When faced with a box of 25, 5, or 50 tiny, fluffy peeping chicks, you might feel a wee bit overwhelmed. But don't fret! Get them off on the right foot with this handy guide for handling your new baby chicks from day one.
Before They Arrive
Find out when they will arrive at post office. Be ready to pick them up as soon as your post office opens - 7:30 am, usually. Be prepared that some may die in shipping - if you're doing this with kids, opening the box together might not make sense if they will be traumatized by a couple of dead baby chicks. Usually, hatcheries send a few extras to compensate for this, but if you have more than one or two DOA, contact the hatchery.
Set Everything Up
Make sure you have your brooder set up before you bring your chicks home. Scatter the bedding into the brooder, hang the lamp (an adjustable height cord is helpful) and set up the thermometer. You want the bedding under the heat lamp to read 95 degrees F. Fill the waterers and feeders and set them so that they are not entirely under the lamp nor entirely at the edges, but where the chicks can eat comfortably and not get either chilled or overheated.
As Soon As They Get Home
When your chicks first arrive home, whether from the feed store or via the shipping process from a far-away hatchery, they are probably a bit stressed. Gently remove them from the box and dip their beaks in water as you set them into the brooder. Let them acclimate to their new home.
Watch your chicks to see if they are comfortable. Temperature is critical in the first few days and weeks. Think of the heat lamp as their replacement mother, because that's essentially what it is. Without the heat lamp they will die quickly. If the chicks huddle under the lamp, they may be too cold, so lower the lamp. If they scatter to the edges, they may be too hot, so you'll need to raise the lamp. Throughout the first week or so you'll need to keep a close eye on this.
"Pasting up" is a condition where feces builds up on the chicks' vents, blocking exit of more feces. This can kill young chicks. Causes include stress from shipping and getting chilled. Check your birds' rear ends every day for pasting up and use a warm wet cloth to remove the feces. If really bad, you might need to cut the downy feathers around the vent off with scissors.
If you have children, be careful of overhandling. If chicks are pasting up, make the kids leave them alone until the problem is gone. Pasting up chicks are stressed chicks. Curious dogs are also a risk to baby chicks. Put a screen door or other cover over the brooder to keep the chicks safe.
They will get their waterers and feeders filthy with bedding. Clean it up as much as you can. You don't want them ingesting large quantities of bedding. Change their bedding about once a week.
Each week, lower the temperature by 5 degrees until the temperature reaches outdoor temperatures. So for the first week, keep them at 95 degrees F. The second week: 90 degrees F. Third week: 85 degrees F. Adjust this as necessary so that they are comfortable - not huddling under the lamp (too cold) or scattering to the edges (too hot).
Starting at around 2-3 weeks of age, if the temperatures are warm (over 65 degrees F), you can bring them outside for short periods of sun and foraging. Make sure to add grit to their feed if they will be eating anything other than chicken feed. Grit is small stones that chickens keep in their crop to help them grind up bugs, grass and other food.
Moving the Chicks to the Coop
By 4-5 weeks of age the chicks are ready to move to their main coop full-time, or if the brooder is in the main coop, for the heat lamp and brooder to be removed. When you move them, keep them closed in the coop for a day or two (rather than letting them free-range) so that they learn that the coop is "home." Once there, follow basic chicken care to keep them growing strong! They will start laying eggs at around four to six months of age.