Chicks! They’re cute, fascinating and easy to raise but there are a few basics you’ll need to know before bringing home those little peepers. Maybe you’ve been thinking of adding chickens to your garden for a while now and maybe the idea struck upon hearing those gentile peeps during your last trip to the feed store. Chickens are a joy to raise, even in the city. But they deserve care and attention like any pet, so please don’t impulse buy unless you’re ready for the responsibility.
It’s about this time of year when every feed store has chicks peeping at you from the back and it may be tempting to make a spontaneous purchase. I implore you to do a bit of research first and get your brooder set up and warm before bringing home your new pets/livestock. This brief primer should serve as a cursory overview by a fellow chicken lover, not an expert. I encourage you to pick up a few chicken care books from your library or local book store as well. I highly recommend The Small-Scale Poultry Flock, which i’m reading right now. You can never learn TOO much about raising animals, and Harvey’s book has some great tips that you won’t find in Storey’s Guide or some of the others.
Buying your chicks
Heritage breed? Hybrid? Pullets? Straight run? Mail order? You have lots of options when purchasing your chicks, including “how many to get.” These decisions will be personal and functional and i encourage you to research many different breeds in order to decide which is best for you. Some are more skittish, others more friendly. Some will lay more eggs more often, others may be more suitable for eating. Backyardchickens.com and MyPetChicken.com have some great resources as does the “Henderson’s chart” which can also be found online. I like a mix of dual purpose (good for both laying and eating) and layer birds with a few breeds that may go ‘broody.’ Broodiness (the inclination to sit on and hatch chicks) has been bred out of most modern laying breeds and since i want a flock that will reproduce itself to some extent, i will always have a rooster and a few broody hens on hand to do the job. If you’re only looking for laying hens and won’t keep a rooster, avoid the broody breeds. (Note: hens do NOT need a rooster around to lay – eggs are laid via natural ovulation which happens regardless of the presence of any males.) The number of hens to get depends on the size of your family and the number of eggs you’d like to have. 4 hens will feed a family of 3 nicely with some leftover in the Summer to sell or preserve. Always get at least 2 or 3 chickens at a time: they need company! As this is just a brief primer, i’ll let you do your own research and reading in order to make the best purchasing decisions for your family. Let’s get on to the brooding!
Whether you order your chicks online or buy them at a local feed store, you will marvel at how small and adorable your day old chicks are: little balls of fluff. (*Note: if you order online, be sure and open the box to check for dead chicks while IN the post office. Most hatcheries guarantee safe arrival but require witness by a postal employee) The most important thing you can do for your chicks is to keep them warm, draft free and watered. Your feed store will have metal or plastic feeders and waterers that screw onto a basic mason jar. Keep the waterer full and clean at all times and feed your chicks special chick starter feed (medicated or unmedicated) for the first 4 months. You can toss your chicks small scraps of clean lawn clippings as well and may wish to provide free choice grit (fine!). Adding electrolytes or apple cider vinegar to their water for the first 4 days will help them cope with the stress of travel.
A brooder can be easily made with a large cardboard box, some pine (never cedar!) shavings or straw and a heat lamp. Litter should be soft and never smooth: do not brood your chicks on just newspaper or they may develop significant leg problems. Choose a strong clamp lamp or livestock specific hanging lamp and set up at least a foot from any flammable surface.
Other good brooder set ups include livestock troughs, cardboard lined x-pens or plywood panels wired together. You can judge the temperature they need with a ‘chick thermometer’ but i prefer to simply watch my chicks: if they clump all together they’re too cold: lower the heat lamp, if they spread apart to the corners of the box, they’re too hot: raise the lamp. Get your brooder warmed up BEFORE you pick up your chicks. Have the brooder set up and warm so that you can introduce your chicks to their new home calmly and quickly. Keep your chicks warmed at about 95 degrees for the first week, cooling off about 5 degrees as they get older. Don’t be startled if your chicks fall flat on their faces and play dead: they get a lot of sleep, and are adept at the “power nap.”
The First Week
Marvel at the rapid growth of your chicks! They eat, drink, and sleep all day long (not to mention peep) and all that energy is going into the growth of their little bodies. You can literally see those wing feathers lengthen by the day. You may also notice some “personality” in your chicks. The first six months are not only a time for the chickens to grow, they’re also a time for them to find their spot in the pecking order. If you notice one, or more of your chicks pecking at the others – throw in some grass clippings (not treated by pesticides or herbicides). The clippings will distract the chicks from each others’ toes. If your chicks continue to peck, and they draw blood – try shining a red light on them- it will draw attention away from the wounds. Have no mistake: chickens can and will kill each other if overcrowded or sickly. Prevent wounds before they happen! The best prevention is plenty of space, so plan the size of your brooder according to the number of chicks you plan to keep, and increase the size or move them to a larger brooder as necessary.
Month 1 – 6 weeks
That cardboard box is quickly becoming too small. Your chicks are getting more and more feathers (and losing them), and testing them out! Keep an eye on them, and maybe a lid – they love to learn to fly and roost. You may also have to place a ‘cap’ over their water and feed jar or they may spoil them with their droppings while roosting on the top. Once the chicks are ‘fully feathered’ they may be moved outside. You may consider some ‘day outings,’ moving the brooder out during the day and back in at night or to an outdoor brooder space in your barn or garage. Before they have their full adult feathers it is most important to ensure they do not get wet – by dew or by rain. If it is warm where you live you may certainly consider moving your chicks to their new coop as soon as they appear feathered, perhaps with a heat lamp at one end as a safety blanket. Dry and draft free are the priorities when housing your chickens. It’s time to start thinking about where their permanent home will be! At six weeks it’s time for them to move out on their own:
It’s time to build your coop! A chicken coop needs to be sturdy, wired with hardware cloth or other finely meshed wire – not “chicken wire” which can be easily ripped by predators. Your chickens need 3-5 square feet per bird and 1 nest box per 2 or so birds, give or take. You may want to put a floor on your coop, dig the exterior walls down a foot or so, or surround the coop with electric fence. Feral cats, dogs, raccoons, opossums, hawks are all our enemies. Another coop option is a chicken tractor: a mobile coop that you move daily or weekly, allowing the chickens to free range within the protection of their coop.
More on coop building and design in our next volume in the chicken basics series!
Have you raised your own chicks? Are you a newbie with questions or an old hand with some good tips to share? Please comment with either or both!