It’s spring and baby chicks are showing up in commercials, in stores and in magazine articles. Chickens are the new hot pet, even city dwellers want pets that can make them breakfast (eggs). Baby chicks are so adorable you just want to get some but before you do, make sure you know how to care for them. They aren’t toys and need the care that all baby animals need to survive. Before we begin preparations for keeping chicks though, here are some cautionary statements.
Before you buy those chicks dyed in fashion colors at the local hardware or grocery store around Easter time you may want to consider this. The dye doesn’t hurt the chicks but the chicks that turn up dyed in pretty colors are almost always males, or roosters of light breeds of chickens. So are most natural colored chicks sold as Easter chicks. These chicks are really cheap because they don’t make good meat, don’t lay eggs, and most people don’t want roosters as pets. If you want to save the life of one of these baby roosters and you live where a crowing rooster is allowed as a pet, go ahead and purchase them.
If you want hens (females) some places sell sexed chicks. You want “pullets” which are what female chicks are called. Sexed pullets are usually a bit more expensive than chicks that are not sexed. You can order chicks from catalogs and on line and they will be shipped to you through the mail. Some places now allow you to buy just a few baby chicks. Chicks usually survive the trip through the mail just fine. Farm stores sometimes carry sexed chicks also. Chicks that are sold “as hatched” or “straight run” are unsexed chicks and are usually 50% male, 50% female. If you want just a few hens, buy sexed pullets.
Second, baby chicks look cuddly but they really don’t appreciate being held. Chicks that are frequently handled are stressed and are more likely to die or get sick then chicks which are observed and not handled. If you have children who will want to frequently handle chicks chances are many of them won’t live to be adults. And baby chicks frequently carry diseases that can be transmitted to humans, such as salmonella and E.coli, who handle them. The chicks don’t always look sick while they are carrying these bacteria. Children (and adults) should never kiss chicks, put them up to their faces or eat and drink while handling chicks. Anyone who handles baby chicks, cleans up after them or feeds and waters them should wash their hands thoroughly afterward.
Handling chicks really doesn’t tame them. If chicks and young chickens are treated gently and calmly they will naturally become tamer as adults without a great deal of handling. Hand feeding their favorite treats as they get older helps. Some breeds are tamer than others, chickens from high egg producing lines, Silkies, Brahmas and a few other breeds seem to be tamer as adults. You don’t need to handle baby chicks to enjoy their funny antics as they eat, scratch, and play. Make sure you always buy at least 2 baby chicks. Chickens are flock animals and don’t like being alone.
What baby chicks need
Baby chicks need to be kept warm and safe and they need the proper feed. You’ll need a container or enclosure called a brooder for the first month or so of the chick’s lives. You need about 6 square inches of floor space per chick for the month, (with just two or three chicks you may want more than that). The brooder needs to be about 18 inches deep and it should have a cover to keep the chicks in and pets out. Brooders can be made of a number of things. A wooden box, plastic tubs, old aquariums, even cardboard boxes can be used with care. Many people who are going to brood a number of chicks find stock tanks- water tanks for animals- one of the best things to hold baby chicks. You can find them new at farm stores and used at auctions and yard sales. The brooder should have solid sides at least half the way up to keep out drafts and a solid floor and be easy to clean.
You will need a way to keep the chicks warm. If the babies are not kept warm they will stop eating and will spend most of their time peeping shrilly until they die. Baby chicks need to be kept 95 degrees F the first week and you lower the temperature 5 degrees each week until you reach 70 degrees. After they are fully feathered and a couple months old chicks can take even lower temperatures. The whole brooder doesn’t need to be heated if it is large, but there should be a warm area big enough to hold all the chicks.
Most people provide heat with a heat lamp. You can use a red or white light bulb in the lamp. Heat lamps are inexpensive, you change the size of the bulb or raise or lower the lamp to change the heat level. You must be extremely careful with heat lamps as they can easily start a fire. You must make sure they are securely hung over your brooder and can’t touch anything flammable such as the side of a cardboard or plastic brooder, or litter in the brooder. There are infra-red heat brooders that are quite safe on the market but they are also quite expensive.
You’ll need a thermometer to know if the brooder is warm enough. It’s important not to overheat the brooder too. Anything over the recommended temperatures above can be harmful. Baby chicks can be killed by overheating as well as chilling. Make sure to check the brooder several times a day if you are experiencing warm weather when brooding chicks. You may need to provide more ventilation or change the heat lamp or even turn it off for a while.
You’ll need some litter for the bottom of the brooder to absorb the chicks semi-liquid droppings and keep the smell down. Do not use flat newspaper, it gets wet and slippery and causes the chicks legs to become malformed. You can use shredded paper or pine shavings. Do not use cedar shavings or kitty litter, both are harmful to chicks.
Chicks feed themselves but you need the proper feed for chicks. It’s called chick starter. It comes in medicated and non- medicated forms, either of which is fine. The medicated form helps keep chicks from getting diarrhea, often caused by stress. Put the feed in a flat dish and keep the dish full. An inexpensive chick feeder which is a covered dish with holes in it, keeps chicks from walking in the feed and from scratching it out on the floor. You will also need a water container. Chick water containers are strongly recommended, they have a narrow rim that keeps the chicks out of the water. You must empty, clean and fill the containers each day. Chicks should always have water available.
You can feed treats such as leafy greens starting at about 1 week, but don’t overdo the treats. Don’t try to raise baby chicks on breakfast cereal, pet food, bread, wild bird seed, or even grains like cracked corn or scratch feed. These aren’t balanced diets and usually chicks on such diets fail to grow well or die.
Chickens cannot be housetrained and really don’t belong as pets in the house. Even baby chicks which are kept clean will be quite smelly in a few weeks. When the chicks have all their feathers it’s time to think of a chicken coop or cage. This will be at 2-3 months, depending on breed. Chicks can be let outside to wander a bit in nice weather while supervised at this age. They are still a bit silly and naïve at this point and a good meal for predators, so keep a close eye on them. Chickens like to sleep on a roost off the floor once they have their feathers so try to provide one.
At about 4 months of age switch your chicks from chick feed to grower or maintenance feed for fancy breeds or laying feed if you have hens of egg production breeds. Make sure they always have clean water available.
Chicks begin to be mature at 5 months; some breeds take longer than others. Chickens from laying breeds will often begin laying eggs at 22 weeks and roosters will begin to crow about that time too. For more about coops read this article.
For all about raising chickens in an easy to understand book read Raising Chickens for Dummies, written by the author of this article. You can find it on Amazon and in many bookstores.
There are many articles about chickens on this site. Here are a few you may want to read.
To contact the author please write her at firstname.lastname@example.org