Spring is here! That means it is chick time! If you are bringing new little fuzzies into your lives, you’re in for a delightful experience. Raising baby chicks with your family is so fun, rewarding, and special. It’s nothing but sh*ts and giggles! Literally. But there are certainly some things you need to know to ensure they’re well cared for.
This post is geared around providing information for people raising baby chicks that will not have a mama hen present. Because guess what? That means YOU are their mama hen now! Yep. Those precious little fluff balls are going to imprint on you, follow you everywhere, and most importantly, look to you for love, protection, and proper care.
Let’s discuss all the things you need to know to give baby chicks the proper care needed, including tips for arrival day, food and water, brooder set-up, temperatures, cleaning, and health risks.
Ensure you have all of their necessary supplies ready and waiting, including the brooder, heat source, food, and water.
When they arrive, before setting them loose in their brooder carefully dip each chick’s beak in their clean, slightly warm water. This shows them where their water is, and helps to trigger them to start drinking on their own. One of the most common causes of lost chicks during the first days is dehydration and cold. Providing slightly warm water instead of cold water helps prevent their internal body temperature from dropping too much.
Once they’re in their brooder, try your best not to handle them for the first day. Let them settle in. They’ve likely been on a stressful journey! I know it is really, really hard to resist – especially for the kiddos – but it is in the chick’s best interest.
You should already have a brooder set up and waiting. This is their home for the next month, or longer! The duration they are inside the brooder will depend on the time of year and temperature outside. We’ll talk more about that in the temperature section to follow.
Here are the essential elements of a good chick brooder:
- Structure: A brooder is made from a sturdy container. This could include a large plastic storage tote, plywood box, portable crib (like a Pack N Play) or a dog playpen. In the past, we have used a plastic tote (which they grow out of), as well as homemade plywood boxes with cardboard covering the floor.
- Lid: A cover for the brooder, to keep them in, or keep your other animals out! They get pretty flighty around week three, and can jump out of most brooders if you’re not careful! The cover must be breathable. We usually place wire fencing securely over the top of the brooder.
- Space: When they’re still tiny, an ideal brooder size is about 1-2 square feet per chick, minimum. Remember, they need room to move around, plus space for food and water. So if you had four small chicks, you’d want a minimum of a 4 square foot space.
- More Space: Once they’re 4 weeks old or larger, it is best to upgrade to about 4 square feet of space per chick. When we set up a brooder, we make a 4×4 plywood box, 2 ft tall. For the first few weeks, we keep a divider in the middle, making their space half the size. Then at 3-4 weeks old, we remove the divider and give them free reign of the whole place – a 16 square foot chick palace!
- Litter: The brooder will need litter on the floor. The most common choice is fine wood shavings made of pine, which can be found at your local farm supply or pet store. Do not use splintery wood chips, bark, or any material made from cedar. Cedar oils are toxic to chickens. One issue with pine shavings is that they make a hot mess. Chicks will fling them into their feed and water, which has to be kept as clean as possible. Newspaper is less messy, but isn’t a good choice. It is slippery and can cause a condition called splay leg. An option I learned of more recently are wood, sawdust, or paper pellets. They stay put better, make less of a mess, apparently are super absorbent, and are easy to clean! We plan to use these the next time we have chicks. We have also used puppy pads, taped down into place.
- Location: Keep the brooder somewhere protected from the elements, such as indoors, or in a garage that won’t be subject to extreme temperature swings. Ours have always been in a spare room in the house, tucked away from the cats.
- Other brooder necessities: heat, food, water, and daily cleaning – all discussed in more detail below.
Brooder Temperature & Heat Source
Baby chicks need a constant, safe heat source to keep them the correct temperature at different stages of development. This replaces the heat that they’d otherwise be provided by huddling under their mama hen.
Heat can be provided one of two ways: using a traditional heat lamp, or with a neat little radiant heating plate, made especially for chick brooders. They both have their pros and cons – so let’s discuss.
The most affordable option is using a heat lamp. It also warms the entire room and brooder, which some people prefer. However, you MUST ensure it is very, very securely hung. Meaning in way that it cannot tip over into the brooder, and cannot come in contact with other materials. Definitely get the fixture that has a wire cage around the bulb. Brooder lights can and do cause fires. I just heard about a local house fire caused by one a few weeks ago! I mean, think about it… they’re going to be on nearly 24/7 for over a month.
You must also be able to adjust the height of the light, to increase or decrease the temperature of the brooder as needed. In the past, we have used a heat lamp. Utilizing a cymbal stand from Aaron’s drum kit, we were able to hang the light over the brooder in a very sturdy and adjustable manner. We always preferred using a red 250-watt light bulb over the white/clear option. It seemed more mellow for nighttime and sleeping.
Radiant Heat Plate
When we had babies in the past, we hadn’t yet heard about brooderradiant heat plates, but I have seen them more and more recently on Instagram. We may give them a go next time! They’re basically a heated plate on stilts that can be raised as the chicks grow. The chicks duck under it for warmth – simulating how they’d behave with a mother hen. They come out and play when they’re warm, and return under it to heat up as needed.
The heat plates reportedly use less energy than heat lamps, and pose exponentially less risk for fires. They also receive great reviews online. However, I am seeing suggestions to size up from how many chicks they claim it to be suited for. As chicks grow, they’ll need more space under the structure. Reviewers also suggest getting the version that has a cover on top, which prevents them from perching and pooping on it. I think these could be a great option for inside a house, but may not raise the ambient temperature enough for chicks to be comfortable in a cooler location like a mudroom or garage. They’d probably be under it all the time.
Chick Temperature Requirements
The brooder temperature requirement slowly decreases as chicks become older and their feathers fill in. Their behavior will give you a signal if they’re too cold or too hot! If you’re using a heat lamp and they are trying to get as far away from it as possible, such as staying around the perimeter of the brooder or sleeping away from the light, they are likely too warm. They also sprawl out and are more lethargic when overheated… though they do sprawl out and sleep a lot as babies, regardless! When too hot, they may even pant.
When they’re too cold, chicks may run around and chirp very loudly, or huddle together directly under the light. A comfortable chick will be a nice balance of active and sleepy, and should be able to get closer or further away from the light (or heat plate) freely. Maintain their food and water near the edge of their comfort zone, so they don’t need to be too heated or chilled to get to it.
To help you assess and adjust the temperature, it is important to have a thermometer inside the brooder at the chicks level – though their behavior trumps whatever the thermometer is telling you. Lower or raise your light to get it just right.
The target temperatures for a chick brooder are as follows:
- Week 1: 90-95°F
- Week 2: 85°F
- Week 3: 80°F
- Week 4: 75°F
- Week 5: 70°F (We may start turning off their heat lamp during the day at this time, depending on the temperature in the house)
- Week 6: 65°F (During the week leading up to their 6th birthday, we may remove their heat completely. But they’re still in the house, which is about the right temperature. At 6 weeks old, our weather allows them to move the heck out of their parents house!)
By 6 to 7 weeks old, chicks should be about fully feathered. If so, they can do without supplemental heat. If your outdoor temperatures are warm enough, they can move outside to their coop at this time. Even if the overnight temperatures are in the 50’s, as long as they are mostly fully feathered and are moved to a coop that is not drafty, they will be okay. They’ll huddle together for warmth.
However, if your nighttime temperatures are still in the 30s to low 40s, I would either add a night time heat source in the coop, or wait a little longer to move them out. When we felt bad or nervous about our babies being out that first week, we would warm up long-lasting rice heat packs to nestle down in the coop bedding and heat everything a tad.
Handling Baby Chicks
When chicks are young, it is the best time to form a strong bond with them that can last a lifetime! One tip I read about long ago was this: don’t just suddenly reach down in and pluck them out of their brooder, especially at first. Instead, set your hand down on the floor of the brooder with some crumble feed in it, and let them approach you to explore.
Once they become more comfortable with their surroundings and you, feel free to take them out of their brooder for cuddles, but be attentive to their behavior. Chicks will shriek when they are scared or cold. Find a warm spot where they can cuddle up with you, or put them back if they seem stressed. Some birds will enjoy being handled more than others! The two below were snuggle bugs.
Always provide fresh, clean water for chicks. This means changing their water at least daily – possibly twice per day if they really make of a mess of it. (See more notes about keeping water clean in the “cleaning” section to follow). Start with slightly warm water for the first few days to keep them warm and comfy. Many chicken keepers provide electrolytes, sugar and/or vitamins in their water for the first week or two. If they were shipped, this helps them recover from the stress of that ordeal. Additionally, it gives any chick a good boost for a strong start. We personally like this electrolyte nutrient powder, and use it in a basic chick waterer.
Baby chicks need special food, called chick starter feed. It is nutritionally balanced for their needs and rapid development at this stage of life. As they mature, they will transition from a starter feed to a “grower” (intermediate) feed at around 8 weeks old. Some feeds are both a “starter” and a “grower” in one, which they can stay on until they graduate to a layer feed – around 16 to 18 weeks old.
It is important to avoid giving your chicks regular “layer” feed until they’re coming into lay. It has too much calcium and too little protein for younger pullets. Pullets are young female chickens – no longer baby chicks but not yet adult hens. This can be tricky if your pullets come into lay at different ages. We usually wait until at least one of them starts showing signs of laying soon (e.g. doing the “submissive squat”, sitting in the nest box, deep reddening of their combo and wattles) and then start mixing half of their grower feed with layer feed, transitioning to layer-only over a couple of weeks. In the meantime, we also start putting out an additional free-choice calcium source on the side (like crushed eggshells or oyster shells) for any girls who happen to start laying.
Should I use medicated feed for my chicks?
A personal decision you’ll need to make is whether or not to start your chicks off with medicated feed. Medicated chick starter feed contains medicine that wards off a specific parasitic infection called coccidiosis, discussed below. It is not an antibiotic, and it doesn’t last in their system long. With our first-ever round of chicks, we went with the recommendation to use medicated feed for the first few weeks, then transition to unmedicated organic chick starter feed. They never got sick.
On the other hand, we decided to go completely natural and unmedicated for the next round of chicks. They all came down with coccidiosis after their first little adventure outdoors. It was not good. We ended up having to treat their water with CORID and go to medicated feed for a while to clear it up. Yet I know many people who don’t use medicated feed and their chicks don’t get sick! That was just our experience. Ultimately, this is a personal decision. If you want to read more about this great debate, see this chain in the Backyard Chickens forum.
Speaking of coccidia, let’s talk about chick butts.
Chick Butts: Health & Illness
When it comes to baby chick health, there are a few issues that you’ll need to keep an eye out for. The most prominent ones have to do with their cute little fluffy butts. Or in proxy to their butts.
Coccidia is an intestinal parasite that can affect chickens of any age, but is particularly common and more deadly for baby chicks. Coccidiosis (caulk-sid-e-osis – the name for a coccidia infection) is actually the number one killer of baby chicks in a brooder. Feeding baby chicks medicated feed can help prevent it. Though there is also some argument against medicated feed, saying it prevents the chicks from developing their own natural immunity to it early on…
All chickens are exposed to and carry coccidia to a certain degree, but develop a natural immunity to it over time. Baby chicks are hit especially hard because they have not yet developed a natural immunity. Due to their small size, they’re easily overpowered by it. Cocciddia is carried and spread by infected chickens, wild birds, and their feces. It is present in the soil of many yards, particularly in wet conditions.
Symptoms of Coccidiosis
The most obvious symptom of coccidiosis is bloody poop. However, some healthy poops can occasionally have a reddish tint to them, as chickens naturally shed a little bit of their internal linings from time to time. If bloody poops are persistent, present throughout the flock, and/or combined with diarrhea and other symptoms, it is likely coccidia at play. Other symptoms of coccidiosis include weakness, reduced food and water intake, pale comb, decreased growth rate, and ruffled feathers. Baby chicks infected with coccidia will usually stand still a lot, all fluffed up, closing their eyes.
The only way to know for sure if it is coccidia is to have their feces tested by a veterinary lab. However, because immediate intervention is needed to save their life, I wouldn’t suggest waiting for lab results if the situation seems dire. If you notice these symptoms in your babies, read this post on how to respond to a suspected coccidia outbreak.
Another potential issue that can inflict those adorable little tushies is something called pasty butt, or “pasting up”. It’s pretty much what it sounds like. When baby chicks are first getting their bowels moving, there is a chance for it to stick to their bottoms. It is even more common after a stressful journey like being shipped. The poop stuck on their rumps is an issue for several reasons. One, if it is stuck in their feathers against their skin, it can cause irritation and a skin infection. Two, it can form a plug over their cloaca (the name for chickens one hole) and actually block them from further being able to go to the bathroom!
Keep an eye on their butts, especially during the first week. We do a tushie check at least once per day. If you see a chick pasting up, DO NOT just pick it off. If it’s really stuck on good, it could bring other tender tissues off with it and cause injury. Instead, soak a cloth in warm water and apply a warm wet compress to the area for several minutes to soften everything up. You should be able to wipe it away soon.
The last icky thing to be conscious of that may be lurking on chicks behinds (moreso in their poop) is salmonella. Not all birds will be infected! But there is a chance. They can carry it without making themselves sick, so it won’t be obvious like coccidia. The chicks don’t need treatment for it, but you need to be conscientious to protect yourself and your family.
As a best practice and precaution, it is always recommended to wash your hands well after handling chicks. Especially before touching your face, mouth, food, or other things around the house. This is particularly important for the kiddos, who are much more likely to ignore common sense hygiene.
On the note of hygiene…
When I was talking to Aaron about this post, the first words out of his mouth were: “Little chicks can make one big mess!” Truth. They poop a lot. Their poops are tiny at first, easily picked up after with a little piece of paper towel. Then their poops get bigger, and bigger… Do your best to keep the brooder as clean as possible! This will keep your birdies happy and healthy, and also keep them cleaner for snuggles! We usually did a poop clean-up once or twice per day, doing spot cleaning as long as possible until we felt the whole bedding needed to be switched out – maybe once a week.
In addition to pooping, they also take great pride and joy in flinging crap in their water. Not literal crap! Well, actually… sometimes that too. If shavings are in their water, scoop them out of there. If you see poop in it, change out the water and sanitize the container with hot water and vinegar. Keeping their water slightly elevated above the brooder floor (such as on a short wood block) will help keep it cleaner, but make sure they can still reach it easily!
Some folks like to use chicken nipple waterers, kinda like what hamsters would use, but designed for little beaks. I have mixed feeling about them. They’re really clean, but I have heard they can be more difficult for the chicks to figure out and get ample water from… which is the last thing you want for day-old chicks. If yours can figure it out and thrive, more power to you! That pellet litter I mentioned will also help keep their water more clean.
Chickens like to roost, even bebe ones! We always provide a very short, stable, wide little roost inside the brooder that they can perch on if they’d like, made from random scrap wood. As they grow, we replace it with larger and taller versions. The chicks probably won’t figure it out right away, but once they do, it helps get them accustomed to roosting before they move into the coop. Furthermore, that means they’re that much less likely to try to sleep in the coop nest boxes later – which is a hard habit to break, and leads to poopy eggs.
Chickens are also vain little creatures. Believe it or not, they love checking themselves out in mirrors! For fun and entertainment, we have always put a little mirror in their brooder. You can try to add other little “toys” though ours have never taken much interest in them. For safety concerns, avoid adding any small items to the brooder that they could accidentally eat. Like toddlers, chicks explore the world with their beaks.
Chicks & Treats
As tempting and cute as it is, treats should be mostly avoided early on. The chicks need to focus on their specialized food, and on growing big and strong! After they are at least a few weeks old, you can introduce a few treats here and there, but it should never be more than 10% of their diet. Extreme moderation is key!
When chicks eat anything but their feed, they need the addition of grit to help them digest. Grit is like coarse sand or tiny pebbles that they consume to help to break down food inside their crop. The exception is very soft foods like scrambled eggs, watermelon, or plain yogurt. Yep, you can feed chickens eggs! Our babies loved scrambled eggs, which we put in the food processor with some of their feed to make it small and manageable for them. Plain yogurt is a popular treat for chickens, but I have recently learned that they cannot properly digest dairy. It can give them diarrhea, so I would recommended avoiding it for small chicks.
For grit, you can either purchase some, use coarse sand, or simply wait until they are outside. Since we are not in the habit of giving them grit in addition to their food, we just wait to give them treats until they’re playing outside (not necessarily living outside yet). There, they can nibble on bits of dirt that provide the grit needed to accompany something like finely chopped garden greens.
The Great Outdoors
Keep your chicks in their brooder for the first couple of weeks. Once they reach two or three weeks old, you can start bringing them outside for little adventures. This should only be done if the temperature is at least 65 to 70 degrees outside, as they’re still very subject to getting chilled at this young age. Keep them safe and confined in a fenced area (that they can’t fit through the holes of!) or other temporary housing. Start with short durations, gradually increasing as the chicks get older. While they’re out, ensure they have access to water. An adventure spot that has both sun and shade is ideal, so they can choose what is most comfortable.
At first, we bring our girls out in a large pop-up doggie play pen. It can be used indoors or outdoors for play time, or even as a brooder itself! In the beginning, I always sit with the chicks to provide a sense of security, and so they can cuddle up if they’re cold. As the weeks go on, and they become larger and more comfortable with the outdoors, we expand their play area with wire fencing and let them roam further. But never leave them unsupervised! Especially if you have hawks or other birds of prey around. If you already have their secure, predator-proof run set up, that would be a great place for them to explore and play!
In closing, enjoy these precious few weeks! Spend time with your babies. Take lots of photos! Your chicks are going to change from sweet little fluff balls to gangly, super-awkward, teenage dinosaurs in the blink of an eye!
If you are new to keeping chickens, you may also enjoy these articles:
- “Backyard Chickens 101: What to Expect When You’re Expecting”. This is a crash course on pretty much everything you need to know about raising chickens.
- The Top 18 Chicken Breeds for Your Backyard Flock
- 10 Tips on Caring for Chickens in Cold Winter Weather
I hope you enjoyed the read, and learned a few helpful tips on how to take care of chicks! Feel free to ask questions, and share the post.