What To Expect When You’re Expecting Chicks

Starting a flock with healthy chicks sets you up for success, while dealing with illnesses from day one can be discouraging. Here's how to start off right.

by Kristina Mercedes Urquhart
PHOTO: iStock/Thinkstock

Choosing your first chicks is kind of a big deal. It’s not such a big deal that you should lose sleep over it—unless you’re just that excited and it keeps you up all night in happy anticipation! But it’s a big enough deal that you should put some thought, research and planning into it.

When you set out to buy your chickens, think of the long game: These will be the birds that you raise and care for, and in return, they will care for you by providing healthy eggs and/or meat, weed-eating services, bug removal, entertainment and friendship. Getting started on the right foot will ensure many healthy years of cohabitation for everyone.

When you start a flock with healthy chicks, you set yourself up for success. Nothing can put a damper on a novice keeper’s enthusiasm like tackling illnesses or nursing sick chicks from day one. There’s plenty of time for caring for sick chickens later on, so start with healthy birds, and you’re more likely to stick with chicken keeping for the long haul.

Where To Go

If you’re lucky, you’ll be able to choose from two or more of the following establish­ments, but budding chicken-keepers who live in very urban areas or very rural areas will be more limited.

It’s best to take some time in the winter to scope out the places near you and start asking questions. Do they sell chicks in the spring? When will they be available? Can you request and choose specific breeds? How much will they cost? These are all good questions to ask any establishment ordering chicks for spring sales.

The Farm-Supply Store

These stores are often heavily stocked with chicks in the spring. For many people, seeing the chicks in their local store is where they first get hit with the chicken-keeping bug. It’s nearly impossible to resist the draw of a sweet, cheeping, day-old chick. Those fluff balls are charming, indeed; toss dozens in a giant bin and it’s a veritable cuteness overload!

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But this is often a slippery slope to buyer’s remorse: If they are healthy and thrive, those tiny birds grow up quickly, and within a few short weeks, many would-be chicken keepers end up getting rid of their birds—simply because they didn’t know or weren’t prepared for the responsibility of adult chickens. Part of the responsibility lies with the establishment selling the birds. If you walk into a store and the employees don’t give you pertinent information on keeping chickens or point you in the direction of the books, encouraging you to read up before buying, you might consider looking elsewhere.

Buying chicks from farm-supply stores is easy. There is likely one in or near the town where you live, making it quite convenient. The birds are usually less expensive than if you purchased them elsewhere. One of the drawbacks to purchasing chicks at these stores is that they rarely carry more than one or two laying breeds.

The Local Homesteading Shop

The chicken-keeping trend is currently going full-steam, and with it, locally owned farm and garden stores are taking root everywhere. These stores are likely to carry a wide range of items, from canning supplies to gardening equipment, books, tools, pottery, plants, heirloom seeds and, of course, animal husbandry equipment and feed.

Like farm-supply stores, these small shops will often place large orders of chicks from reputable hatcheries in the spring. Unlike farm-supply stores, however, these shops are more likely to carry a wider variety of birds—up to five or more breeds—and may even source heritage breed birds. Like the larger farm-supply stores, small shops will often guarantee the sex of the birds they sell, inasmuch as the hatchery guaranteed it to them.

Sometimes, these shops will use their storefront as a classroom, offering evening or weekend classes on a variety of homesteading endeavors, including chicken keeping. I’d highly recommend having a good chicken-keeping reference book handy throughout your chickening journey, but attending one of these classes is a great way to meet other keepers in your area and build community—one of the pleasantly surprising boons to this hobby.

The Farm or Breeder

There’s a big difference between a farm that has extra chicks for sale and a breeder who specializes in a recognized breed. Some farms breed and sell chicks each spring as part of their yearly revenue, which is a wonderful way to purchase healthy birds as long as you’re comfortable with their genetic line, have asked the appropriate questions and believe the farmers stand by their birds.

Strict poultry breeders will likely have more information for you: These folks have a passion for fowl. They can give you specific genetic information about their birds’ lines and may have many generations of birds to choose from. You may be able to meet the parents of your chicks and have a clearer idea of what your birds will grow up to look like.

While there are so many reasons to purchase from a farm or breeder, know that it’s unlikely these sellers will sex their chicks for you. Unless they’re breeding and selling sex-link birds—hybrids that have easily identifiable outward physical traits that indicate their gender at birth—you’ll be taking a gamble on how many cockerels or pullets you end up bringing home. If you feel good about this purchase, have a concrete plan in place for unwanted males; you’re likely to get a few.

Often, birds raised on small farms and by breeders are raised on pasture and are able to truly free-range, which can greatly reduce chances of bringing home illness or disease. But don’t just take their word for it: Go see for yourself.

Mail-Order Hatcheries

Ordering day-old chicks from one of the many hatcheries located around the U.S. is a popular way to start a flock. The draws of this chick-sourcing method are myriad: You can choose from a wide range of individual breeds, ask for them to be sexed, pick your delivery date and confirm vaccinations. Some hatcheries now have very low order minimums, too: as low as three to five birds. Buying chicks this way is truly customizable.

The drawbacks are what you might guess them to be: You can’t choose your individual birds before bringing them home, so you’re putting a bit of trust in the hatchery to send you healthy birds. Thankfully, many hatcheries have a very firm and honorable policy about replacing or refunding for any dead or sick chicks. But therein lies another drawback: With hatchery ordering, chicks are shipped across the country and exposed to a considerable amount of stress in just the first few days of life.

What To Ask

Like any other product on their shelves, a store selling chicks should firmly stand behind their birds’ health, vigor and genetic lineage. They should be able to tell you the bird’s breed, the hatchery or farm where they were purchased or bred, and the bird’s age. They should also be able to produce verification of vaccination records upon request. As the consumer and the caregiver to these birds for potentially upward of 10 years, it’s wise to ask for this information and anything else that seems relevant as you step into the establishment.

Finally, ask the store about their policy regarding incorrectly sexed birds. Will they take birds back that were guaranteed to be female but end up male? If so, what will they do with them? Hopefully, the store stands by their product, but be sure to have a contingency plan for any unwanted cockerels you end up with.

The questions for a farm or breeder who sells chicks will be along the same lines. Before making any transactions, visit the location where the birds are bred and raised. You want to confirm the birds’ living conditions and hold them to the same criteria you would for a storefront purchase. Do the birds look healthy? Do they move around normally? Do they have fresh water and clean food and bedding?

Meeting the farmer or breeder in person also offers a valuable opportunity to ask about their breeding practices, the origin of the line and the personalities of that particular strain. Reputable breeders will have put a lot of time and energy into their bird’s genetic lines, so be sure to ask what specific traits they bred for.

Chick Sexing

“Chick sexing is the method by which we determine if the chick is female (pullet, hen) or male (cockerel, rooster),” says Tony Halsted, managing partner and business developer at Hoover’s Hatchery in Rudd, Iowa.

Unless the chick is of a breed considered “sex linked”—which means you can tell the bird’s gender based on outward appearances, either coloring or feather placement—male and female chicks of the same breed look identical to the naked eye. As such, hatcheries have long used a technique called vent sexing to determine ­whether day old chicks are male or female.
The process and technique dates back to 1930s Japan. After removing the feces from the chick’s vent, trained chick sexers are able to determine whether the bird is male or female by looking just inside the vent.

“There are characteristics to a male and female that are shown when doing this,” Halsted says. A small bump just inside the cloaca would indicate that the bird is male. Some females also have this tiny bump, but the male’s is more pronounced, and with practice and experience, professionals are able to learn the difference. That’s the science. The art comes with the individually trained specialist and their experience.

“[Sexers] are trained by learning the characteristics of each breed whether by vent, feather or coloring,” Halsted says. “It takes hard training to become efficient and accurate at a pace that allows many to be sexed at a time.”

With vent sexing, hatcheries can guarantee a 90 to 99 percent accuracy rate on sexed chicks, and this number seems to be pretty accurate. If you end up with males (or females) that you did not order, most hatcheries will either refund you the price of the chick or send replacements. Hoover’s Hatchery goes one step further: “If someone does receive the wrong sex they asked for, we refund the price of the chick and help them [locate] a rural person in their area who will find a home for them if they do not wish to keep it,” Halsted says.

What To Look For

Equally as important as what to ask, you should listen to what your gut tells you. What are you seeing and what isn’t being said? It should be obvious to you that a store selling live birds or other animals is caring for them humanely, not only meeting their needs of fresh water and quality food at all times but providing enough space in the brooder for the number of birds it houses, changing bedding often and keeping the brooder clean.

So what does that look like exactly? The chicks should have enough space to move about freely, scratching, pecking, drinking, eating or sleeping in comfort. Very young chicks—they’ll still appear fluffy from their down feathers—should have heat lamps with red bulbs throughout the brooder; enough that they could all comfortably gather underneath and all reach the heat. Fonts should be full of fresh, clean water and not overly soiled. (But let’s be real: Some poop is inevitable.)

Bedding should meet the same criteria as water: mostly clean and obviously kept up. And, of course, the chicks should appear healthy and content. An establishment that meets these needs is very likely to have healthy birds for sale.

The Healthy Chicken

A healthy chick is aware and alert. Its eyes look bright, and its color is vibrant. It won’t have any obvious signs of distress or bodily injury, such as broken wings or legs.

Its body movement will tell you a lot about its health and state of mind: Healthy chicks move about freely and easily, stopping to eat, drink or scratch and peck. They make quiet, contented cheeping sounds as they go about their business. They’re curious while awake, and they sleep very deeply—and very often, as babies do. The healthy bird can easily fly up to roost if there is something in the brooder it’s able to perch on. If you put your hand in the brooder, it’ll likely move away from you, which is good: That’s a sign that its survival instincts are at the ready, as it can follow the flock’s movement and it recognizes a threat when it sees one. (Human hands are huge to a baby chick, after all.)

Healthy chicks, even as young as a few days old, are already engaging in demonstrations of social hierarchy. This means they’ll be interacting with other birds in the brooder—maybe pecking or chasing others as the more dominant birds, or being the targets of that pecking and chasing if they’re the more submissive birds. One isn’t necessarily better than the other; all birds must fall somewhere in the hierarchy of a flock. It will likely change once you pick your chicks and take them home, as they’ll establish a pecking order of their own.

The Sick Chicken

It’s easier to identify a sick adult chicken than it is a sick young chick. Chicks sleep often and rest hard; it can sometimes take an eagle eye to see if they’re even breathing.

An obviously injured bird will show signs of distress: limping, holding a leg or a wing up, or other indication of bodily injury. Sadly, these injuries could be the result of chickens being overly handled or mishandled by eager buyers or young children or the movement or shipment of the birds. If you see chickens like this in an establishment selling chicks, bring it to an employee’s attention and do not purchase them.

Other signs of sick chicks include extreme lethargy, pasted vents, crusted eyes and excessive panting. Panting chicks, for instance, would likely mean that the brooder is too hot or they’ve run out of water (or both). Distressed chicks—those that are cold, hurt or hungry—will cheep and call loudly and constantly. This isn’t to be confused with the contented chirping of a healthy, normal chick.

While some chick ailments, such as pasted vents, are common occurrences for any brooder, they may be indicative of a bigger problem. That’s why you must look at the whole picture: If the brooder is clean and the birds are well cared for, it may well be that a single ill chick is failing to thrive. However, if the brooder is dirty, smells bad, and many chicks look ill or there are dead chicks in the brooder, inform the manager of the establishment and shop elsewhere for your birds.

While the steps mentioned here are tried and true ways to choose the healthiest, happiest chicks, remember that common sense and a good intuition go a long way. Shop where you feel comfortable and where it’s obvious that the birds are well cared for. Don’t be afraid to ask the direct, hard questions. Be inquisitive. Be observant. And be savvy. It never hurts to ask a fellow chicken keeper or mentor to tag along with you. Most of all, enjoy this precious time picking out your new feathered friends.

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