  • The brooder needs to be in a dry space. Wet chicks will chill and die quickly.
  • The floor of the brooder needs to be a surface on which the chicks can easily walk. Something like plastic is too slippery for the first couple of weeks. Using paper towels or burlap sacking over the plastic will help them to maintain balance and walking.
  • They need enough room to grow and run around in. Tight quarters lead to problems such as bullying.

Heat Source

This is a vital piece of equipment; it can also be the most dangerous. We shall see that there are a few types of heat sources you can choose from depending on your needs.

Heat lamps are still in common usage and they do work well when used properly. You can use either a white bulb or a red bulb (the red color is said to discourage the chicks from picking at each other).

Infrared heaters, these ceramic heat bulbs emit heat not light which is actually better for the chicks. They will acclimate to day and night cycles much better.

Heating panels are flat panels with adjustable legs to raise or lower the plate. These are very nice to use, very safe and work well except in very cold temperatures in outside brooders.

I use panel heater when I have chicks to brood.

In the past I have used heat lamps, until I had a small fire in one of my coops. The lamp fell and I was outside and within 30 seconds I had smoke in the coop. Fortunately the chicks had been moved out and I was right there.

Some folks have not been so fortunate and have lost their livestock and even their house.

Litter

There are many types of things you can use as litter. One of the cheapest and most easily found is pine shavings.

They are sold in bales in most feed stores and cost about $6.00. They are easy to distribute and easy to clean out and replace; 5-10 minutes in the morning and evening is all it takes.

  • Pellet bedding: Sold as pine cat litter or horse bedding.
  • Shredded paper: I have tried this and did not find it very absorbent.
  • Grass clippings: As long as the clippings have not been chemically treated they are fine.
  • Dry leaves: Are great to use when available, they do need to be shredded first though.
  • Peat moss: I haven’t tried this but some folks swear by it.
  • Sand: Some folks use this; please see our article on sand.
  • Chopped straw: This is my favorite. If you live in an area where you can buy it, chopped wheat straw is cheap. $4.00 for a 35lb bale and it lasts a long time.

I use different litter for different stages of brooding with the chicks. When they are under 2 weeks I will use pine shavings.

When they are secure on their legs and running around, I gradually change out to straw over a period of a few days. You are not bound to use any particular type, choose whatever works best for you.

Feeder and Drinker

We have recently covered this in an article, but this is a reminder that you will need to have them available.

If you have only 6 baby chicks, one feeder and drinker should be sufficient. If you have over this number you should use two feeders and two drinkers for up to 15 chicks.

Food and Supplements

Your chicks should start out with chick starter/grower. It has a high protein count and contains all the nutrition the little peeps need. For more in depth information on feed see our article.

Whether or not you use medicated or un-medicated starter is up to you. We will talk a bit more about Coccidiosis in the disease section later on.

As for water, for the first couple of days I tend to give ‘chick saver’. It is a water soluble supplement containing electrolytes and vitamins for the chicks to ensure a good start especially if they have had a long journey. After that, plain water with a tablespoon of Apple Cider Vinegar to each gallon is sufficient.

For the first week to 10 days I put small stones or marbles in the drinking trough area so they can’t fall in and drown.

The only other supplement you need to consider is grit. Once you start giving them treats (around 2 weeks old), they will need access to chick grit. A small bowlful in the brooder will be sufficient for them.

How to Raise Chicks

So, now you have all of your equipment and supplies assembled – test it! Make sure everything works before the chicks arrive. When the hatchery notifies you of shipment, turn on the heating element so that it has time to warm up the space for them.

To reach optimum temperature you will need a thermometer if you are using heat lamps. The temperature at floor height needs to be 90-95F for the chicks. If you are using a heat plate, simply plug it in.

Chick Arrival Day

Once your chicks arrive place the container inside the brooder if you can, you don’t want them escaping! Take them out one by one, dip their beaks into the water and then the food and place them under the heater. This is an important step. You have oriented them to food and water – they will remember that and now be able to feed and water at will. Even if they don’t all remember, at least a couple will and the rest will follow suit.

Now, as much as you would like to play and hold them, let them rest up, it has been a long day for them!

Check them periodically to see how they are doing. An easy way to tell if the temperature is just right in the brooder is to watch the chicks.

If they are scattered to the edges, it’s a bit too hot; if they are huddled in a mass, it’s too cold; if they are scattered all over the place peeping and trilling you have the Cinderella temperature – just right!

If you are using the heat plate it should barely touch their backs when they are underneath it, their own warmth and the radiant heat from the plate will keep them plenty warm and cozy.

Day-to-day Care and Handling

Once they have settled in, you can start to handle them. A little and often works well for me. A good way to start is to put some crumbles in the palm of your hand and rest your hand on the floor of the brooder.

At first they will be hesitant, but their curiosity will get the better of them and they will soon be running all over your hand.

They are very quick, so if you pick them up be careful they don’t surprise you and jump/fall from your hand. Try to ensure a soft landing on bedding, straw or such.

Chicks are messy little things, they will poop everywhere (in the food, in the water on your hand, they don’t care)!

With this in mind, you will need to keep their house as clean as possible. It doesn’t have to be pristine; in fact a small amount of poop exposure is actually beneficial. However the bedding will need to be freshened up a couple of times a day as wet, poopy bedding is paradise for some nasty bugs. Water and food should be changed as frequently as needed but at least twice a day.

A thorough house-keeping should be done as needed, but if you are diligent on ‘poop patrol’ it should be weekly.

Something called brooder pneumonia can be caused by damp, moldy condition of the bedding, there is no cure and severely affected chicks can die – keep it clean and dry.

Remember everyone does it a bit differently; this is a guide, not a mandate! The only non-negotiable is keeping the brooder clean.Day Old Chicks Eating

Chick Development Milestones

This is a very brief chart to give you an idea of what to expect from your chicks in regard to development.

  • 0-2 weeks: Rapid growth, feathers replace the down.
  • 2-4 weeks: Baby feathers are being replaced by adult feathers, so they look a bit tatty. Pecking order games begin.
  • 4-6 weeks: Should have full feathers. Should be pretty independent and exploring their environment, move to new area if they are cramped.
  • 6-8 weeks: Almost adult, pecking order should be established now.

You should know that different types of poultry grow at different rates, for example broilers (meat birds) grow much faster than egg layers.

Common Chick Health and Illness Concerns

If your chicks are rushing around peeping, trilling and exploring they are healthy and happy.

Often there will be a chick that is not quite as exuberant as the rest – keep a close eye on it. Watch carefully to make sure it’s eating and drinking and not being bullied away from the food. If it is, make a small corner area where you can place it a few times a day to eat and drink in peace, then back to its’ siblings.

It is not a good idea to try and separate at this age, re-integration would be brutal.

Chicks are prone to a few diseases and we are going to look at them now.

Coccidiosis

This is probably the most prevalent malady of baby chicks, especially if you already have other chickens.

Coccidiosis attacks the gut and the chick is unable to process the nutrition from the food. In severe cases they will die. If one chick gets it, be prepared for others to follow.

Giving chicks medicated food is helpful in protecting them. The food contains a coccidiostat which inhibits the growth of the protozoan that causes the disease.

For more in depth information on Coccidiosis see our article.

Vitamin Deficits

Sometimes chicks show symptoms of various vitamin deficiencies, so giving them an electrolyte and vitamin supplement for the first couple of days will help tremendously.

While vitamin deficiencies are fairly uncommon, they can be quickly fixed with a water soluble supplement so keep some on hand.

Leg Problems

Chicks are occasionally born with curled or crooked toes; needless to say this will impair their ability to walk.

This can however be treated.

Curly toes can be caused by a vitamin deficiency, so give water soluble supplements for the first week or so.

Feather Picking

This is normally a sign of boredom and overcrowding.

You can give them other things to peck at such as fresh fruit and veggies.

Pasty Butt

Also known as sticky bum is caused by an overly warm brooder. The poop dries around the vent effectively sealing it shut. You will need to remove the build-up daily or the chick could die.

Use a Q-tip or cotton ball and warm water – patience is required since the chick won’t keep still and the poop can set like cement. If you have to resort to soaking the chicks bum, make sure it is completely dry before you put it back in the brooder, they can chill very quickly.

Cross Beak or Scissor Beak

Unfortunately this is not fixable.

As the skull grows the deformity may get worse. The good news is that it is not always a death sentence. The beak can be carefully trimmed to keep it as aligned as possible.

The more severe deformities may require some special care such as deep dishes to eat and drink from.

Starve Out

Something called starve out can affect chicks that have been in transit for too long, or accidentally deprived of food and water for the first couple of days.

The chick loses all motivation to eat or drink and is too weak to recover from this, it will starve to death.

This is why it is very important to ensure all of your chicks know where the feed and water is and you should watch them to make sure everyone is eating and drinking.

Ongoing Care Needs

Broody Hen With Her ChicksChicks cease to be chicks when they lay their first egg somewhere between 16- 28 weeks depending on your breed.

During that time you will be enjoying watching them grow into ungainly ‘teenagers’ then into ‘hen/rooster hood’. It really is a fascinating process, each bird will be different.

The setting of the pecking order will start in earnest around six weeks old. If you have a breed that is difficult to sex, watch them carefully as they decide their social hierarchy – you will be able to tell the boys from the girls by their behaviors.

Your daily care of them will gradually get less as they become more independent and are able to go outside to a bigger enclosure.

Your ‘poop patrol’ duties will diminish (thankfully) although it never completely goes away.

You will be slowly changing over their feed at certain points in their lives to get them onto a laying ration at around the 16-20 week mark.

FAQs about Raising Chicks

My chicks have blood in their poop, what is it?

Chicks and chickens occasionally shed intestinal lining; this is normal. If it is one chick and it is eating/drinking and is active just monitor the situation.

If the chick looks poorly and lethargic you should separate from the flock immediately. If more chicks start with the bloody poop you will need to treat for coccidiosis.

When can I stop with the heat?

This is variable, but when the ambient air temperature matches the brooder, usually around 65-70°F or at the six week mark.

When can they go outside?

If the days are warm and you have a secure pen for them, they can go out as early as four weeks, but check frequently so they don’t get too cold.

What treats can I give them?

Watermelon, bananas, berries and crumbled mealworms are great. Hard-boiled egg mashed up is high in protein too. Treats should not be given much before 2 weeks old.

Remember though, all treats in moderation. It is important for them to get most of their nutritional needs from their feed.

I have a bully chick that is pecking at the others, what can I do?

Firstly, how much room do they have? If they are crowded they will cause mischief. Chicks are inquisitive and peck at everything, make sure there is other stuff to peck at; perhaps a broccoli head or similar.

If the behavior continues or the bully draws blood, you will have to put it in solitary for a few days. This should re-set the pecking order.

Can I raise chicks with other fowl?

Yes and no. It is advised to keep turkeys and chicks separate because of possible disease issues. You will need to keep in mind that different fowl have different rates of growth too.

Ducks really shouldn’t be raised with chicks – they are extremely messy. Guinea hens can be raised with chicks. In fact, it may help to imprint them on their surroundings.

Summary

We’ve tried to get all the chick raising essentials here in one place! I cannot emphasize enough that having some knowledge before you start is going to help you tremendously.

Raising your own chicks may seem daunting at first, but you will soon get the hang of it. You will have your chores down to a fine science within a couple of weeks.

If you have chicks that are being raised by a broody, she of course will do most of the daily cares for you. You will have to provide appropriate food for the chicks and clean, fresh water regularly, otherwise Mama Hen does it all.

The down side to having a broody hen raise chicks is that they aren’t quite so friendly towards you but with patience they will accept you as a second mother.

Let us know your tips for raising chicks in the comments section below…

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Comments

  1. elaine says

    my buff orpington has just hatched out 4 eggs from a clutch of 11. She hatched them behind the satsuma tree, in the chicken run but outside the coop. I was so worried as all my other hens have hatched chicks in the nesting box in the coop and I’ve had the chance to partition off the nesting box where they were. This wasn’t possible with this clutch. My Orpington is a wonderful mother. She had her babies out in the run on day 2, and spends every day with them out in the run. They are now one week old and all four are healthy and fit and free ranging with their mother, Sometimes they sleep in the coop, sometimes outside. I will always use a broody hen to hatch and care for my new chicks. It is so much easier…
    Let nature do it’s thing!

  2. Chanel Fallon says

    What great advice. My chooks breed naturally and every year our cats place themselves around and about to guard them from eagles etc. I am surprised how easy they are to train. Especially with bananas. Looking forward to your next blog. Cheers,Chanel, Australia. 🐤🐤🐤🐤

  3. Joyce says

    We have only 7 hens left, the 2 roosters challenged my husband with attacking and scratching and one just died last winter. I want to add another 3 of a different breed. I have 3 Astro, 3 black and brown and one black and white so they are used to different looking hens. What is the best way of increasing hens.

  4. Jayne says

    I have been keeping chickens (australorps) for close to a year now but I have picked up a few gems from your article. Now I will know better how to tackle some of the problems that I have been facing. Thanks a lot, Claire!

  5. Trudy Soneson says

    I love all the good info you give. I do not have my chicks yet, but we are almost ready with the coop, etc. So excited. I will be getting four chicks. I know we’re going to love the good, healthy fresh eggs when the chickens start to lay. l want to get a white leghorn, a barred Plymouth Rock, a buff Orpington, and a Rhode Island Red. Do you think these will make a happy coop and run. They will be allowed to run free in our large, fenced back yard each sunny day.

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