When you walk into your local feed mill or farm-supply store during the spring, youâll likely hear the cheep, cheep, cheep of baby chicks. Those little balls of fluff are adorable! But itâs important to resist the cute factor and focus on health to ensure your new flock or additional flock mates survive.
Picking healthy chicks isnât difficult when you know what to look forâfrom their peepers to their feet.
Normally, once you buy and remove a chick from a store or breederâs facility, you wonât be able to return them. If a chick has any health issues, youâll have to deal with them.
That makes it important to know more about a chickâs background.
âMake sure you obtain chicks from a reputable breeder, preferably part of the NPIP [National Poultry Improvement Plan],â says Poultry Science columnist Maurice Pitesky. Pitesky isÂ a doctor of veterinary medicine at the University of California, Davis.
âFind out what NPIP clean or monitored testing they do and for what diseases. Make sure itâs from a closed flock and that the breeder works with a vet.â
Check the Rep
When asked about purchasing from local feed mills or farm-supply stores, Pitesky says reputation matters. âSee if they get chicks that are part of NPIP and what biosecurity practices they use,â he says.Â
Amber Baum, a Louisiana backyard chicken-keeper, confidently recommends her local farm-supply store for purchasing chicks. She bought all 12 of her chicks for her first flock there. Theyâre all alive and doing well.
âI only intended to get 10 females altogether,â Baum says. âI wanted five Barred Rocks and five Golden Comets. It worked out pretty well for the GCs since there were only five of them left.
“As they got my BRs, I realized there would be just two left alone. Since everyone says you should get a couple âjust in caseâ chicksâbecause inevitably one or more chicks usually donât survive for one reason or anotherâI took the remaining two Barred Rock chicks.
“I still have a flock of 12. Apparently, I had a healthy batch of babies and absolutely no need for any âjust in caseâ extras!â
Hatching Your Own
If your chicks are coming from a clutch of eggs that youâre hatching yourself, youâll already have the background information. However, there are steps you should take to ensure you hatch healthy chicks.Â
âHatching eggs from younger breeding birds usually produce healthier chicks,â Pitesky says. âMake sure the breeding birds are healthy. This includes having a good appetite and being alert and responsive. Ideally, all fertile eggs that fail to hatch should be examined to detect patterns of mortality.â
Many people have success purchasing their chicks from a professional hatchery. Unless the hatchery is close to your home, theyâll be delivered through the mail. The downside is you wonât be able to pick and choose the chicks that appear healthiest.
However, professional hatcheries typically comply with strict state and federal regulations and inspections. Like buying from breeders, check to see if they have NPIP certification. This further proves a commitment to operating a high-quality facility that produces healthy stock.
Watch forÂ Early Warning Signs
Healthy chicks are alert and active, but new hatchlings will sleep quite a bit the first days.
âThey will spend a lot of time running around the brooder pecking at their new surroundings but will pause to take several small power naps throughout the day,â according to Meyer Hatchery.Â
While babies sleep more than adults and may completely sprawl out when theyâre catching a good nap, they should wake up relatively quickly when theyâre disturbed.
Lethargy is an obvious early warning sign thereâs something potentially wrong with a chick. This is especially true if a chick canât stay awake, including when itâs standing up. If you touch a sleeping or lethargic chick and it barely responds, or doesnât respond at all, itâs probably not healthy.
âIf youâre buying chicks, a chick thatâs lethargic, laying down and allowing itself to be trampled by other chicks should be avoided,â Baum says. âSomething is almost certainly wrong with a chick that canât even get up to get out of the way of its brooder mates.â
Melissa Rice, a backyard hobbyist with a small backyard flock in Edgewood, Kentucky, said that besides lethargy, you should also avoid chicks that âarenât eating or drinking well. Combs and wattles may be too pale in appearance, which also can be an early sign.â
Other chicks may avoid a sick one, so a chick thatâs isolated from the others may be unwell. You may also notice this chick swaying with its eyes closed, which is another bad sign.
When choosing chicks, take your time and observe their behavior. Any prolonged inactivity or unchick-like behavior should be suspect.
From Beak to Feet
Starting with the beak, look closely to see if itâs broken or crossed over. Chicks with beak issues may have problems eating and drinking. This can hamper their survival.
However, donât be surprised if the tip of the beak is missing. Hatcheries will often snip off the tips to prevent chicks from peaking at and potentially harming each other.
Also, some chicks suffer from crossed or scissor beak. This beak deformity prohibits the bird from closing its mouth properly and makes it difficult to eat and drink.
âThe beak should be well matched with the top and bottom,â Rice says. âYou donât want an overbite appearance.â
Looking beyond the beak, a chickâs eyes should be bright, not cloudy or dull, and it should be well aware of its surroundings. If it has droopy or sleeping looking eyes or its eyes are crusted over or closed all the time, then something is probably wrong.
Traveling over the chickâs body, take note of its feathers. Only older chickens during molt should be missing feathers. Chicks shouldnât be missing any feathers.
A dehydrated or malnourished chicken or chick will have feather loss and/or dry-looking feathers.Â
âFeathers should be in a rowed appearance, lying flush to the body with a healthy sheen,â Rice says. âTail feathers should point up. There shouldnât be any bare spots or damaged feathers showing.
“Chicks should be happy, fuzzy little cuties!â
Look at the Legs
Finally, a chickâs feet and legs should be straight, allowing it to stand tall. While splayed legs or crooked toes donât necessarily mean the chick is unhealthy, it could indicate an underlying problem that may or may not be fixable.
Some deformities may be corrected with special attention, so itâs up to you whether you want to take a chance on a chick with irregular feet or legs.
âLegs and feet should be of normal color with no redness or swelling,â Rice says. âThere also shouldnât be any scaling evident, as this could be a sign of mites. Legs and feet should be smooth and shiny in appearance.â
Pitesky reminds potential chick parents not to overlook the navel. He advises to look for any evidence of an infection of the navel, which can be associated with failure to absorb the yolk sac and yolk sac infections. Omphalitis is a noncontagious infection of the navel and/or yolk sac in young poultry.
Chicks with an unabsorbed yolk sac can have enlarged doughy abdomens.Â
Itâs not unusual to see a string attached to a chickâs âbelly button,â especially in the first 24 hours of life. Leave it alone and never pull it, or you risk pulling out the chickâs intestines.
This string will eventually dry up and fall off.
Know What theÂ Huddle Is About
Huddling is frequently just a sign that chicks are cold, but sometimes it can be a sign of sickness. Pay attention if a chick stays under the heat lamp continuously, while other chicks run around, routinely moving to and from the heat lamp.
âChicks huddle for warmth or comfort,â Rice says. âChicks that are healthy will alternate periods of huddling under heat lamps with periods where they seek play or investigate their surroundings.
“Too much huddling, ruffled feathers and not getting out and about can indicate illness.â
Check Its Backside
Chicks have a vent, which is a small opening on their fuzzy butts. The vent acts as the exit point for bird poop. Eventually eggs come out of this opening, too.
Vents should be clean. But a condition called pasty butt causes droppings to stick to the vent area and prevent the bird from pooping. Pasty butt is common in new chicks, especially because of stress from shipment or fluctuating brooder temperatures.
However, left untreated, pasty butt can lead to death.
âA normal vent is flush to the body with no redness, swelling, protrusion or irritation,â Rice says. âThere shouldnât be any sign of manure stuck to it, indicating pasty butt, or any sign of infestations, such as lice or mites.”
Most chicks that donât survive due to stress, dehydration or injury during transport typically die within the first 24 to 48 hours. This can include traveling between a hatchery and a local feed or farm-supply store, from a local store to your home or through the mail.
When contemplating a chick purchase at a local store, ask the clerk in charge of the chicks when they received them. Besides travel-related issues, there are other reasons a store-bought or home-hatched chick might die in the first 24 to 48 hours.
Rice says some of the top reasons include:
- Marekâs disease
- splayed leg
- cross beak
- wry neck
- pasty butt
They can also pass from poor thermoregulation due to over or under heating the environment of the brooder after hatch.
Temperature and stress play a big role in the very beginning. Chicks arenât fully feathered, and they canât regulate their body temperatures.
If the brooder isnât warm enough, the chicks will get too cold and die.Â
A vaccine is recommended on the first day of a chickâs life to prevent Marekâs. However, the vaccine takes about four to seven days for it to start protecting them. Chicks are still vulnerable if exposed.
Marekâs is highly contagious and often fatal, so always confirm any chicks you purchase have been properly vaccinated. Many hatcheries recommend and offer the Marekâs vaccine because the disease is easily spread.Â
Rice recommends the Merck Manual as a good recourse for chicken ailments, prevention and management. If youâre concerned about the health of a newly acquired chick, have it checked out by a vet familiar with fowl if you donât already have one you use.
This article originally appeared in the March/April 2021 issue of Chickens magazine.