It’s 7:15 in the morning. You are checking email and drinking coffee in your robe and slippers when the phone rings. It is the US Postal Service telling you that they have a box of baby chicks for you.
Whether you were expecting them or not, they’re here and you need to go get them. The post office is a cold and scary place for a box of baby chicks. I recommend taking a pair of scissors, some tape, and a camera with you to the post office. I always open the box of live birds with the postal person witnessing. Many shipping containers for live birds use zip ties, so I have scissors in my purse to cut them or any tape keeping the box closed. I carry extra tape with me to secure the box again for the ride home. When opening a box of live birds, do so just enough to determine if they are all alive. You don’t want chicks escaping loose and running through the post office. Some of the containers actually have a window covered by cardboard that opens for viewing. These are often just for larger birds.
The post office does not guarantee live bird shipments. They do not even honor the $100.00 insurance that comes with Express shipping. They do not guarantee overnight delivery either, and in fact, will only reimburse shipping charges if they go one day over the 2 days allowed for delivery. Then all they do is reimburse the shipper for the shipping charges.
The reason for opening the box with a postal service employee present is to have proof for the seller if there are problems. Sometimes, but not always, the seller will reimburse the cost of the birds or replace birds that do not survive shipping. Be sure to ask your seller the policy for live shipments and get it in writing if the birds are expensive. Many rare breeds cost several hundred dollars and you will want to know what to do if they do not arrive alive. Many times a seller will include extra chicks for warmth and they will only reimburse for losses over and above the number of extras. Often the large hatcheries will put extra cockerels in the box for warmth and these should not be considered when compensating for losses.
So verify that your birds are alive in front of a witness. Ask them to sign a short note attesting to the fact that some or all arrived dead. Take pictures in case the seller requires additional proof. We like to think that everyone is honest but, anyone who has been in the chicken business long enough knows that isn’t the case. It’s nothing personal, they just need to be sure. Notify the seller as soon as possible if there are losses. Include the name of the postal employee you spoke with and offer to email the pictures. Many shippers put time limits on refunds so act quickly.
Then head home. Don’t stop to get your nails done or pick up a few items at the market. I will admit that most, if not all, of the chicks I have picked up at the post office have been through the Starbucks drive-thru however.
Day old chicks can live up to 3 days on the yolk sac after hatch. Past that point they require water and food to survive. When opening your box of chicks, don’t be surprised to find a pile of green goo in the box. This is a good thing.
That green goo is probably a product called GroGel. It is a powder that turns into a thick gel when water is added. It provides chicks being shipped with nutrients and fluids on their journey. Regulations prohibit water in the shipping box and GroGel is a good option. I routinely offer GroGel to baby chicks the night before shipping so they know what it is and will eat it while in transit. The following video shows you how Grogel goes from a powder to a gel in less than a couple of minutes.
Once you get home, hopefully you have everything ready for your baby chicks. Here’s what they are going to need from you now.
HOUSING: You will need a brooder for your baby chicks. This can range from a simple cardboard box to a Taj Mahal brooder. Many people use plastic storage bins and these work just fine. The most important thing to remember about your brooder is that the flooring cannot be slippery. This means no plastic, no newspaper, no cardboard type surfaces. Baby chicks are very prone to leg problems in the first days and weeks of life and stable footing is paramount in preventing the types of injuries that cannot be treated. For the first two days I use paper towels on the brooder floor. It is safe for them to walk on and absorbent. After two days I replace the paper towels with vinyl shelf liner. It gives them good traction for running, is fairly inexpensive and you can cut it to fit your brooder.
You will find yourself changing the brooder liner many times in the first few days. When the chicks are five to six days old I move them to my larger brooder. I cover the floor with puppy pads which are readily available in pet stores. You can probably find them cheaper elsewhere. Over the puppy pads I place a 2″ thick layer of pine shavings. Use only pine shavings, preferably the triple screened types. Never use cedar shavings, shredded paper, corn cob, or many of the other bedding materials available at the pet store. They may be toxic for chicks to breathe. They may taste good so they chicks eat them. They may mold as they degrade. Stick with what’s tried and true. I have tried everything and finally decided to stick with what works. Don’t be in a rush to put your babies on shavings though until they have been eating for a few days and know the difference between food and shavings.
My brooder is a large reptile cage I found on Craigslist. It is wired for both a heat lamp and a fluorescent light. It has sliding glass doors on the front and plenty of ventilation. I have used this brooder successfully for many years. here is a picture with one of the glass doors replaced with a wire door I made. Depending on the season the interior gets too hot. I no longer brood chicks in my office after the first couple of days. I have a little brooder I use and after that they go into the garage. It is just too stinky and dusty. You can also see a rabbit waterer in this picture. I no longer use those. You can also see the digital thermometer attached with velcro to the outside with the probe on the inside. The interior walls are melamine and clean up easily. This brooder was a lucky find for me and I just love it!
HEAT: Baby chicks need to be at the correct temperature or they can get sick and die. You can accomplish this by the use of a heat lamp. That being said, using a heat lamp carries with it the risk of fire. You can NEVER be too careful when using a heat lamp. Accidents can and will happen. I have heard of horror stories happening when pets and kids have accidentally knocked over the heat lamp. The clamps that come with heat lamps are in no way sufficient to prevent accidents. You need to use zip ties, clips, whatever it takes to keep the heat lamp from being displaced. Chicks get rowdy as they grow and they too can cause a heat lamp fire. Imagine my horror when finding this chick swinging on the heat lamp cord in the brooder! Bottom line, make it as secure as you possibly can, then make it more secure!
The temperature should be 90 to 95 degrees for the first week. Reduce the temperature five degrees per week until you get to 70 degrees. You can accomplish this by raising the height of the heat lamp or by using one of the heat lamp units with a dimmer switch (my personal favorite). They shouldn’t need any heat after 70 degrees. I use a thermometer with a probe to check the temperature at the chick’s level. Another important point about heat is to not try to heat the entire brooder. Some chicks may like it cooler than others. If you find your chicks all huddled directly under the heat source it is probably too cold in the brooder. Ideally they should sleep around the perimeter of the heat source and you will often find them arranged in a circle around the outer edge of the red glow from the heat lamp. Those are happy chicks! Provide areas of the brooder for chicks to get away from the heat entirely. I like to keep the heat at one end of the brooder and the food and water at the other end after the chicks are about a week old. Another alternative available now is a contact brooder called the EcoGlow made by Brinsea. It eliminates the need for heat lamps altogether. They make a version for 20 chicks and one for 50 chicks. Google Brinsea EcoGlow and you will be taken to the website.
SECURITY: After a few days it is imperative that the brooder be covered. Hardware cloth, readily available at home improvement stores works just fine. Cut a piece about three inches bigger all the way around the top of the brooder and place it on top. Use something heavy to weigh the covering down. Baby chicks often have the desire to explore the world beyond their brooder before they are ready. Like these guys when I accidentally left the sliding door open. Recently I complained to my husband about a small brown mouse I had seen skittering around in our garage. To my horror, I found out a few days later that it was a chick that had escaped the brooder and was living on feed spilled in the floor, water from where our garage floods, and the heat behind the freezer! I probably need new glasses.
WATER: As soon as your chicks are settled in the brooder, whether shipped or hatched at home, they should have access to water. There are many options available for chick waterers but care must be taken to prevent drowning. It sounds silly but baby chicks can and will drown in a half inch of water.
I use this chick waterer which is designed to be drown proof by only allowing a low water level and not allowing chicks to get in it to drown. An alternative can be made by using any shallow dish and just filling to about a half inch.Another good method for preventing drowning in a dish waterer is to place small rocks or pebbles in the water so the chicks can drink around them. If you can get some red rocks from the aquarium department at the pet store they work well. Chicks are attracted to the color red. When you first offer water to your chicks it helps to dip their beaks in the water a couple of times. Make sure you just dip the tip of the beak and not the nostrils or you risk drowning them as well. As soon as one or two chicks start drinking they usually all have to try it. It will take perseverance to keep the water clean and free of shaving. They need clean water to be healthy so check it several times a day to make sure it isn’t empty or messy.
Another option is the use of nipple waterers which work really well in the brooder and stay clean. I found that most of them eventually leak and can run dry easily if you aren’t vigilant. Many folks add stuff like sugar, apple cider vinegar, vitamins, or electrolytes to the water for the first few days. I don’t, subscribing to the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” philosophy. Those things can be valuable in certain circumstances but for healthy chicks I just give clean water. Here they are lined up for a turn at the nipple waterer.
FOOD: By a day or two of age chicks are ready to eat. You have probably already observed them checking out poop and other little things in the brooder. For chicks from 1 day to 6 weeks you need to feed a starter feed. I use crumbles for my chicks. Some feeds are medicated with Amprulium for coccidiosis. Coccidiosis is a disease that can kill chicks that have not built up a resistance to it. It is picked up by chicks as they come in contact with the droppings from other birds, including wild birds. I give them medicated feed which controls the coccidiosis while allowing the birds to build up a resistance.I feed only medicated chick starter until they go outside and for a few weeks thereafter. Never use a feed with antibiotics added. Always have feed available for growing chicks. If you have an emergency and run out of feed, an acceptable substitute for a brief period of time is mashed, hard boiled egg yolk. I occasionally give hard boiled egg yolk as a supplement.
ACCESSORIES: I am referring to extra things that should and shouldn’t be added to the brooder. Even little chicks like to perch so a dowel or some type of branch for roosting is a good idea. I buy the perches sold in the pet store for birds. They have a bolt and nut in one end so you can drill a hole in the brooder and attach it securely to the wall.
If you ever end up with a lone chick you will soon discover they can be a handful. Happy chicks chirp quietly but a single chick will chirp constantly because it is lonely. You have a couple of options First you can usually buy a companion at the feed store unless it’s not chick season. Sometimes you can advertise on Craigslist and ask if anyone will sell you a single chick. Lastly you can just live with it. Try putting a mirror in the brooder. The chick will see it’s reflection and think it has company.
Another trick is to put a feather duster in the brooder. I caution you to be very careful when doing this. Hang the feather duster so the chicks can get under it but not get tangled in it. I woke up one morning the loud, distressed chirping. I found a baby chick had gotten a feather from the duster wrapped around it’s leg. The feather caused the foot to swell and circulation was being cut off. I was able to extricate the foot but I learned a valuable lesson. No matter how much the like snuggling in it, it is not worth the risk.
Don’t put filmsy tubs in the brooder. I came in and found this chick had turned one over and was trapped.
Styrofoam is not a good choice either.This juvenile chick ate right through the bottom of a bowl and got it stuck around his neck. Make sure all containers are heavy enough not to turn over and are non-edible.
PROBLEMS: There are many things that can go wrong when a chick hatches and in the first few weeks and months of life. I will cover as many as I can but please do your own research as well when you identify a problem. I brood chicks in the house for the first couple of days just to look for problems. Every day I check every chick by taking them out of the brooder, checking their bottom, standing them on my desk and observing their walk.
UNABSORBED YOLK: Sometimes when a chick hatches the yolk sac is still attached and the contents have not been absorbed. These chicks should be isolated and kept away from the others until the yolk is absorbed or the sac dries up and falls off. If these chicks are in with the rest of the chicks in the brooder they will pick at the yolk sac and cause damage. You can leave the chick in the incubator longer or isolate it in the brooder by putting it in a small box or partitioning a section of the brooder off for the chick.
CURLED TOES: This can be caused by several things including, riboflavin deficiency, genetics, or low humidity in the incubator. The key to fixing the problem is recognizing it early and treating right away. Add a couple of drops of Poly-Vi-Sol (without iron) to a little water and feeding it to the chick with an eye dropper.A couple of drops in the group waterer will not harm the other chicks.
My method for fixing curled toes is to make boots for the chick. I first cut a thin piece of cardboard (like a cereal box) into a shape somewhat like the chicks foot but not separating for the toes. Take two large bandaids and cut out the same shape as the cardboard leaving the film on. Place the chicks foot down on the cardboard and place the toes in the position they are supposed to be in. You may need a second person. With the foot in place tape the bandaid cut out over the top of the foot, pressing between the toes to keep them straight and flat. Take the other piece of bandaid and so the same on the bottom side of the cardboard. Trim any excess being very careful not to cut the toes. Your baby now has boots. If both feet are affected make two boots.
Remove the boots carefully after 24 hours. If the toes are normal leave the boot off. If not, apply new boots and check again in 24 hours. The bones of the baby chick are very pliable in the first couple of days so early detection of the problem and intervention is vital in successfully correcting the problem. The little chick in the picture has nice straight toes 48 hours later. If the condition is undetected and not treated it can lead to paralysis and death.
SLIPPED TENDON: Slipped tendon (Perosis) is a metabolic disease causing deforming leg weakness in chicks under six weeks of age. It results in flattening and enlargement of the hocks and the slippage of the Achilles tendon at the hock causing the foot and shank to extend laterally from the body. Perosis appears in only one leg. It is a completely different problem than when both legs are damaged, as in “spraddle legs.” A chick with a slipped tendon will walk and sit on it’s hock, eventually causing sores and infection.
I have had very little success in treating slipped tendon. Giving Poly-Vi-Sol right away is crucial. I have also tried splinting the leg with vet wrap after feeling for the tendon and sliding it back into the groove behind the hock.
If you have a chick with a slipped tendon, research online. There are many very informative sites that offer advice on orthopedic treatments. I always try to correct the problem but unfortunately the end result is usually needing to cull the chick.
SPRADDLE LEG: Spraddle leg is when one or both legs splay out to the side. It is usually the result of being on slick flooring. It can be treated by using bandaids or pipe cleaners to make a brace to hold the legs in the correct position. To see pictures of spraddle leg and how to properly brace the legs go HERE.
PASTY BUTT: This condition is basically exactly like the name implies. The vent from which the chick poops get clogged with dried poop. The chick is unable to poop and will die if it is not corrected. Pasty butt is thought to be the result of shipping stress, chilling, or brooder temperature too high or low. It is important to check each chicks behind each and every day for the first week or so. If you find a chick with dried poop on it’s butt you need to clean it. I have found the best way if the poop is sticky is to use a Q-tip in warm water with baby wash. gently roll the Q-tip over the vent and rinse until the poop is removed. Dry the area with a paper towel before returning the chick to the brooder. If the poop is dry you can try to gently but firmly pull it off with a paper towel. The chick won’t like you but the poop will pull off some of the down making it less likely to paste up again. You can add Organic Apple Cider Vinegar (with the sediment in the bottom) to the water and mix plain yogurt with their feed. Someone gave me a tip that has all but eliminated pasty butt in my brooder. She suggested placing a little container of sand in the brooder. The chicks will nibble at it and the grit will aid in their digestion and cause less loose stools. I have been doing this and I rarely have a case of pasty butt. I use a colorful bottle cap and just find some sand in the yard and put it in the cap. If I give a treat of boiled egg yolk I sprinkle the sand directly on the food. Remember: pasty butt kills! Treat it immediately.
WRY NECK: Wry neck is a condition in which the baby chicks head tilts backwards, causing it to be off balance and fall over. It can kill the chick if not corrected early because it will not be able to eat. Wry neck is thought to be caused by a Vitamin B1 deficiency. Give a couple of drops of Poly-Vi-Sol (without iron) by eye dropper and repeat in a few hours. The chicks I have treated recovered quickly, the last one in two hours. If they get wry neck later as the result of an injury it is much harder to cure.
To be continued: The Care and Handling of Baby Chicks