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Baby Chicks 101: The First Week

Cute baby chicks are quite fragile and in need of expert care, especially in those first few important days.

sicilian buttercup chicks

Photo: Jana Wilson

Sicilian buttercup chicks sport gorgeous spotted patterns.

Baby chicks! Cute, yes, but also quite fragile and in need of expert care as well, especially in those first few important days. So…what do you need to know to make your first (or even second or third) chick-raising venture a success?

I remember the excitement that can surround your first chicks, whether they are coming from a hatchery, the farm store or a your own place. I still get excited every year when my first batch of chicks hatches from my incubator!

Raising chicks is not complicated, but it is important that you get the basics down right away.

When You Bring Chicks To Their First Home…

Chicks need to be kept in a small, enclosed area that is clean, warm and free from drafts. During the first week of a chick’s life, their environment needs to be about 95 degrees. For each week after that, you can reduce the heat about 5 degrees until you reach your home’s normal room temperature. The best way to keep the chicks toasty is to use a securely fasten a heat lamp above them. These lamps are easily purchased at your local farm supply store.

Then keep an eye on the little birds. If they huddle under the lamp, they are too cold. If they spread out away from the lamp, they’re too hot.

I use an indoor/outdoor thermometer, and place the sensor near the middle of the brooder box to keep a steady temperature.

Remember that the chicks have no feathers at this point (though you may see the tiniest bits of feathers beginning to grow even on day two or three!) and keeping them warm is vital. If they are chilled, they can die very easily, so you need to be be vigilant. In nature, a chick spends most of its first days under its mother, using her body heat to stay warm until those tiny feathers can grow out.

You can use many things for a brooder box. Some people simply use a sturdy cardboard box and discard or compost the box when they are done. If you use a box, make sure you have a cover or screen over the top so any household pets or small children can’t get inside. I use wire dog crates that I line with cardboard. This keeps my chicks safe and gives me a place to securely fasten the heat lamp.

For the first week or so, bedding should be either a fine mesh wire or an old bath towel, something that allows the chicks to grip with their feet as they learn to stand. Slick newspaper is NOT a good idea, as this can cause feet and leg problems later on. And I don’t recommend wood shavings right away, as the chicks can peck at the wood bits and eat them rather than their own food.

sicilian buttercup chicks

Photo: Jana Wilson

They grow up so fast!

Speaking Of Food And Drink…

Deciding on what to feed your chicks is pretty easy. There are many preparations that are labeled “chick starter” and that is what you want to feed them. Don’t be tempted to feed them anything else for at least a few weeks. The chick starter feeds are special preparations that have all the vitamins, minerals and protein needed for your chicks to get off to a good start.

Some feeds are labeled “medicated.” What this means is that the feed contains a small amount of a medicine called amprollium, which is used to pre-empt the disease coccidiosis.

Whether or not its a good idea to feed medicated chick starter is up to you. One key to preventing coccidiosis is to ensure your chick’s brooder is kept scrupulously clean and dry. Some people prefer to use a mixture of amprollium powder and water, instead of the medicated feed.

Whatever you decide, its not a bad idea to have some of this medication on hand (available at farm stores) just in case. I’ll discuss coccidiosis in a later post.

You can purchase small chick feeders and water containers at any farm supply store or online. I recommend them because they allow the chicks to eat easily and to drink without any risk of drowning. Don’t ever leave a large bowl of water in a brooder with new baby chicks, as they may fall in and drown while trying to get a drink.

Once your chicks have come home from the store or the post office, they will be tired, hungry and thirsty. For the first day, you can just sprinkle a few crumbs of the food on the ground near the feeder to give them the idea to pick at it. This is generally something they will do naturally.

Always make sure your chicks have clean, fresh water and plenty of food at all times. Plain water is just fine for the chicks unless they look very tired or droopy. In that case, you can make a mixture of ¼ cup of sugar in one gallon of water to give them for just a day or two. This will offer them a little extra energy if they have had a long, tiring trip from the hatchery.

But be aware: you do not EVER want your chicks to be without either food or water, as they are growing at an amazingly fast rate. Being without for even a few hours could cause health problems or even death.

sicilian buttercup chick with a hen

Photo: Jana Wilson

You can purchase small chick feeders and water containers at any farm supply store or online.

And Watch Them Grow…

OK, you’re set for the first few days! It’s really a lot of fun to hear the chicks peeping and moving around. And they will sleep a lot as well. Its quite funny to see a chick fall asleep while just standing there, but they have been working hard at breaking out of their egg, getting moved to new locations and growing at an exponential rate.

Be sure to keep an eye on the chicks throughout their first few days to make sure they are staying healthy.

You’ll want to take pictures quite often. If you are a first-timer, you’ll be amazed at how much a chick can grow. Sometimes major changes take place literally overnight. Their wing feathers will be the first place you’ll notice the real feather color coming in, and they will come in very quickly after the first day or so.

And, here’s a tip from me: When you are looking at online information about raising your chicks, make sure you are using a credible source. I generally recommend university websites that provide reliable, research-based information. One good source is the University of Florida IFAS Extension. Purdue University also offers an excellent downloadable pdf guide for housing and brooding chicks.

So what’s next? I’ll cover the following few weeks in another post. In the meantime, prepare well and enjoy your new baby chicks!

Jana Wilson

Jana Wilson lives on 20 acres just outside of Bloomington, IN and writes her blog, The Armchair Homesteader. In addition to the chickens, she has ducks and a border collie named Winnie who helps her with her various efforts at becoming more self-sufficient.

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