When arriving by mail
Before picking up your birds at the Post Office have your nursery (brooder) area prepared. Your nursery area can be a cardboard box, a stock drinking trough (from Tractor Supply) or a toddler backyard, plastic swimming pool. Any similar item will work, just keep in mind that the sides need to be at least 18 inches and it needs to have enough floor surface area not to crowd the chicks, nor be so big they can’t seek out one another to crowd together for warmth and security. A good rule of thumb is to allow about one-half ½ square foot of floor space per baby chick.
If they get too hot under the light they need to have enough room to move back, away from the heat source. You need to have a heat light and a clamp light fixture to hold it. You want the red lights, for brooders, from our “New Chick Package”, Tractor Supply, etc.
The little babies, except for the time spent in shipping, have lived their whole incubation time (21 days) at just under 100 degrees F., so your goal it to heat up an area on the floor of the brooder to about 100 degrees at the floor level. With all mail orders sent we include a thermometer. Use it. They’re worth their weight in gold when it comes to keeping you from either cooking or freezing your babies. An old blanket spread over part of the brooder sure helps to hold in the heat, if it’s cold in the room, BUT, if it falls in on the chicks, it WILL smother them or if it gets too close to the light it may catch on fire, or at least fill the room with smoke. I speak from experience, and if you ever visit the hatchery I will happily show you the damage. Fortunately, in all cases, loss of life was minimal, only due to luck and no advanced skill set on my part.
Food and Water
When they hatched the little birds took up the last of the yolk, this nourishment carries the chicks for about three days with no need for food or water. However, when you get them settled into the brooder they’ll want to drink water, a bunch. Cold water might send them into shock, so when you leave to go pick up your birds, turn on the heat light in the brooder and allow the water to warm up, along with the brooder. It’s a good idea to add a tablespoon of sugar to a quart of water. The sugar will give them some immediate calories to burn. Leave the sugar water for the first eight to twelve hours, then change to plain warm water. Take each chick, while holding his head between your thumb and forefinger, and poke his bill into the water for a couple of seconds, to be sure he learns how to drink and it will teach him (or her) where the water is. I advise you get one of those one quart, red and white plastic water dispensers. We include one in our, “New Chick Package”, but, if you don’t have one, Tractor Supply and most Farm Supply stores have them. For the first few days, until they can hold their heads up real good, watch them and be sure they don’t drown in the waterer. This tendency to drown makes an open waterer, like a saucer or bowl, a really poor idea.
For the first day or two, put some newspaper on the floor of the brooder and sprinkle some chick starter on them. They’ll pick at the feed and learn to eat easily this way. Change the paper every 12 hours, or so, and sprinkle new food out. After a day or two, replace with a regular feeder trough. Allow about one foot of trough feeder or one round feeder for each twenty-five birds. Don’t ever let them run out of feed and leave them on this ration for four and one-half to five months.
As far as litter goes use straw or large pine shavings. Don’t use sand or any small particulate matter. The chick may eat this, become impacted and die. Other than that try to keep the brooder reasonably clean, and the food and water clean (a never ending, seemingly, impossible task)
Don’t use cedar or cypress shavings as they are highly toxic to the chicks. When I had a few chicks to care for, I recycled an old bathroom rug. It can be shook out, hosed and washed. Towels make a good litter. Most litter is slippery for the little birds and the rug is stable.
Health & Growth
Most death in chicks comes from never learning to eat or drink. It is critical that you dip their beaks in the water and watch to be sure they are eating. The babies are pretty good about learning to eat, but I can’t stress enough the importance of showing them how, and where, to drink water.
As the chicks grow, and add feathers, they will groom themselves with their beak. There’s an oil gland near the base of their tail and they will use their beak to spread the oil to groom. These new feathers are highly vascularized and many times will bleed while grooming. In chickens it’s instinct to peck at anything red. If one chick has a blood spot others may peck at it. That’s why a red heat light is so important.
To treat picked chicks cover the wound with pine tar or menthol flavored ointment until healed.
If picking becomes a problem give the chicks some fresh cut grass or clumps of sod to pick at. This will amuse and distract them.
After a month increase floor space to ¾ to 1 square foot per chick. Increase feeder troughs to 2 ½’ to 3” per chick. install roosts at back of brooder area. Allow four inches per bird with roost poles six inches apart.
After a couple of months, and you’ve moved your chicks outside another problem to look for are rats. If your chicken run or tractor or whatever is built out of hardware.
Watch for chicken snakes. They are pretty harmless to people, although they can bite, they are not poisonous. Although pretty harmless they sure like eggs and chicks. I always build a hardware cloth cover for the top of the brooder. I use metal stock waterers a lot and it’s easy to build a cover. A cover will protect the chicks from snakes, dogs, cats, possums, skunks, bobcats and other various predators. Getting back to snakes, they can fit through and impossibly small crack or hole. They can also pass under a door. If you use a tractor watch for spilled or scattered feed. It will attract vermin.
Good luck and conclusion
Taking care of poultry is about 90% common sense and 10% know how. There are several good books on poultry. I recommend the old standby, STOREY’S GUIDE TO RAISING CHICKENS, by Gail Damerow. It’s currently available in e-book form for the Kindle device for $9.99. Amazon currently has it in paperback for about $12.50, cheaper if you buy a used copy.
I covered a few of the basics, now it’s up to you to.