Updated: Jul 28
Tending to a flock of baby chicks needn’t be difficult or elaborate. Their needs are pretty basic. They need continuous access to clean water, chick starter feed, and constant heat.
Food and Water
Keep their water full and clean. You are about to learn that chickens will poop everywhere, especially in their food and water. Daily or multiple times daily clean and refresh the water. You can cut down on some of the damage by placing the water and water dishes on a slightly raised platform.
For the first few weeks of their lives, you may want to offer electrolyte water or water enhanced with Save-a-Chick to give them an added boost.
They should eat only chick feed for the first 7 to 10 days. After that, you may introduce small amounts of scrambled eggs. It may seem strange to feed a chicken scrambled eggs but ponder this; when a chicken is fertilized inside the egg, it lives off of an egg yoke as its only source of nutrition. When you look at it that way it doesn’t seem so strange.
At two weeks old, you can begin to introduce small amounts of treats such as meal worms and fresh produce scraps. If you are introducing food besides the chick feed it is also a good idea to add chick grit to their diet. This will help them to process and break down the added food.
The bedding will need to be changed completely every week. Small chicks are susceptible to ammonia damage and leaving them in unclean bedding could result in illness or even death. There are several options you can choose from for bedding:
The most common bedding is pine or wood shavings, but a few words of caution. Not just any wood will do, and never under any circumstances use cedar or other aromatic woods as they can be toxic to chicks. Additionally, never use whole sheets of newspaper. The paper must be shredded to provide enough absorbency and cushion to protect from injury. The bedding should be around 2"-3" deep.
Without a mother hen to keep them warm, young chicks will need a constantly available heat source. You can use inexpensive heat lamps or brooder heat plates. Personally, I feel the heat lamps can pose a fire hazard and we have always opted for the pricier but safer heat plates.
If ordering chicks for mail delivery, keep in mind that your baby chicks will require much more heat initially. Once received from your local post office, it is imperative that you heat your chicks as quickly as possible to 104 degrees (which is a mother hen’s temperature).
After your baby birds go through their first week at a high temperature slowly lower the heat, at about 5-degree intervals each week. If using a brooder plate, this can be done by simply raising the plate to the next level on its stand. You’ll want to gradually reduce the temperature until they are fully feathered and comfortable at 55 degrees before you can move them to an outside or coop location.
Monitor your chicks for comfort levels regularly. If you find that they are all huddled under the heat source this can indicate that they are too cold. If you find they are as far away from the heat as possible, they are too warm. Your birds should spend their time spread evenly and comfortably through the brooder box.
As your chicks mature, they will instinctively look for places to perch. Providing them with perches at a young age will help them to sharpen their perching skills and may minimize the risk of escapes as they attempt to perch on the edge of their brooder. You can purchase small "chick-sized" perches for a few dollars at your local feed shop, or you can DIY some with wooden broomstick handles, thin branches, or dowels. They should be positioned 2-5 inches above the bedding for your young birds to use and enjoy.
Don't Forget to Top Off
If your brooder is tall, or deep you won't necessarily need a cover for your brooder. But if your brooder is shallow, you may need to be prepared to add a cover to your brooder to prevent your flock from escaping. During our first year with chicks we did not get the coop built as quickly as anticipated, nor did we plan for a cover. By the time our flock moved out of our home and into theirs my mud room was a poop-covered disaster that took us weeks to fully clean.
For the protection of your young birds, as well as your belongings, be sure to have a plan in place for creating a cover as your flock matures. The best option is to be prepared with a screen cover that will provide good air circulation to keep the birds comfortable while preventing any escape attempts.
Particularly in their first few weeks, there are certain health issues you will need to be on the lookout for:
Pasty Butt This is a condition where their droppings cake over their vent area, preventing them from going to the bathroom. This is fairly common in baby chicks, and while easily treatable, can be fatal if not remedied. You will need to inspect your babies daily for the first week to ensure that they are free of blockage. If you do find pasting use a warm cloth or paper towel to gently wipe the area until it is clean. The process takes patience, but don’t pull or pick at it. If the blockage is stubborn, you may need to dunk their behinds in warm water to help things along.
Splay Leg or Spraddle Leg One of the most common problems with newly hatched chicks is Splay Leg (also called Spraddle Leg). It is characterized by the feet pointing out to the sides, instead of forward. Splay leg will limit the bird's mobility and makes walking nearly impossible. The good news is that Splay Leg is easily correctable with a simple splint setup. However, if not addressed quickly, the condition will become permanent and may result in death. To correct Splay leg you will need to bind the chick's feet together using a small elastic band that equals roughly 1 1/2 inches when pinched flat with a 1/2 inch piece of a plastic straw in the center.
Fold the hair tie or rubber band in half and slide it into the plastic straw
Very carefully place the loops of the hair tie/rubber band over the chick’s feet. It should not be tight on the chick's ankles. This is a job best done by two people.
Provide the chick with a warm secure box lined with a towel or any non-slip bottom and keep it separate from the flock for 24 with the brace on its legs.
Once you see a dramatic improvement you can remove the brace.
Monitor the chick and keep it separated for 12 more hours to ensure it’s strong enough before integrating it back into its flock.
If caught early, most cases of Splay Leg can be corrected in 24-48 hours.
Raising Baby Chicks
It may seem like a lot at first, but baby chicks really are a cinch to care for as long as they have the basics of heat, food, water, and proper bedding. If this is your first time raising chicks, be sure to check out our Chicken Keeping 101 section or grab yourself a copy of our e-Book, From Egg to Eggs! If you have questions feel free to ask them in the comments below and tell us all about your new flock. If you're a chick-raising pro, leave any good tips we missed in the comments below to help educate others! And, as always, until next time: