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Getting ready for baby chicks
Waiting for your baby chicks to arrive is so exiting! Wondering what you need to get ready for your new flock? Here’s a list of the essential baby chick supplies. At the end of this section, I’ll provide links to the specific items I purchased. Read on if you want to learn more about getting started with backyard chickens.
1 – a brooder – this is just a fancy word for an enclosure the babies live in. Many people use a cardboard box or plastic tote. The brooder needs to be large enough that the chicks can move around freely, about 6 square inches per bird is a good starting point. The brooder will get food, water and manure all over it, so it’s best if the container is reasonably water-resistant and easy to wipe down.
I used a plastic tote that was 30″L X 12″ H X 18″ W. Because I have cats, I chose one with a secure lid. I drilled holes in the lid and on the sides to ensure plenty of air flow.
2 – bedding – the babies need soft bedding to help them stay warm, to cushion them and to make sure they can walk without difficulty. The most common bedding for both new chicks and adult birds is pine or aspen shavings. It absorbs quite a bit of water, dries fairly fast and gives the chicks enough traction that they don’t develop spraddle leg, a serious medical condition.
3 – a heat source – baby chicks have to be kept very warm, especially for the first couple of weeks. The best way to ensure their warmth, and therefore their survival, is to put a heat source in one part of the brooder. That way the babies can go to it when they are cold and move away from it when they get too warm. Heat lamps are traditional but I was NOT comfortable with putting a constant heat source in a box with live animals and flammable wood shavings. Instead, I bought a heat mat and it was awesome. The mat goes on the bottom of the brooder, under the bedding and the chicks can sleep on it any time they want. There’s no risk of overheating or fire.
4 – food and water, and something to keep them in – nutrition is super important for chickens, especially when they’re still growing. In particular, they need specific ratios of protein. With baby birds, it’s just best and easiest to buy them a commercial good, called ‘starter”. It’s formulated especially for chicks 8 weeks and under and it’s easy for them to eat.
Once your flock is grown, check out how easy it is to feed them whole grain, homemade food instead!
There are tons of feeders on the market, most of which hold several days worth of feed. These are great options because the chicks can eat any time. The chicks need water, of course, and it needs to be in a very shallow dish to ensure they don’t fall in and drown.
Those are the absolute necessities for raising baby chicks. But most of those items don’t need to be fancy or expensive. Here’s what I used, and these items all worked really well for my little flock.
If you’re looking for more information on ordering chicks and getting ready for them, I wrote a more in-depth post about preparing for chicks, What to Eggspect . I’d like to take this time to apologize for that pun and assure you that it’s an isolated incident. Something about backyard poultry brings out the puns.
Caring for baby chicks
Chickens, even baby ones, are actually pretty low maintenance, as long as their basic needs are met. Having said that, here’s what you’ll need to do to care for your babies from arrival day to about 8 weeks.
1 – Pick them up promptly from the post office, if they’re being shipped. The post office should hold your birds and call you to tell you they’ve arrived. Although baby chicks can survive several days without food or water, plan on getting them home as quickly as possible.
2 – Once the chicks are home, put them right into the brooder, one at a time. Don’t handle them at this point, except to put them in the brooder, even though they are painfully cute. They’re probably also freaked out and need to get into a warm, secure space so they can calm down and get warm (if need be).
3 – With all the chicks in the brooder, dip each chicks little beak into the water, if they’ve not found it on their own. They need to start drinking right away, if possible. Show them that the crumbles are food by tapping your finger in the food – that’s how mama hen teaches them to eat. More than likely, your chicks will eat and drink readily and happily.
4 – Keep an eye on their bums. Yeah, it’s not the coolest thing in the world, but after the first day, gently pick each chick up and check to make sure it’s vent is clear and that no manure is stuck to it. Caked on manure leads to pasty butt, which is a cute name for a deadly blockage of the chicks poop shoot. If there is manure, just hold a warm, damp cloth to their bottom until the manure softens and can be wiped away.
5 – Watch their behavior to see if they’re too hot, too cold or just right. Chicks that are cold will huddle and peep forlornly. Chicks that are hot will go to the far edges of their brooder and sprawl out. If your chicks do neither, they’re almost certainly comfortable. The heat mat should stay on 24/7 and they will find their way to it whenever they’re cold.
6 – Change the brooder bedding once it gets dirty. If you compost, you can add the shavings and manure to compost that’s still aging (don’t put fresh manure into active garden beds or around growing plants).
And that’s basically it, beyond keeping their food and water topped off. Keep them fed, keep them watered, keep them clean and keep them warm. After the first couple of days, you can start to gently pick them up or stroke them, if you want them to be socialized and friendly.
If you’ve got questions about what it’s like to order chicks and care for them, let me know. You can also check out the rest of my Backyard Chicken posts, which are more in-depth.
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