Research, Plan, and Prepare
Raising chicks can be easy if you just do your homework before you buy. Knowing when to plan for your chick’s arrival is also something to take into consideration. Of course it makes good sense to have your coop set up and supplies ahead of time. But it would also be helpful to be informed of what’s new in today’s chicken keeping market. For example, the use of radiant heat instead of heat lamps, or all the new ideas for drinkers and feeders that are designed to save you time and money.
Before you bring home chicks you’ll need a brooder to raise them in for the next 5-7 weeks. Need help choosing the best type? No problem, here’s a ton of ideas, Brooder Box Ideas. While your chicks are in the brooder, you’ll have plenty of time to get their coop ready. Whether a DIY project or not, every coop size and style imaginal can be found HERE.
Research, have a plan, be prepared, and know what to expect, these four things will help ease your commitment so there’s more time to enjoy your birds.
It’ll be helpful to have some understanding of Basic Chicken Terminology, this reference article will help you through the maze of chicken lingo. Spring is on the way, so let’s get get started!
Caring for Chicks
The enclosure that will house your chicks for the next 5-7 weeks is called a brooder. It can be anything from a cardboard box to something more extravagant as shown in the pics below. It doesn’t need to be fancy, but it definitely needs to be convenient for you to manage, and be comfortable for your chicks. See more brooder pics.
The First Two Weeks
If you are raising bantams, day old, or mail order chicks who may be weak from their long journey, line the brooder box with paper towels for the first week. Use a drinker & feeder designed specifically for chicks and place it directly on the paper towels. Your chick’s feed is readily available at all feed stores, ask for chick starter. The bag will say chick starter, or chick starter/grower, they’re one and the same. You have one other feed detail to decide upon, medicated or non-medicated. Personally, if my chicks are mail order, I feed medicated for the first week, if bought from a feed store, I feed non-medicated.
Sometimes, baby chicks act lethargic or weak from either a long trip or other stressful conditions. In this case, you may want to give them a little electrolyte boost for two or three days. Simply add Sav-a-chick electrolytes and vitamin supplement to their water source. It’s available anywhere chicks are sold, also on Amazon.
If you bought your chicks from a feed store, they’re probably a few days to a week old, and most likely accustomed to pine shavings for their bedding. It’s okay to continue using pine shavings at this point. This will help keep the brooder smelling fresh, changing it every day is good practice.
Your chicks will need enough space to move freely, and after the second week will need the box covered with chicken wire.
One half of the brooder shouldn’t have a heat source at all. The other, preferably radiant heat from a Brinsea Brooder or equivalent, which will be further explained later in this article.
Watch for poopy or pasty butts! This is a common problem usually bought on by stress, or uncomfortable living conditions during the first two weeks. Using a wet paper towel, or baby wipes, clean those fuzzy butts, because this condition hinders fecal elimination… which is often fatal.
As your chicks become more active, keeping the food & drink sources clean is challenging, so here’s a few tips. Raise the drinker to the height of the smallest chick’s back, this will minimize the litter from landing in their water. Use bricks, 2×4 pieces, flower pot saucers, even a bowl upside down will do the trick.
Tip: Set their feeder in something that will catch the feed they scratch out, this will substantially minimize feed waste. Be creative, use a flower pot saucer, a pie tin, etc.
Temperature Control in the Brooder | Radiant Heat vs Heat Lamps
Keeping the temperature right can be a chore, especially if you depend on a heat lamp. You’ll spend a good deal of time raising and lowering it during the day as temperatures change, which is exactly why I rarely use them. I never raise chicks indoors, they’re always kept in a shed or garage during a time when overnight temperatures seldom drop below 55-60. Heat lamps have their place, but I only use them if a cold spell occurs before my chicks reach a month old. My primary heat source is radiant heat. It doesn’t heat up the brooder, it only provides warmth when the chicks settle underneath it. Your chicks will be happiest if they can actually touch the surface, so keep the unit nice and low, you can easily raise it as they grow. Radiant heat is certainly more natural, chicks have been settling under their mothers in cool climates to keep warm since somewhere around 6000BC!
Radiant heat is a sufficient heat source for chicks if the ambient temperature is at least 55 degrees. Again, this is why seasonal planning for your chick arrival is important.
Keep a thermometer inside the box to monitor the temperature, but watching the chicks behavior is the best indication of their comfort. Rule of thumb: If they’re huddled together, they’re cold. If some are eating or drinking, others sleeping, and the rest under radiant heat, you have happy chicks. There’s no worry about your chicks finding the radiant heat, place them under it when you bring them home and they will return to their comfort zone all on their own.
Note: Important Fact about Radiant Heat: The thermometer in the brooder should read at least 55 degrees. You won’t feel heat when placing your hand under the radiant heat unit unless you touch the plate. Remember, radiant heat doesn’t heat the brooder at all, only the chicks when they are under it… so try not to stress over what seems cold to you.
What if There’s a Cold Spell?
If it’s necessary to use a heat lamp on a chilly night, avoid placing it directly over the chicks when radiant heat is available to them. A heat lamp near the coop to keep the ambient temp around 55 degrees works well.
Note: Heat lamps for chicks in feed stores are almost always only available in 250 watts. That is a lot of heat! You already have a heat source, so there’s no need to blast them with 250 watt heat lamp. There’s an easy fix to that, 50, 75, and 100 watt heat bulbs are easily found on Amazon, choose a wattage that will keep the ambient temp at or around 55 degrees. You can often find lower wattage heat bulbs at pet stores in reptile supplies.
Always use a red bulb, the light from the clear bulb are too bright and the chicks may become agitated, which inevitably leads to the unwanted problem of chicks pecking each other.
Keeping Chicks Indoors?
There is no need for a heat lamp at all if you use radiant heat. They will be much happier with natural lighting and far less likely to have pasty butts, which often is the culprit of chick fatality. But, there are drawbacks to raising chicks indoors, I wont tell you not to, but here’s three reasons why I don’t.
First, when chicks are ready to be moved to the coop they’ll need to acclimate to harsher weather conditions and fluctuating temperatures. Second, by the time they are three weeks old, well… they’ll stink, to put it bluntly. Trust me, You’ll be cleaning their brooder box constantly and wishing they were anywhere but your living space. They will also be very active in what has probably become very cramped quarters at about three weeks old. And Third, chicks mature slower.
The rule of thumb is keep chicks in a controlled temperature until they are fully feathered, which is about 6-7 weeks. Chicks raised in cooler temperatures with a moderate heat source are often fully feathered by 5 weeks.
To sum it all up… plan to buy chicks when they’ll be comfortable in a garage or outdoor shed using primarily radiant heat. This will depend on where you live, for most folks it’s springtime. Others, like the lower desert southwest, mid February and late fall is ideal.
Three to Six Weeks
Three weeks is a good time to introduce a perch for your chicks. A tree branch or one inch dowel rod will be sufficient. They’ll be reluctant to explore this strange new object, but in a day or two their curiosity will definitely get the best of them. Learning to perch now aids in their transition to roost as adults. Why is this important? It’s good practice to keep nest boxes clean for obvious reasons… and hens sleeping where they lay is anything but. In every coop a roosting bar should be provided, it is instinctual for birds to roost elevated, so this won’t be a difficult task to accomplish. There are however exceptions to the rule of roosting. Silkie Bantams are often reluctant to venture any higher than 3 feet… if at all.
Three weeks is also the perfect time to introduce a little grass for them to enjoy, but there are three rules. 1. No long pieces, 2. not to much, and 3, have grit available in the brooder to help them digest this strange new food. Grass is a good distraction to an array of possible problems in the brooder as well, such as pecking each other, or bullying. It keeps them busy! Just keep in mind, problems always occur for a reason. Most commonly, overcrowding, bright lights, or undesirable temperatures.
Moving Day, Brooder to Coop
When your chicks are fully feathered (5-7 weeks) they are ready to leave the brooder and be moved to the coop. It should be well ventilated, be spacious enough to include a roost bar, have shelter from wind, rain, inclement weather, and protection from the sun. Provide at least one nest box for every two birds. Two square feet of ground space per bird would be adequate, but the more space you give your flock the better. Crowding is the perfect recipe for bullying when establishing early and continual pecking orders.
Feed and water should be elevated to the height of the smallest bird’s back, this will help keep their food and water clean. You can either hang them, or simply find something stationary such as bricks, or a cinder block.
Note: Some chicken keepers prefer to move their chicks to a grow-out pen before the coop. This is just a smaller coop where they’re housed until bigger. Grow-out pens are especially important if you have an existing flock, where a whole new set of rules applies for introductions.
Diet / The First Egg
At point of lay, (5-6 months) your birds are ready for a change in their diet. This is the perfect time to switch from chick starter/grower, to layer pellets. You can expect the first egg from your pullets anytime now.
Don’t Forget to Protect your Flock from Predators!
Don’t think for a minute that your flock is immune to a predator attack. There’s no place on the planet where chickens are safe from predators…. not even in your suburban backyard. And guess what, not in your coop either, unless you’ve made every effort to predator proof every nook and cranny. That means, no animal will be able to dig under the coop, or get in over the top. It means there are no gaps around doors and windows, and the coop door has a secure latch to keep them safe at night.
This past year has been our worst ever for predator attacks. For twelve years, not a one, now, in 2016 we’ve had five. Three were by coyotes, one by a hawk, and yesterday, a bobcat. When the first attacks happened in February, we predator proofed all our coops better over a few months.
We are finally done and everybody is safe. Then, yesterday I thought it would be nice to let the flock out for 20 minutes while I cleaned the coop.
They stayed close, no more than 20 feet away from where I was working. Sounds safe enough right? NO. Hard to even believe this, but, a bobcat jumped up from behind our 7ft block wall and snatched Peaches, my best mamma Silkie hen and took off with her. Seriously, what are the chances of that happening? I’m devastated.
So much for trying to be kind to my girls with a little free roam time. I never in a million years thought a bobcat or any other predator would attack with me out there, I was dead wrong. And… if you think because you’re in the city your chickens are safe, they’re not. Our little farm is located in the middle of the city, with mega traffic and high density housing all around us. There is however, 700 acres of state leased mountain range right behind our property. Nevertheless, you’d think a busy neighborhood with a maze of block wall fencing would keep predators within their natural boundaries, or at least somewhat discourage them. Wrong, trust me, there are no boundaries.
Although I’m embarrassed to admit I allowed my flock to fall victim to a predator when I should have known better, I’m warning you now to never assume your birds are safe. Beware, chickens are NOT safe unless they are in a predator safe enclosure at all times… even in the city, and even if you’re right with them.
Below are pics of the predators spotted on our urban farm in the last year. A dangerous mix that most people probably assume are unlikely to be within the city limits. Guess what… wherever you live, they’re prowling in your backyard as well. Keep your chickens protected, and remember, some predators will also go after a small dog. Today we bought a large 10x10x6ft high covered dog pen so our little dogs are safe when they go outside. All this pretty acreage, and sadly they aren’t safe to run free and enjoy it anymore.
These predators have all visited our little urban farm at one time or another in 2016.
Six Common Predators and the Clues Left Behind After an Attack
Coyotes will either tunnel or muscle their way into a coop. They’re smart, staking out the premises first to learn when the ideal time is to attack. A coyote is most likely to be seen at dawn and dusk, however, broad daylight attacks are not unheard of. Keep in mind coyotes are very active at night, and they can easily scale a 6 foot fence. When a coyote gains access to a chicken coop they’re known to kill all the birds, then taking a couple with them.
Signs a Coyote Leaves Behind After an Attack
• Birds missing
• Necks broken
• Feathers scattered everywhere in coop
Clever as a fox, a saying we’ve all heard, and it couldn’t be more true. They climb better than you could ever imagine and can dig their way into a coop with ease. Fox are smart and patient, they will watch your coop for weeks before they attack.
Every bird the fox can grab in the coop will be killed, often the entire flock will be completely wiped out.
They’ll take as many birds from coop they can with them.
Signs a Fox Leaves Behind After an Attack
• Many birds missing
• Feathers sprawled in the coop AND away from the coop
• Broken necks
These smart egg stealing masked burglars leave significant evidence of their presence. A raccoon rips open the crop and sometimes the breast to feast. You’ll find all the chickens still in the coop as a rule because coons have difficulty carrying them off.
One of the raccoon’s most distinctive features are their extremely dexterous front paws, in other words, they’re extremely talented at opening door latches!
Signs a Raccoon Leaves Behind After an Attack
• Rips open the crop and sometimes the breast.
• Dead chickens will most likely be left in the coop.
This little critter is after your chicks and eggs. That’s his primary agenda, but it may go after a small adult chicken at times. The opossum gains access usually through a small opening in the coop.
Signs an Opossum Leaves Behind After an Attack
• Doesn’t take birds from the coop.
• Tears open the abdomen.
Interesting Fact: The opossum is a Marsupial. The adult females have a marsupium, or pouch where they keep their young while they grow up. Cool!
These predators usually attack when chickens are free roaming during the day. Hawks, like the fox and coyote are well prepared for their attack by staking out the premises beforehand.
There’s no mistaking the evidence of a chicken attacked by a hawk, the signs are quite different from all other predators. Sharp talons and beaks are extremely effective in killing or injuring multiple birds.
Signs the Hawk Leaves Behind After an Attack
• Some birds will be missing.
• Some injured birds will appear to be cut up.
• Injuries look as though chickens were stabbed with a knife.
Owls attack similar to the Hawk. They also stake out the potential of meal by watching the chickens for a spell before they attack.
Hawk or Owl? It’s not entirely impossible to tell the difference between a hawk and owl attack. Raptors usually poop when they kill, fortunately the poop of an owl and hawk are slightly different. You’ll find their poop near the feathers of the victim.
Owl: White streak with clumps
Hawk: Just a white streak
Signs an Owl Leaves Behind After an Attack
• Neck and head eaten.
• Deep knife looking cuts on the abdomen.