The Road Home

The Road Home
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Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Baby Chicks Cometh

Hello, Frank here.

Hi Everybody. Okay, we have talked about housing, chicken breeds and along with housing we talked about how many chickens per square foot. Now we're going to talk about what to do the day the stork brings your baby birds. Unless you have a hatchery close by, 50 to 100 miles, then your birds will either be coming, probably that is, from a local feed store or by U.S. mail. Our first batch came from a local hatchery. It was about 140 miles round trip on a nice summer day, pretty drive. I will tell you more about our first day with chickens later on in this post. But either way, whether feed store or U.S. mail, your baby chicks are going to be exactly what I just said, babies. And being babies they will have different needs than adult hens and roosters. 

So let's start with feed. Most people start their baby birds on some type of chick starter. You might say, "Why wouldn't everybody do this?" Well, because chick starters as general rule are also medicated and some folks just don't like medicating their birds starting from birth. I don't put any chemicals in my garden, but I do start my baby chicks with medicated chick starter. I can't tell you that the birds grow up healthier or stronger, it's just something that I choose to do. Chick starter is what's called crumbles. It's about the consistency, and maybe a little smaller than the breakfast cereal Grape Nuts. It kinda looks like it too. And 
it's probably made from about the same ingredients. We feed our adult birds laying crumbles. But there are also laying pellets. It's hard to describe a pellet, but it's about a quarter of an inch round and extruded. If you've ever been around cattle, they are also fed with pellets except that they are about an inch in diameter. So, if you choose to not feed your baby birds a medicated starter feed, you can start them with regular laying crumbles. It's just one of those choice things, but most folks do start their babies with some type of baby chick feed. You don't need to get the feed wet or make it soft as you do with ducks and geese in many cases. And there is no other feed that you need to give your baby birds at this time besides either laying crumbles or chick starter, which is a crumble.

Water. Water is the first thing that you should provide your baby chicken. This is going to be hard to believe, but a baby chicken knows how to run, play, peck, eat, scratch, but you will have to teach them how to get their
first drink. So, before any feed or anything. Water. And you say well, how do I teach them how to drink? By example? No. Assuming you have a water bottle with a tray on the bottom turned upside down, when you get your chickens home, whether they are in a bag from the feed store, or a box from a hatchery via U.S. mail, they will need that first drink. Take out the first bird individually, hold him in the palm of your hand, put your thumb on the back of his little head and gently poke his little beak into the water, but don't hold it there. Hold him up, let him get a taste, and you can tell when they swallow that first little bit. Then repeat cycle. Now this sounds easy enough, but you've got a two or three day old bird in your hand. It's the first time you've ever done this and that little chicken is not going to cooperate. So, be patient, you're both learning at this time.

A little side note here. If for some reason you have a dead baby chick, do not feed it to your cat or dog. You do not want your pets to develop a taste for chickens. And on rare occasions, you will get a baby bird that is deformed. This is going to sound cruel and gross, but I wrap them in toilet paper and flush them. Proceding right along here, in our last batch of hatchery chicks, we had one with it's head backwards. Since it would never have the ability to eat, it would never, never thrive. This is what I'm talking about. You will someday have to get rid of a baby chicken. If you have children, try not to make a big deal out of this. It just happens.

Now continue taking every bird out of the box or bag and make sure every bird gets a good drink. Then you can introduce the food. 

Okay, we've got food, we've got water. So where are you going to put these little critters? They need to be in a warm, 95 degrees, draft free, well lighted, predator secure environment. You can use about anything you want to use. If you have a chicken house secured with electricity and you have a corner to put them in, some type of heat lamp that they can gather under, a type of floor that is not slippery, this is a pretty good location, because the first week is the most critical time of all. 

Here is the way that we have done it for years, or something close to it. We get a large cardboard box. Refrigerator boxes, paper towel or toilet paper boxes, things like that. By the way, I have raised baby chicks in large ice
chests and Rubbermaid totes, whatever fits for you. A little warning here. If you're going to keep them in your spare bedroom, put a couple of large trash bags underneath the box. Then we take large trash bags, fold them and duct tape them inside to the bottom of the box. Then we use newspaper as flooring. We masking tape it down around the edges. Some folks would disagree with this. They claim it will develop leg problems due to a slippery surface. We have never had this problem. You need a thermometer inside your box. The birds need to be at 95 degrees, and you can lower the temperature five to eight degrees per week. So when you duct tape the thermometer to the inside of the box, don't tape over the numbers you will
need to use. Put it where the thermometer measures it's temperature from at head level for the baby chickens, about 3 inches from the bottom of the box. Heat can be a sensitive issue. Too much heat will kill your baby chickens, not enough heat will also kill your baby chickens. If your heat source comes in contact with your cardboard box, it can cause a fire. I have never used a heat lamp with a cardboard box. Never. Here's how I do it. I take a light weight extension cord. Follow me here now. At the hardware store you will need to buy two inexpensive, small light fixtures. One, the first one,
needs a two prong plug that goes into the extension cord and opposite the two prong plug is a standard screw in light bulb socket. Okay, that's good for one light bulb. What I do next is buy an adapter that screws into that socket that allows you to use two light bulbs. It looks like a 'Y'. Then I use two light bulbs appropriate for the heat that I desire. Next get a 1 x 4 that will go across the width of your box, wrap your extension cord around it about four times, then you can adjust the heighth of where the lights are hanging by rotating your 1 x 4 up or down. The bulbs should not touch the chickens or any part of the cardboard box. This is one of those things that you will need to experiment with a few days before your chicks arrive. Why two bulbs? Just in case one bulb burns out. Have a good selection of different wattages. As your birds get taller, raise the lights up. You can put in a lower wattage to lower the temperature. If the birds are too hot, they will move away from the light. If they are too cold, they will gather under the light and there is a chance that a weaker bird may suffocate. It seldom happens though. So watch your birds. How do you keep the heat in? Take some cardboard pieces and lay them across parts of the top of the box. Don't cover the whole box though, because if it gets too hot, it will kill your birds.

Another side note. If your thermometer has a red ball on the bottom, your chickens will spend hours pecking that red dot. And also from birth, they will know that things hovering above are dangerous. I don't know how and I don't know why, but they know it. Now you need to have something to go across the top of the box, like rabbit wire, to keep out your friendly cat or dog. And when the chicks get to be about two weeks old they will become escape artists. So have your box set up ahead of time, check out the temperature day and night. When you've given all the babies a drink and put them in their box with their feed, the temperature in the box will start to go up. Pay attention.

Alrighty, next topic. A plugged vent. This is not what you think it is. If the temperature is not just right and the humidity is not just right a small percentage of the baby chicks will develop a crust on their butts or anus. When the birds defecate it will crust over, therefore blocking the chicks ability to vent or poop. And then the little guy will die. This will happen pretty early on in the birds development somewhere around seven days or so. So, what do you do? Get a wide shallow pan, put water in it. Get a handful of paper towels. Hold the little chick with it's crusted area facing toward you, wet the paper towel and get the crusty spot wet. If it's real, real hard, dip the opposite end from the beak into the pan of water. This soaks the crusty area and very gently remove the dried poop with the paper towel. You can't just pull it off because their body is still very fragile. This won't happen every time by any means. But it will happen. And I believe it's caused by a prolonged high temperature which causes dehydration. So, when you see this, you need to remedy it immediately. Now, it's not the same as a bird pooping and having a small amount of wet poop on it's butt. But if you find one bird with it, you'll probably find more. So, scare everybody down to one end of the box and pick up birds and start checking butts. Like I said, this might happen once or twice when the chicks are at a very young age. It's commonly called poopy butt.

Electrolytes. This is a supplement that we put in our baby chick water. Ask around the feed store and see if they have any. If not you can buy these products from Jeffer's or when you order the baby chicks from the hatchery they will tuck a package in with the baby chickens. I would highly recommend this to get your chicks started right. 

Vaccinations. Some hatcheries will offer vaccinations for diseases that could occur locally. So check and see what they have to offer. It normally doesn't cost much. Some people get their birds vaccinated and some don't. Different hatcheries charge substantially different prices for vaccinating birds. Some have big, big differences. This is something that you need to pay attention to in figuring the cost of the bird. We have our birds that come from the hatchery all vaccinated.

About hatchery or feed store baby birds, I would highly recommend hatchery birds. The feed store birds have been handled by numerous people, not always gently and your not always sure about exactly what breed or sex of bird you're getting. If you order birds from a hatchery, barring any unforseen circumstances, when your chicks arrive you will know exactly what you're getting. Sometimes baby birds die. This is life. But the more reputable hatcheries will either refund or replace your birds in your next order.

Just like bringing any baby home, you need to be prepared. Feed store, co-ops, big chain animal supplies will have baby chick feeders, waters and extra gizmo stuff.

Now let me tell you my chicken story. When Fern and I got our first birds, this was pre-internet days, and we had read as much as we could about bringing baby birds home. All the literature said keep your birds at 95 degrees. So, on a nice summer day, in the southern part of our great country, we drove back from the hatchery with the heater on in the vehicle to make sure our baby birds stayed 95 degrees. We've grown a little since then and we laugh about it now. And speaking of laughing, I hope you have practiced your clucking. For your entertainment, I have included a video about how to cluck.

We'll cluck more later. Frank


  1. Brawk brawwwk brrrrk........Great post Frank! graawwkk bbbbrrrkk Brawkkk !

  2. Great Post! My first day of feeding I boil egg and smash it with a fork and feed to my chicks. It is pure protein and gives them a great start. The other is I place a couple shiny dimes in the chick starter. They will automatically peck at the shiny object encouraging them to peck around in the feed.

    Hugs CQ

  3. Please change the mention early in the post about using laying crumbles. That has calcium which will kill the youngsters. Their bodies cannot process the added calcium. Should be starter /grower crumbles.