What to Expect When You're Expecting Chicks
Updated: Mar 26
I’ve done the research. We’ve selected the perfect breeds for our new flock. I’ve placed my order and I’m sitting here patiently awaiting their arrival. It’s officially hatching season across the country and our chicks are going to be delivered soon. But as I sit here with piles of chicken books and magazines, videos, and Pinterest pins, I’m left wondering am I really ready? If this is your first time, like it is mine, then there’s a good chance something could be missed. That’s why today I’m sharing with you what my plan will be for when my baby chicks finally arrive. Hopefully, it will help keep us all on track, and I’m also providing a free downloadable checklist.
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Before They Arrive
As the day of delivery approaches, you’ll want to set up the space that will house your tiny new flock members. It’s best to have everything prepped and ready about 48 hours before their expected arrival date. This will allow time for fresh bedding to dry and the temperature to set.
Prepare a First Aid Kit
Whether this is your first flock or your fifth, you should always be prepared for the unexpected. Put together your very own chicken first aid kit and keep it close at hand at all times. As your babies grow, you’ll likely add to this list, but this will get you started.
Q-tips Can be used for cleaning muck off your chicks or applying ointments or salves
Disposable Gloves You should never handle sick or injured chickens without protecting yourself
Strong Clippers A good pair of clippers is essential for clipping wings and toenails
Small Pair of Scissors For VERY carefully snipping away badly matted fluff
Electrolyte Solution Use to perk up sick or weak chicks, and adult chickens who need a boost, during or following an illness.
Apple Cider Vinegar (ACV) The unfiltered variety with the “mother” in it has many health and preventative benefits for your chicks. Dosage is usually between 1 and 3 tablespoons per gallon of water.
Vitamin E with Selenium A powerful antioxidant used to treat chicks who have “wry neck”
Droppers To help chicks who can’t or won’t drink as well as to administer liquid medications if needed.
Styptic Powder or Cornstarch Can be used to stop bleeding from cuts scratches and other minor injuries.
Small Piece of Cardboard These can be used as splints for chicks who present with “curled toes”.
The Brooder Box
The brooder box is the first home your new chicks will have. It should be a deep-walled container that is large for your chicks to move freely but not large enough for them to get lost in. You will need to gradually increase in size to allow at least 1 square foot of space per chick by the time they reach 6 weeks. It should be comfortable, warm, and placed in an area that is free of drafts. I plan to use these handy brooder box panels from Premier 1 this year.
Everything I've read has said that pine shavings are the best bedding for baby chicks so that is what I plan to use, (covered in a layer of paper towel for the first few days) but do your research and decide what will work best for you. Other alternatives include chopped straw, paper towel layers, burlap liners, or even non-slip plastic. The bedding should be 1” to 2” deep. The important thing is that the surface should be non-slip, and you should never use treated or aromatic woods such as cedar. Also, note that you will need to replace the liner a minimum of once a week.
Your baby chicks will need to be kept at a comfy and consistent temperature so you will need a heat lamp or heating plate. Heat lamps tend to be popular from a price standpoint since they can be purchased for just a few dollars. However, from a safety standpoint, they are not ideal. If they tip or fall it can take less than 2 minutes for a fire to start resulting in the loss of not only babies but possibly your home, barn, or whatever structure your chicks are housed in.
When I ordered my chicks from Cackle Hatchery (not an affiliate link) I was required to sign a form stating that I would use a heat bulb. According to their site, “Mail order poultry require much more heat initially for the 4-7 days than a heat plate generally can provide. They need their body temperature rapidly, immediately, and artificially warmed up to 104 degrees (which is a mother hens’ temperature). Most heat plates do not do this.”
So, I will be starting with an inexpensive heat bulb and then switching to this heat plate from Tractor Supply (not an affiliate link) since it can be used as a brooder plate now and a coop heater later. After my baby birds go through their first week at a high temperature I will adjust my heating as follows:
Week 2: 100 degrees Fahrenheit
Week 3: 95 degrees Fahrenheit
Week 4: 90 degrees Fahrenheit
Week 5: 85 degrees Fahrenheit
Week 6: 80 degrees Fahrenheit
The idea is to gradually reduce the heat by five degrees each week until you reach a minimum temperature of 55 degrees before you can consider moving your flock outdoors. While they remain inside under your constant care, they should always be monitored for comfort level. 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.
Your babies will need 24/7 lighting for the first week. Past the first week, too much light can stress your baby birds, so gradually reduce the lighting until they are receiving around 16 hours of light per day. Or to the amount of light they will receive naturally when they are 20 weeks of age.
Water is the essence of life and your baby chicks will need plenty of it. Place water in the brooder box at least 24 hours before your birds arrive so that it can come up to the temperature of the brooder environment. If your chicks have arrived in the mail, it’s a good idea to add some electrolyte solution to the first round of water to help them recover from their journey. Be sure to keep water dishes shallow, otherwise, clumsy chicks could fall in and drown. You’ll need to watch the water carefully and change it out regularly. These cute little balls of fluff don’t care where they poop and you don’t want them drinking that. Additionally, the brooder box is warm, and warm equals bacteria breeding ground. Keep it fresh kids.
Feeders are available specially sized for chicks, but a shallow trough, dish, lid, or even empty paper egg cartons can be used. Your newest flock members will need specially formulated “starter feed” it is available medicated, or unmedicated and it is specially formulated to give your chicks the best start in life. You will be feeding this high-protein formula to your birds until they reach six weeks of age. Remember that no matter what kind of feeder you use there will always be at least one wise guy that poops in the feeder so you’ll need to clean it out regularly. For the first week of your chick life, you should give them feed only, don’t introduce treats until food habits are well established.
Bringing Home The Babies
Whether you’ve ordered your chicks from a reputable online hatchery, purchased them from a local feed store, or hatched a set of your very own you're going to need to get them to their new home. Hatchery birds will arrive by USPS just like they have since 1918. A good practice is to call your local post office and put in a special request that you be contacted as soon as they arrive. Otherwise, your babies may sit in the box for longer than necessary. Before you pick up your new feathered friends, take a minute to ensure that everything is ready for their arrival. Check the temperature and adjust if necessary before you leave. When you arrive at the post office you should give your birds a quick inspection with the postmaster present so that if there are any issues you will have a witness. Then, bring those babies home, and don’t plan on scheduling any stops along the way. You are now in possession of a very delicate commodity that needs to be transferred to a heat source aka brooder box ASAP.
Once You Arrive
You should have given your chicks a once over in the post office, but now it is time for a thorough inspection. Remove your babies from their box one at a time. Inspect the legs, feet, wings, and beaks for any obvious issues and check the bird's backside. It is not uncommon for chicks who have been through the stress of shipping to have a condition known as “pasty butt.”
This is a condition where their droppings cake over their vent area, preventing them from going to the bathroom, and it 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 town 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 being stubborn, you may need to dunk their behinds in warm water to help things along.
Once you are done with your inspection gently dip the bird's beak into the water dish and repeat until they begin to drink on their own. You must do this with each bird. After everyone is settled in repeat the actions with the food dish to show everyone where the food is, and then, as much as you want to play with them, leave them to rest and acclimate to their new home for a bit.
The Dark Side of the Egg
The sad reality is that no matter how good your care is, or how reputable your hatchery was it’s always possible that you may experience a loss. This is the dark side of chicken keeping, but don’t let it scare you away from the joys of raising a flock of your own.
Hopefully, now you and I are ready to welcome our new flocks home. Don’t forget to download our free printable What to Expect When You’re Expecting Chicks Checklist to keep on hand as the big day arrives!
If there’s anything we’ve missed here, leave it in the comments below. And, until next time,