Caring for Chicks

Baby chicks can walk and scamper about immediately upon hatching and can fly within a week. They can see well, and they know how to eat. If the chicks don't have their mother they need some sort of brooder in which they can be kept warm and safe while they are growing. You can use a cardboard box or a wooden box for a brooder. Or you can buy one at a feed store.

For a homemade brooder, use a cardboard box with a layer of litter (sand, woodchips, rice hulls, etc.) or newspaper in the bottom, which should be changed frequently. Partially cover the top with newspaper or cardboard to help keep out drafts and still allow some fresh air in. A lightbulb suspended in the box provides heat. The bulb should be far enough away from the edge of the box that it won't start a fire. You can screw the bulb into a spotlight reflector with a clamp to hold it in place. Such reflectors with clamps are available in hardware stores.

The box size depends on the size and number of chicks you plan to put in it. The size will have to be increased as the chicks grow. They should have plenty of room to move around in and to spread out to sleep. They should also have enough room to get away from the heat of the bulb if they need to. If they pant or press against the corners and edges of the box, away from the bulb, they are too hot and could possibly suffocate. Reduce the bulb wattage or get a bigger box. If the chicks huddle together in a pile under the bulb, they are chilly. The bulb could be too high to provide enough heat, the wattage too low, or the box too big.

The temperature in the brooder should start around 90 degrees F. for newly hatched chicks and be decreased by about 5 degrees F. each week. Comfortable chicks make contented peeps. Chicks distressed from cold or hunger will cheep loudly and insistently. Comfortable chicks will pursue their normal activities of walking around, pecking at the food, pecking at the sides of the box, drinking water, and sleeping. They need a lot of rest and will frequently lie on the brooder floor with their heads down and wings spread out. Sanitation is essential. Provide a new box with fresh litter or newspaper every day. The litter should never be allowed to remain damp. If water is spilled the litter should be cleaned out. Chicks must have clean, fresh water at all times. You can buy plastic or metal watering basins that fit onto mason jars and are ideal. Or use a small cup or bowl that does not tip over.

You can buy a fine-ground mash called "chick starter" at a feed store. It comes in fine to slightly coarser grains. You can mix a little of the very fine and the slightly coarse together. Mix in tiny pieces of dark green lettuce, little pieces of grapes or apple, or tiny pieces of bean sprouts and alfalfa sprouts. You could add dry baby cereal from the supermarket (barley, oat, wheat, rice).

Plan to keep the chicks inside for four to six weeks. When they are about a week or two old, they can be put outside for a while on warm days. They come when you call them. Don't put them outside and leave them. You have to supervise. Cats will not normally bother an adult chicken but they will go after a chick. Dogs are a definite danger along with raccoons, possums, foxes, weasels, owls, and hawks.

At about four to six weeks the chicks have most of their feathers and can go outside permanently if they have a predator- proof enclosure and a roosting place. Chicken start perching at about a month to six weeks old. Provide small, low perches.

Summary from Chickens in Your Backyard by Rick & Gail Luttmann
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