How To Handle Chicks

Nurture a docile flock by interacting with your chicks from an early age.

by Lisa Steele
PHOTO: David Goehring/Flickr

Bringing home baby chicks can be an exciting learning experience, especially if you have children. While chicks don’t imprint on humans like ducklings or goslings might, they will end up being far more friendly adult hens if you spend lots of time with them as they grow. Use these tips for safely handling them, so they can get to know you better during their first weeks.

Start Slow

Keep in mind that baby chicks are likely only days old when you get them. Their bones are soft and delicate. They have intricate respiratory systems that can be easily damaged if they’re squeezed or held too tightly. Chicks also need to be kept under a heat source (set at 95 degrees F the first week, then lowered 5 degrees per week), so unless you keep your house abnormally warm, remember that any time that you take them out of their warmed brooder, you are risking chilling them.

For the day or so after you get your chicks, watch them in the brooder for as long as you want and talk to them using a soft voice, but resist the urge to pick them up. Let them get used to their new life and recover from the trip to your house. You can use slow movements and stroke them on the head or back if you wish. After a few days, try putting your hand, palm side up, into the brooder and letting your chicks inspect your fingers and hop onto your hand. Sprinkling some chick feed onto your hand can help encourage them. Talk to them so they get used to your voice.

Stay Seated

Once your chicks are comfortable with you and literally eating out of your hand, you can try taking them out of the brooder. Have small children sit on the floor and put the chicks in their lap. (A cloth or towel draped over their lap first is a good idea to keep the poop contained.) In fact, it’s actually a good idea to sit on the floor any time anyone is handling them. They can be skittish, and a fall from a few feet can easily cause injuries.

Hold Chicks Close

The best way to pick up a chick is to circle its body with your hand, your fingers loosely around the underside of its body and your thumb across its back, or scoop the chick up from underneath, cradling its belly in one hand and placing your other hand over its back. Never let a baby chick stand on your open palm, especially if you’re standing up, because they’re likely to hop off or flutter their wings and end up airborne, which will likely end in a bad fall.

Wash Your Hands After Handling

Everyone should wash their hands in warm soapy water after they’re done handling the chicks, and children should be taught not to touch their faces, and especially not to put their fingers in their eyes or mouth, to prevent Salmonella. The disease can be transmitted to humans after touching chicks that have come in contact with it. Children under 5 years old make up the majority of Salmonella cases, most likely from hand-to-mouth transmission of the bacteria. Symptoms in humans include:

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  • cramps
  • diarrhea
  • nausea
  • chills
  • fever
  • headaches

Generally not fatal in healthy adults, Salmonella can result in death in the elderly, young, sick, pregnant woman and those with compromised immune systems.

Chicks Require Adult Supervision

Children under the age of five are probably too young to actually hold baby chicks, because they might accidentally squeeze them too hard, drop them, or step on them, all of which could prove fatal to a young chick. Younger children can instead be taught to gently stroke the chicks while an adult holds them. And children of any age should never be allowed to handle chicks without adult supervision.

Keep Handling Time Brief

Hands-on time with your chicks should be limited to several short sessions of just a few minutes each, several times a day. Chicks are babies and spend a lot of time sleeping. They get tired quickly and also get cold. If your chick starts peeping loudly, that’s a sign it’s cold and should be returned to the brooder. Taking out only one chick at a time is best. Chicks move fast and things can quickly get out of control if you are trying to keep track of several at once. You should handle them only in a closed room that the family pet can’t access, in case a chick does escape your grasp.

As long as you remember how fragile your new baby chicks are and take precautions, spending a lot of time handling and playing with them and offering them treats, such as chopped leafy greens, raw oatmeal or fresh chopped herbs (be sure they have chick grit to help them digest it), will go a long way towards ultimately having a friendly flock of backyard pets.

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