Where to get chicks
Ready to jump into the wonderful world of chickens? If you are like me, you did your online research, read books & magazines, and were ready to take the plunge. Then you went to buy some chickens and you realized you had no idea where to get them!
In rural areas you might have feed and farm stores nearby, but in urban or suburban areas you might have to search more. I had no idea that in my town I had a feed store, I drove by it all the time but never really noticed it. Unfortunately, they don’t have live animals for sale, so I had to keep looking. I was able to find one about 30 minutes away that had chicks for sale. A larger store with a bigger selection, I still go there for feed even though it’s further than the in town shop. Other than feed stores, you can also try calling your local 4H Club, searching Craigslist or asking your veterinarian.
But did you know you can also order chickens in the mail? Try My Pet Chicken or Meyer Hatchery. Many hatcheries have large minimum orders, but I have found these two will both ship smaller orders (as little as three chicks depending on the time of year and your climate). The journey can be stressful for the babies, but they generally arrive safe and sound in their heated box. It is always exciting to arrive at your local post office to collect your peeping box of chicks! click here to read more about the process of mail order chicks
The Basic Supplies
Make no mistake, chicks are newborns – they require care and lots of time, just like most newborn animals. For at least the first month you need to be willing to devote a decent amount of time to their care. You will need to check on them several times a day, making sure the temperature is right, cleaning poop & shavings out of their water and food for the millionth time that day, and socializing them so they will grow up into friendly chickens.
The chicks will need to be kept in a secure indoor space. A barn, garage or basement could be perfect locations. If those locations are not available, you could choose a three season room (if it is warm enough) or a spare bathroom. If you keep the brooder clean, it should not smell terribly bad, but the chick’s constant scratching can produce a lot of dust that can get all over the room. If you don’t think you have the time or space to devote to this, you might want to consider skipping the chick stage and trying to find pullets (2-3 months old) or adult chickens.
Chicks will need a secure brooder box to live in for the first several weeks of life – click here to see how I built mine. Our brooder is a large Rubbermaid tote that we pulled out of our attic (it was holding old toys – but you can see the kids updated the box’s label!). We cut a panel out of the middle of the lid and covered it with hardware cloth to keep the chicks safe from our cats & dogs. Further along our chicken raising journey we swapped out the blue box for a clear one. It’s much easier to watch the chicks this way! Line the box with pine shavings, and place the water & feed containers inside. Putting a small brick or block of wood under the water will help keep shavings and poop out of it. It will still get in there, chicks are really messy, but keeping it raised will make it a little better! Just be sure the chicks can still easily access the dishes.
You will also need a heat lamp with a red bulb, and a thermometer to keep an eye on the temperature in there. Aim the heat lamp to one side of the box. You want the chicks to have a warm area they can sit in, but also a cooler area they can escape to if needed.
Using a heat bulb with a red filter is recommended. A clear white light can interfere with the chick’s sleep patterns, and just like a sleep deprived infant, sleep deprived chicks can be very grumpy and pick on each other.
Please note, heat lamps can be a fire hazard if they are knocked over so always use caution and check the lamp often. If you plan to raise chicks often, it is worth the investment of a radiant chick heater like Brinsea Ecoglow. It might be pricey but it’s much safer, especially if you have pets or little kids around, or if you are brooding your chicks somewhere you can’t monitor often (like a barn, garage or basement). Radiant heaters do use less electricity than a heat lamp, so that helps defray some of the cost.
For the first week of life, your chicks will need an air temperature of 95 degrees. The next week, you will reduce it to 90 degrees, then 85 the next week and so on for about 4-5 weeks. A thermometer is helpful, but the chicks will tell you if their temperature is not right. If they are huddled together and chirping loudly they are too cold, if they are all spread out with their wings out they are too hot. You can adjust the temperature of the air by lowering or raising the heat lamp or raising the legs on a radient heater.
Food & water – At feed stores or online, you can purchase dishes especially made for baby chicks. I would recommend using a dish made just for chicks, if you just use an open bowl for water, the chick could drown in it, or at the very least they will tip it over and make a mess with it. The same goes for using a regular bowl for the food, they will stand in it while eating and will poop in the feed, and scratch the feed all over the box wasting it. You can pick up bases for feed & water like the ones above for only a couple dollars and you just screw in Mason jars.
You will need to purchase chick starter feed. This will be specially manufactured for the needs of growing chicks. When they are about 16 weeks old (generally, always refer to the manufacturer’s instructions) and getting ready to lay their first egg, you can transition them to standard layer chicken feed. Click here to read more about feeding chickens for life
Adult chickens need grit (sand or small pebbles) in their diet to help them digest their food. As long as the chicks are only eating starter feed, they don’t need grit. As soon as you start letting them outside where they eat grass or bugs, or if you add treats to the brooder, you will need to offer a small bowl of grit to the chicks.
Chick Care Checklist
daily – keep their water & feed full and clean
daily – monitor temperature & adjust heat source when needed
daily – health check, make sure everyone is up and moving around. Especially the first day home ensure everyone is eating and drinking. If they are not, gently press their beaks into the food & water.
daily – spend time bonding with the chicks, the more time you put in now, the friendlier your chickens will be as adults.
1-3 times per week – clean the brooder (frequency will depend on amount of chicks and the size of your brooder)
The great outdoors
When the chicks are about 3 weeks old (and it is at least 60 degrees outside) you can start introducing them to the great outdoors for short periods of time. Do not leave them out there unattended! They are defenseless against any type of predator. You can use a large wire dog kennel or a child’s playpen (as long as the chicks can’t fit through the slats and you put some netting over the top). You can just let them run in the yard so long as you have lots of chicken wranglers to help keep them safe. Mostly they will band together, but you need to be prepared in case one bolts. The chicks will love scratching in the dirt and grass, and I have even seen them dust bathe at this early age!
When the chicks are 4-8 weeks old it’s time for them to move outside full time. The biggest factor in making the decision is the temperature. If it is summer and warm even at night, you can move them out at 4 weeks. If it is chilly at night, you will need to keep them indoors longer. My general rule of thumb is they should be at least 4 weeks old AND it should be at least 50 degrees at night. click here to read more about transitioning chicks outdoors
Tip each chick upside down each day to check their vent area. If poop gets clumped on their fluff, it can block their vent resulting in a deadly condition known as “pasting up”. Chicks can easily die from this, and it must be dealt with immediately. You will be able to easily see if this is happening once you pick up the chick. If it happens to your chick, run the chick’s bum under a warm running water unless the poop is softened. Never pick or pull hardened feces off the chick, their skin is very thin and can tear. Keep a close eye on that chick in the coming days as it is likely to happen again if it happens once. If your chick is only a day or two old, be sure the mess you are seeing is indeed poop on their vent. The vent is the hole just under the tail where droppings come out. Very young chicks will also have the remains of their umbilical cord attached to their lower abdomen. You DO not want to pull on this! The cord needs to dry naturally and drop off. If you pull on it, you could disembowel the chick.
Little kids and chicks
Children love chicks, they are cute, fuzzy & downright irresistible. Please monitor children closely to ensure the chicks do not get hurt. Also, chicks poop. A lot. If you hold a chick for 10 minutes you are pretty much guaranteed to get pooped on. We like to put down some newspaper or cardboard on the floor and sit with them as they explore, picking them up and handling them for short periods and then putting them back down to run around. Be sure everyone washes their hands well after handling the chicks, and secure other household pets away when the chicks are out of the brooder.