Getting Your Ducks in a Row for Raising Baby Chicks: Eight Questions and Answers

The expression "taking them under your wing” is one of about a million idiomatic phrases that originated with poultry keeping.  I’m sure you know what it means and I’m willing to bet that you’ve used the phrase yourself more than once.  But just in case you’ve never heard the expression, it means to nurture and protect those who are inexperienced, young, or in need of protection—just as mother hen nurtures and protects her baby chicks and gathers them under her protective wing.  When you adopt baby chicks, you’re taking these small, helpless, peeping balls of fluff under your wing.  It’s a big responsibility, and if you’ve never done it before, you should make sure you understand the list of basics before you undertake this big venture.  If you have done it before, it’s good to pull out that list and review it just to make sure you have all your ducks in a row (I’m mixing metaphors here, but it does present an interesting mental image!).  Raising baby chicks is not hard, after all, but there are a few things you have to consider and a few things you need to do right. 

I'll be publishing this post on June 5, and shortly after I post it, my wife, Kathy, and I will get in the car and set off on our quest for baby chicks.  If you’re reading it the day I post it, you can imagine us somewhere on I-35 headed south from Minnesota to Webster City, Iowa to pick up chicks at the Murray McMurray Hatchery.  Or maybe we’re on the way home and I’m holding a box of peeping fluff balls on my lap.  You can be sure that getting these babies was not a spontaneous decision.  What follows is a list of the questions I've asked myself and the answers I've come up with before getting these babies. I think these questions and answers will be useful to you if you're considering getting chicks for the first time, or if you're adding to your existing flock. There’s lots of useful information on the web about caring for baby chicks, and every time I’ve gotten chicks I’ve taken the time beforehand to sample from the collective knowledge of all those people who have raised chicks and written about it.  I’m including a lot of links to all those folks in this post.  It takes a village, don’t you know, to raise a chick. 

1 - Do I want chickens?  This is the obvious first thing you consider. If you’ve thought about owning chickens, you probably already realize that becoming a chicken owner will put you at the forefront of the local/sustainable food movement.  You’ll be producing food right in your own backyard!  If you already produce food in your backyard with a garden, chickens are a natural complement to that garden—the chickens will happily devour any leftover vegetable scraps and weeds you give them and all that composted chicken manure will make for some very happy garden plants!  Also, any chickens you keep will, without a doubt, be better treated and happier than the majority of the hens laying the eggs you find at the grocery store.  So, does it make you happy to imagine a small flock of hens clucking contentedly in your backyard?  If you immediately answer “yes” to that question, you’ve jumped the first hurdle!  That was the easy one!  Of course if you already have chickens the question becomes, “Do I want more, chickens?”  The answer to that question is always “yes”, naturally.

A Cute Baby Chick:  Mary the Campine

2 - Am I allowed to have chickens?  In January, I posted a link to this Minneapolis Star Tribune article on my Facebook page about the family in Ramsey, Minnesota who found out that by keeping eight chickens, they had run afoul (um…afowl?) of their homeowner’s association rules.  My heart goes out to these folks who just want to enjoy their chickens--but the lesson is to be sure to check your local rules before you get chickens, and then also check with your neighborhood association whose covenants are often more restrictive.  In my semi-rural municipality, those who live on more than five acres are essentially allowed 50 chickens for each acre of land. So even as I add six babies to my flock, which will bring my flock up to 30 birds, I know that I've got no problem keeping them on my nine acres.  For further information on learning about the rules where you live and how to change restrictive rules, I suggest you read both of these blog posts:  “Is it Legal to Raise Chickens in My Suburban Backyard?” is posted by Deb Neyens on her blog, “Counting My Chickens.” It discusses zoning laws, ordinances and restrictive covenants and tells the story of how the laws were changed in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.  Kathy Shea Mormino, who blogs as “The Chicken Chick” discusses “Legalizing Backyard Chickens” in her excellent post.  She advises that “If the zoning code doesn’t say anything about backyard chickens, do not assume that you’re allowed to keep chickens!  A zoning code that says nothing about keeping backyard chickens in a residential zone is a prohibition on keeping chickens in that zone.”  Both Deb and Kathy are ardent chicken keepers, excellent writers, and are both attorneys to boot!  They’re both the right kind of people for us and our chickens to have on our side!

Baby picture of Paul the Cochin Rooster
3 - Do I have room/time for chickens?  Commercial egg companies that keep their hens in battery cages are legally required to provide only 67 square inches of space per hen—less than a standard sheet of printer paper—for her entire life!  Don’t try this at home.  Treating any sentient creature in this manner is extremely cruel and inhumane.  So how much space should you give your chickens?  Different sources give different numbers on this, but I think a good average is three square feet of coop space per adult chicken and ten square feet of outdoor space.  I like to give my chickens more space than that—right now my flock has about seven square feet of coop space per bird.  Since I’m raising chickens in a part of the country with a long, cold winter when the chickens are stuck indoors for an entire season, more indoor space keeps them happy during their winter confinement.  A crowded flock is a flock subject to bullying, fighting, feather picking, and even cannibalism.  BackYard Chickens and Natural Chicken Keeping both have excellent articles about space in the coop, outdoors, on the roost, and in the nest box.  Once you have determined how much room you have for chickens, it’s an easy thing, based on this information, to figure out how many chickens you can keep.

Aside from fitting chickens into your available physical space, you need to think about fitting chickens into your daily routine.  How much time will chickens take?  If you own a dog consider this:  You don’t have to walk your chickens.  And if you don’t spend a lot of time interacting with your chickens, they won’t feel attention-starved (but of course, you’ll want to spend a lot of time interacting with your chickens!)  Most chicken feeders and water founts hold several days’ supply, so while you’ll be checking them daily, you won’t necessarily be filling them.  You do have to let your chickens out of their coop every morning and shut them up every night.  And you periodically have to clean the coop, but other than that, the main daily task is collecting all those eggs! 

Of course, when a chicken becomes ill your normal routine goes out the window. That would be the case if your dog or any other animal in your care got sick. You can spend most of your day tending to and worrying about your sick bird.  And no animal ever gets sick on schedule.  I’m sure there’s a chicken corollary to Murphy’s Law that says that your chicken will get sick exactly the day of the big meeting at work or the night before your daughter’s wedding.  I wrote a post on that very subject last year.  “Baseball, Sick Chickens and Love” tells the tale of having great seats for a baseball game—right behind home plate!  And then discovering a very sick hen mere hours before I was supposed to leave for the game!  Here’s Deb Neyens of “Counting My Chickens” with a good, comprehensive analysis of how long it takes to do chicken chores in “Caring for Your Suburban Chickens—How Much Time Does It Really Take?”

Jennifer and Angie the White Crested Polish Babies
4 - What kind of chicks should I get?  First-time chicken buyers should get breeds that are easily adaptable to most climates, are good-natured, nonflighty and easy-going, are not likely to go broody, are attractive, and lay lots of pretty eggs.  The chickens that, in my estimation, fit that ticket:  Rhode Island Reds, and Barred Plymouth Rocks.  I love my Reds and Barred Rocks!  I believe in both these breeds and think they should form the core of any backyard flock.  After that, the sky’s the limit.  The cutest chickens in the world that are also sociable and docile?  Silkies, without a doubt!  You want really pretty birds with crazy hairdos?  Get some Polish Hens and you’ll get that plus some amazingly quirky personalities!  You want to go for unusual egg colors?  Get some Aracuna’s, Americaunas, or Easter Eggers to get some blue or green eggs, or some Olive Eggers for olive colored eggs!  Or get some Marans to get some really deep chocolatey brown eggs!  If you would like to see pictures of the various breeds in my flock, there’s a list on the right sidebar that will link to each instance each breed is mentioned.  This article from Organic Life has some good suggestions to consider when you’re thinking about “What’s the Best Chicken For You.”

The chicks I’m bringing home today all fall into the “pretty hens” category:  Golden Laced Wyandottes are large, “statuesque” chickens with rose combs and beautiful gold laced plumage. Speckled Susseses are large, straight-combed chickens with a million different feather colors and patterns, no two alike, and as an added bonus, they get a new feather pattern every time they molt.  Salmon Faverolles are unique with their beards, muffs, and feathered feet, and then just to be even more unique they have an extra toe on each foot!  You can be sure that pictures of the new chicks will be forthcoming soon!

You want to know the birds I would really like to add to my flock?  Ayam Cemanis!  They are the most striking, unusual, and beautiful chickens you could imagine.  Because they produce so much of the black pigment, melanin, their feathers are black, their skin is black, their eyes are black, and their organs, meat and bones are also all black.  A chicken like that would really stand out, don’t you think?  Unfortunately, since they originate in Indonesia, they wouldn’t be a good choice for my Minnesota climate.  And then, each juvenile bird, when they’re available goes for $400 from Greenfire Farms.  If I can’t have Ayam Cemanis, I’m hoping for a nice little Svart Hona (aka Swedish Black Hen), which is much more cold-tolerant, is also supermelanistic, and when available from Greenfire Farms costs a mere $300.  No matter how many chickens you have, there’s always one more out there that would be just the perfect addition to your flock.

Arlene Barred Rock:  All-Around Chicken!

Jennifer the Polish Hen:  Great "Hairdo" and Quirky Personality to Boot!

Snowball the Silkie Rooster:  World's Cutest Chicken!

5 - Where should I get my chicks?  Baby chicks are available locally every spring almost everywhere in the country.  Many stores that sell chicken feed and supplies also carry baby chicks.  Most stores only carry a few breeds, so if you’re looking for specific breeds your best option is to go online to see if there are hatcheries or breeders within a reasonable traveling distance from where you live.  This year’s baby chick trip for me is, as I mentioned before, to Murray McMurray hatchery in Webster City, Iowa. I'm lucky to have this great company a mere three and a half hours from where I live. They've been around for 100 years, have a ton of satisfied customers, cater to people with small flocks and backyard chickens, and have about a bazillion different breeds. This great five-minute video gives a behind-the-scenes look at the Murray McMurray hatchery process.  Most Murray McMurray customers don’t make the drive to Webster City, but get their babies through the mail.  There are many reputable hatcheries who ship chicks through the mail, and it’s a common and time-honored method for distributing baby chicks. 
Baby Rona the Rhode Island Red
Shipping baby chicks through the mail works because they’re baby chicks.  When baby mammals are born they immediately need their mother's milk for nutrition.  That’s not an option for baby birds, nor is it necessary.  While a baby bird is developing inside an egg, the egg yolk provides nutrition.  The baby bird absorbs the last bit of yolk just before it hatches, and that yolk can sustain the baby for several days without any additional nutrition.  So, baby chicks can survive on residual yolk nutrients for up to 72 hours while going through the mail.  My very first batch of baby chicks in 2013 arrived from My Pet Chicken, a respected and popular through-the-mail distributer of chicks.  While most people have had great success in getting chicks through the mail, my first experience was disastrous.  Due to some sort of post office shipping delay, my box of chicks didn’t arrive at my post office until 96 hours after shipping and nine of the sixteen babies died in shipment or shortly thereafter.  My Pet Chicken was in no way responsible for the problem and their staff was kind and sympathetic when I called.  They refunded me for the dead chicks and a prorated shipping charge. They offered to ship more chicks to me.  I declined. I decided right then that in the future I would be the one to transport any chicks that I bought.  And that’s exactly what I’ve done.  Here’s a blog post about my “chicks through the mail” experience.

6 - Where will my chicks live?  In my opinion, the best way to raise baby chicks is with a broody hen.  She will watch over the babies 24/7, something you can’t possibly do.  And she’ll provide the warmth—she literally takes the babies under her wing.  And if you have other chickens, you can incorporate the babies into the flock at a much earlier age because they’ve got a mom to protect them.  Unfortunately, not everybody getting chicks has hens, and not everybody with hens will have a hen that’s conveniently broody right when she’s needed.  Last year my Cream Legbar babies were raised in the loving care of Courtney the Silke hen.  This year I’ve got no broody hen, so it’s back to the ol’ chick nursery, with me for a mom. 

The chicks will start out in a large plastic tub.  Because baby chicks are pooping maniacs, I’ve lined the floor of the tub with paper towels. (Unfortunately, chicks don’t outgrow the pooping thing—it only gets worse!)  The nice thing about paper towels is that as they become soiled you can keep layering more clean towels on the top, then, when the babies graduate from the tub to their next enclosure you can just pick up the entire mass of layered towels and chicken poop and toss it into your compost pile—no muss, no fuss.  Do not use newspapers.  They’re too slippery and can cause the babies to develop splayed leg deformity.  Many people start the babies out with pine shavings for litter and that’s probably just fine.  My worry that the babies would peck at the pine shavings and ingest them is probably just me being overly cautious.  Do not use cedar shavings, though, since the aromatic oils in cedar have been shown to be toxic to baby chicks. 

In lieu of a broody hen to provide warmth, I’m using an "electric brooder hen" this year.  It’s basically an electric heat panel for the babies to crawl under to stay warm. In the past, I've provided heat with electric heat lamps, but I've become convinced that heat lamps are extremely dangerous. There are more accounts of exploding heat lamps and fires than I would even like to think about. If you’re planning on using heat lamps to provide warmth for your chicks, please read this post from the Chicken Chick on the dangers of heat lamps first!

The little heat panels don’t get hot enough to cause a fire and could never explode (for that matter I don't think there's ever been a single incident of a broody hen overheating and exploding into flame). The panel's more natural than a heat lamp since the babies can crawl under it to get warm - much like crawling under a hen's wing. And it draws a mere 20 watts compared to the 250 watts a typical heat lamp draws. But it's still a new device for me and I'm a little nervous about how well it'll work. Stay tuned and we'll all find out together!  Several manufacturers make these baby chick heat panels including Titan, Brinsea, and Sweeter Heater.

The plastic tub that will be the chicks’ first home is sitting in my woodshed.  When you first bring your chicks home they’re so tiny that they can live almost anywhere—your garage, your basement, your three-season porch…the two main criteria are that the space be free of drafts and also protected from predators.  Please remember that your cats and dogs are potential predators! 

After a week to ten days the babies will have outgrown the tub and I’ll move them to an old plastic kiddie pool, again lined with paper towels and located right next to the tub in the woodshed.  Eventually they’ll reach a point where they’ll be hopping right over the sides of the kiddie pool, and that’s when the pool will go away and the babies will get full run of the woodshed.  That’s the point where my babies will graduate from paper towels to pine shavings for litter.  When they’re about six weeks old, I’ll move them to a small coop next to the main coop where the rest of the flock lives.  Then they’ll be able to go outside in their own small chicken run, and visit with the rest of the flock through the fence.  When they’re about four months old, they’ll join the rest of the flock.  There will be a lot of drama at first, while the flock figures out a new pecking order, but that’s a whole different story—one I’m sure I’ll be telling you all about in October!

Courtney the Silkie Boody Hen with One of Her Legbar Babies
This Year's Chick Nursery:  The Plastic Bin
 7 - What should my chicks eat and drink?  Chicks need water and they need it immediately when you bring them home.  Plain old water.  You don’t need to supplement it with sugar, electrolytes, vitamins, or anything else.  As a matter of fact, putting stuff in the water makes it taste funny which may keep them from drinking enough to stay adequately hydrated.  Absolutely every source I’ve ever read says that it’s necessary to “teach” your babies to drink.  I’ve always thought it was strange that any animal wouldn’t have the natural instinct to drink, but I’m not going to be the guy that puts his chicks in danger of dehydration by trying to disprove popular wisdom.  So, I always go through the routine of picking up each chick and dipping its little beak in water.  And they always obligingly respond by tipping their little heads back and swallowing the water.  Once you’ve gone through this little ritual once with each chick, everybody should be good to go, and will have “learned” how to drink.  You can use a plain old saucer for water, but if that’s what you use, you should fill it with marbles or small stones so the water is only a fraction of an inch deep.  Chicks really can drown in their own water dish!  And of course, the chicks will nonchalantly poop in their water, walk through it, and generally do every possible thing to muck it up.  A better way to provide water to your babies is to spend a few bucks on a baby chick sized water fount, which you will find anywhere that baby chick supplies are sold.  They’ll poop and walk in the water fount as well, but not as often since it provides a smaller target.  The best option of all is a nipple drinker.  Nipple drinkers are also available at all chicken supply stores, or you can buy the nipples from Farmtek and make your own!  As the chicks grow, you can put their water container on a brick to increase the height until they graduate to an adult sized water container.

Before I talk about food, I’m going to take a short detour to talk about coccidiosis for reasons that will soon become clear.  Coccidiosis is a disease that occurs in a variety of animals and is caused by coccidia, which, if you are a microbiologist, are parasitic protozoans, and if you’re not a microbiologist are nasty little bugs.  These nasty little bugs hang out in the soil, are picked by a chicken pecking in the dirt and eventually set up camp in the chicken’s intestinal lining.  Every chicken will eventually come in contact coccidia and after an initial bout of illness, will form immunity.  Since baby chicks have no immunity, when they come in contact with this nasty little bug they can become severely sick and perhaps even die.  There are two different approaches to protect chicks from coccidiosis.  One way is to vaccinate them with a live attenuated strain of coccidia—they’re exposed to a living but weakened strain of coccidia that won’t make them sick but will kick start their bodies into forming immunity.  The other way is to give your chicks medicated feed.  The FDA approved medicine in the chick feed is called amprolium.  It’s not an antibiotic.  It works by limiting the ability of the coccidia to uptake thiamine, which is necessary for them to thrive and reproduce.  It actually kills some of the coccidia and makes the rest of them really unhappy.  Because some of them remain in the chicks’ system in a weakened state, it allows the chick to develop natural immunity.  You need to choose one of these approaches to protect your baby chicks against coccidiosis.  I bring this up in the context of chick food for this reason:  You should never choose both approaches.  If your chicks have been vaccinated, do not feed medicated feed.  The amprolium in the feed will kill the live attenuated organisms from the vaccine and render the vaccine useless!

So back to feed!  There are a whole slew of companies making commercial feed formulated for baby chicks.  There is medicated and nonmedicated feed.  There is organic and nonorganic feed.  All of it comes in bags with cute pictures of baby chicks on the outside.  Buy some!  Feed it to your babies and continue to feed it to them until they are almost of an age to start laying eggs and at that point switch them to an adult formula.  You want to mix up your own feed?  Be my guest.  But make sure you know what you’re doing and you understand your chicks’ nutritional requirements, otherwise you’re doing your babies a disservice. 

I put the feed in chick-sized feeders, which are available at any store that sells chick feed.  At first, I also sprinkle some on the floor.  The babies, using their natural hunt and peck instincts, will find this feed before they discover the feeders.  And since I use paper towels rather than wood shavings on the floor it’s really easy for them to see.  You can also give them a few treats.  They love them a lot and it is also very entertaining for you!  But keep those treats to a minimum.  It’s important for them to get the balanced nutrition that their regular food provides.  And that’s all you have to know about chick feed!  Easy!

Baby Chick Drinking From Chick-Sized Water Fount
8 - How do I care for my baby chicks?  If you’ve got food, water, and a place for them to live, you’ve got the basics covered!  You obviously should get all of this set up before you get your chicks.  If you’re using a chick heater, turn it on before you leave to get your chicks so it will be warm when the chicks arrive home.  Plan on spending lots of time with your chicks the first couple of days—they need your attention so you know they’re eating and drinking and finding their way to the warmth of the heater.  Keep a vigilant eye and make sure they’re thriving!  One thing to look for is pasty butt.  That’s the descriptive name for a situation that can occur in the first couple weeks of a chick’s life where poop sticks to the down around the baby’s vent and eventually forms a plug.  If you don’t remove that plug the chick can die.  To treat it, you simply need to clean the chick up using a rag soaked in warm water, then dry with a dry rag.

Don’t plan any major trips the first month your babies are home—they’re babies, after all, and they need you!  Spend time with your chicks.  This won’t be hard to do.  They are cute, playful, and so fun to watch!  Also, if you don’t use a broody hen, they are all imprinting on you.  You are their mom!  Beyond that the only other instruction I can suggest is the advice a friend used to give me about child rearing, which, I think, applies equally well to chicks.  “You don’t really need a PhD to raise them.  Just love them a lot and do your best!”

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