How to Care for Chicks
Your Chicks' First Few Weeks
Chick Shelter Site Selection
An important requirement for chicks is they be kept in a place where you can tightly control the temperature to the required degrees and keep them free from drafts. A hard surface floor should be used to ease inevitable clean-up from dust.
1. Housing and bedding: Although baby chicks can be kept in almost anything until they can fly, the recommendation is a fairly large water trough. You'll want a trough that you can easily clean, is durable and won't melt (meaning your plastic filing box from the local discount store is not likely the best choice).
Be sure to keep it out of drafts, but where the birds have plenty of ventilation. With even a few birds, a large troughs allow the birds to move towards and away from the heat as they need. If the birds can't escape the heat from a heat lamp they can either die from over-heating, drown in their waterer in an attempt to find a cooler location or get crushed by the other chicks in their attempt to get away from the heat.
For the size, allow 1/2 square feet for standard breeds at that start. Bantams can work with slightly less than that as they mature faster and likely will need to be moved out to the coop at about 3 weeks of age versus the typical 4 weeks for standard sized breeds. After four weeks, expand their brookder to provide them with a 3/4 square foot per bird. This will reduce canniablism, provide an area for them to exercise and reduce the chance of disease and stress.
After 4 weeks you may install roosts in the brooder. Allow four inches per bird with roost poles 6 inches apart.
Bedding such as mini-flake shavings that are untreated must be provided for your chicks. Bedding should be at least 2 to 4 inches in depth. Keep your bedding dry and change as necessary to provide the chicks with a clean growing environment.
2. Heat lamp. Baby birds are cold blooded and can't keep themselves warm. Over the first few weeks of their lives, the birds become warm blooded and can regulate their body temperature. Make sure the heat lamp well secured over the housing so it doesn't fall in with the birds. Hang you light 18 to 24 inches off the ground in the center of your brooking area. You don't necessarily need a heat lamp bulb in the lamp, but the key is the temperature that the brooder needs to be kept at. A regular high wattage bulb will work fine if it can reach the correct temperatures. Usually a 250 Watt heat lamp per 25 birds is required to start with.
In their first week, chicks need to be kept at 95 degrees and the temperature will be decreased by 5 degrees per week. Be sure to check on the chicks frequently as bulbs do burn out. They also require a cooling area of the brooder, no less than 70 degrees. For more on temperature, please see below.
As your chicks grow, decrease your temperature by 5 degrees per week until your whole brooding area is 70 degrees and needs no more heat.
3. Thermometer: It's not worth guessing. Keep the thermometer in the brooder and check the termperature at the bird level as this will tell you if you need to provide more heat or raise your heat source to lower your temperature. Observing the chicks behavior will tell you if they are comfortable, but it's good to know the exact numbers and if adjustments are required.
4. Waterer: Chicks must have access to fresh water at all times and chicks must be provided with feed and water as soon as you receive them. A small plastic one with some marbles in it works well to avoid drowning. Putting in a larger waterer is okay, but take care that small chicks can't fall asleep in the water and drown. Provide a one quart feeder and waterer for every 5 to 7 chicks.
As with the adult flock, water should be changed on a daily basis. When you first receive your chicks, dip each chick's beak into the water briefly to ensure the chick knows where the water is and to trigger the instinct to drink. Left alone, the chicks will dehydrate and die in about 24 hours without water or without the knowledge of how to drink water even though you have provided it to them. Keep feeders and waters close to the heat source. Chicks will not stray from the heat to eat and drink.
Nipple type water drinkers or pop bottle water fountains are recommended because they reduce the spread of disease. Birds should not be allowed access to surface water that could potentially be infected with deseases from wild birds.
5. Food dishes/feeders: Some stores will sell you small tin dishes with covers so only the smaller birds heads' will fit. However, ambitious larger birds have been found with their heads stuck in the covers, so until the chicks no longer need chick feed, the recommendation is to keep them separated from the larger birds. Place feeders so they are raised off the ground in order to reduce the spread of disease.
The birds are inevitably going to get excrement into their food. The special function dishes will help some. A small dog dish or bowl will also work. Yes, the birds will make a mess in it and throw it out, so you'll need to keep on top of the food and cleaning situation an make sure everything is cleaned thoroughly daily. Never let your birds run out of food or water. In limited quantites, green grass and vegetable trimmings can be given at any time.
6. Flooring - pine shavings are the easiest to use and most absorbent. You can also use earth or very fine gravel that you can wash. However, you'll want something that the birds don't slip on and can be easily cleaned. Sheets of newspaper are not recommended as the birds can injure their feet and legs. Cedar shavings are not recommended because of the additives. Do not use hardwood shavings.
Chick care and behavior
1. Temperature requirements: in their first week, chicks should be kept at least at 95 degrees and the heat can be decreased approximately 5 degrees per week.
However, if you are raising your own birds from eggs either via an incubator or with a broody hen, they will not typically all conveniently hatch in the same day, week, or even month unless you are manipulating the cycles, so it's best to stay with the 95 degrees, but allow a large enough space that the birds can move closer to the light or away from the light as their personal needs dictate. Newly hatched chicks will find their perfect temperature in the brooder through this ability to move way or closer to the heat source. Again, this is why you'll want to have a fairly large nursery.
Pay attention to how the chicks behave. If they're all crowded together directly under the heat source, they're cold. Huddling can cause smothering or suffocation. Lower the heat lamp or add another one. If they're around the edges of the brooder, avoiding the heat and each other, they are too hot. Raise the heat lamp. If they are huddled in a corner, you may have a draft. When comfortable they will move about in all areas of the brooder. Check your chicks regularly to be sure they are comfortable. Raise the height of the light as the chicks grow, because their need for artificial heat will diminish as they grow feathers.
2. Water: remember the chicks must always have access to fresh water. Always make sure the waterers are clean and full, this can't be stated strongly enough. Birds can't store much water in their bodies, so don't put off cleaning and refilling waterers till later when they may run out. Check water levels daily to make sure your chicks are consuming enough. Dehydrated chicks will be disoriented and listless. If for some reason your birds do run out of water, immediately dip the birds' beaks in water and help them drink a few drops. Then let them rest for a couple of minutes and then try again. If the birds can be saved, they will try to drink when you assist them.
3. Food: chick "Starter feed" is recommended. Feed suppliers have formulated special feed complete with everything baby chicks need and comes in either crumbles or mash.
If you've had your chicks vaccinated, they need unmedicated feed, if not, use the medicated. Be aware that some medicated feed can inhibit the digestion of thiamine and vitamin B, so you may want to consider a vitamin supplement. A layer breed of chick matures between 4 and 6 months old and will eat about 2 pounds of starter feed in its first 6 weeks of life. Feed the starter until they are 16 weeks old and then switch to a layer feed of your choice.
Do not allow your chicks to have access to any other birds, wild or domestic. If you do lose a chick, properly dispose of the dead birds placing them in a sealed plastic sack and put them in the trash. Incineration is also acceptable, but beyond the capabilities of many backyard flock owners. Burial is also acceptable, but I have had too many times where dead animals have been dug up by other animals and consumed by either them directly or other scavengers such as vultures, so I personally do not recommend burial.