Chicken keepers throughout the United States, if they have not already, will soon place their orders for spring chicks. If you’re inexperienced when it comes to chick rearing, here are some tips to help keep you and your birds in the coming season.
1. Order Early From Hatcheries Near You
Most of us want specific breeds for particular reasons, whether it’s for ornamental reasons, egg-laying capabilities or meat of a certain flavor. To ensure you get the breeds you want, order as early as possible. As chicken keeping continues to grow in popularity, breed favorites disappear from availability quickly.
For the sake of the little birds that will be shipped to your post office, seek out a hatchery in your own region of the country. U.S. Postal Service shipping of live animals is always an expedited service, as is reflected by the shipping price that’s higher than the cost of the spring chicks. However, the longer the day-old chicks remain in transport, the more stress they will endure. Weak chick that might struggle to survive under the best of conditions aren’t likely to survive a stressful trip. The shorter the trip, the more likely your chicks are to be thriving upon arrival. Sourcing chicks locally is also an option.
2. Construct the Brooder Before Hatch Day
Whether you build your own brooder or purchase a brooder kit, a brooder is essentially a nursery for baby chicks, and it must be ready the moment chicks arrive.
- Be sure the brooder protects your chicks from other animals in the house, garage, shed or barn, and be sure that chicks cannot escape.
- Warm an area of the brooder with a heat lamp or a safer, ambient heat source made for chicks. Cooler areas should also be available in case chicks feel too warm.
- Provide soft, warm bedding, like straw or poplar shavings. Avoid slippery material, like newspaper, to prevent splayed leg.
- Keep chick feed and water clean and plentiful at all times.
3. Educate Young Children
Kids tend to squeeze chicks. Practice holding chicks with your kids—a hard-boiled egg, a nectarine, or something else small and chick-sized will do the trick. Chicks should be held firmly but gently. Kids should also know that it’s better for the chick to escape their hands than it is to prevent their escape with a squeeze.
4. Open Alone
Chirping boxes are irresistible, especially for kids, but when your chicks arrive insist on opening the box alone. In the rare event that a weak chick didn’t survive the trip, you need to know first so you can break the news gently to young children.
5. Move to the Brooder Immediately
It’s tempting to play with baby spring chicks when they arrive, but they need to be moved to their brooder immediately once they’re in your care. Be mindful of how long the chicks have been in transport. From the time they hatch, they need food and water within the first 72 hours of life. While transport through the mail is safe, shipping can be stressful for some chicks. Getting them to food and water, and assessing any health concerns has to be the first priority.
6. Monitor for Pasty Butt
When chicks’ droppings dry to the outside of the vent, it creates a plug. We call this pasty butt, and it’s deadly if the plug isn’t removed. Check for pasty butt when you move each chick from the shipping box to the brooder. If you find pasty butt, hold the chick firmly, and soak its bottom in warm water. The poop will dissolve quickly, and it will rub right off. Pat her dry, and place her under the brooder’s heat source so she doesn’t get cold. Chicks who get pasty butt are prone to develop it again, so be sure to check it often. Continue checking the entire flock for at least the first week of life.
7. Have the Coop Ready
Chicks grow astoundingly fast. Soon, they’ll outgrow their brooder and will need to move to the coop. If you’re building a coop, complete it before your chicks arrive, even if it will be several weeks before they move in, to avoid setbacks or predator vulnerabilities caused by rushing the job. If you’re ordering a coop, make sure it arrives before your chicks do, not on the same day.
8. Understand That Chickens Are a Commitment
If your chickens will be egg-laying pets, and if you care for them well, some can live up to 10 years or more. Bringing home backyard chickens isn’t very different than bringing home a new puppy or kitten, except that chickens are harder to re-home. Visit a farm and learn how to care for chickens, or get nitty-gritty chicken-keeping tips from other chicken keepers before you place your hatchery order.