“Baby” peeps are a lot like baby “peeps”

Welsummer chick

Our new baby Welsummer chick.

Caring for a baby animal (in this case, multiples!) is, not surprisingly, much like caring for an infant. Before you can bring it home, you’ve got to do some preliminary prep work. As we prepared to welcome our new flock of chickens to the family, Mr. Bungalow and I have reviewed our chicken husbandry books and taken stock of our old brooding supplies. Here’s a brief overview on how to properly tend your adorable baby chicks! I have not covered all details, considerations, and potential pitfalls, so please do your homework first by reading great resources such as “Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens ,” Jay Rossier’s “Living with Chickens,” and “The Chicken Health Handbook.” If you can’t be bothered to read at least one book on the topic, please do not attempt to raise chickens; they are easy to raise but they do require more care than the typical house pet.

They need a crib!

Ok, not a literal baby crib. And trust me, MTV Cribs will not be knocking on your door for a profile on your chicken setup, either. What the young chicks need is a safe place to call their own. Some folks set this up in a sheltered spot outside. For safety and weather reasons, we have opted to assemble our setup indoors.

This is probably the cheepest (er, cheapest!) part of chicken owning:  setting up a brooder box. It is also a project that lends itself well to other home improvement leftovers.  We used an large plastic bin (actually, we’ve used two; opting to upgrade as the birds grew) that had previously housed a pet snake. It was clear and we’d already drilled numerous air/ventilation holes in the plastic. We thoroughly disinfected it with bleach and set it up on a folding table in our dining room. Why our dining room? It’s a got a lot of light and it’s a heavily trafficked area of the house, which is helpful in keeping an eye on the young chicks.

Beginning a brooder box

Beginning of a brooder box. Chick feeder is to the right, ready to be added.

That crib needs some wall-to-wall carpeting!

Cue ’70’s music and green shag carpet here….  I’m kidding. We’ve lined the bottom of the bin with pine shavings procured from the local feed and seed store. Please remember to do your research on this; some other types of bedding (such as cedar shavings) are not appropriate for chickens. (Cedar shavings, incidentally, off-gas too many cedar VOCs that can kill the birds.) Also, the bedding needs to be covered for the first few days with paper towels until the chicks are able to distinguish what is (and isn’t) appropriate food. Remember to replace the paper towels frequently so that the bedding doesn’t become soggy and dirty.

Take it to the roof!

Ideally, your bin should have some sort of ventilated covering. This prevents the chicks from fluttering out and injuring themselves, the curious cat from reaching in and snagging a snack, and gives you a means to prop up your heat lamp, which I discuss in the next section. In the spirit of reusing, we re-purposed an aluminium window screen that was stored in our garage.

Turn up the heat!

Just like a newborn, the chicks are very delicate and need to be kept warm. As the chicks mature, you can adjust the height of the lamp/heat source to gradually lower the temperature according to the rate discussed in the books mentioned above. We reused a clamp-style lamp from our former python’s cage (again, disinfected!), along with a red incandescent  (NOT florescent) light bulb. The red bulb provides heat to the chicks but in a light wavelength that they are unable to see, thus eliminating any chick sleep disruptions or panic  during power outtages. Do not purchase either the lamp or the red light bulb at a specialty/big-box pet store; you’ll pay double the price. Just go to a big-box home improvement retailer (Lowes, Home Depot, etc.) and purchase the (identical) items there.

Keep an eye on their behavior. If the chicks constantly huddle together or shiver, chirping madly, you may need to lower the distance of the lamp.

 Baby food!

Chick Starter feed

Chicks, like infants, need to be fed special food for the first several weeks of their lives. Unlike “people” food where the food is merely bland, pureed versions of adult foods, chick starter is a different composition from other chicken feeds. The first differences is that the grain is considerably finer milled than either grower or layer feeds. This allows them to eat without choking. The other difference, which is a decision on your part, is whether to provide medicated or un-medicated feed. Commercial growers typically use feed that has been treated with prophylactic  sub-therapeutic doses of antibiotics to prevent death from Coccidiosis, a protozoan disease that affects only chickens. Among the concerns about medicated feed, the first is antibiotic resistance. The second is unnecessary medication in the chicks. Do your homework (an excellent overview is here) and make your own decision. For our first batch of chickens, we chose not to medicate and had no issues. We have decided not to medicate again, but we haven’t decided how to handle the eventual risk of introducing our new flock to the remaining adult hen in the outdoor coop.

As they mature, they will eventually transition first to coarser grower feed and then finally to layer feed, which contains significant quantities of calcium that they eventually convert into eggshells.

Chick-sized feeders and waterers are easily available online and in feed and seed stores. Situate them in the bin so that the chicks can access them without spilling water throughout the bedding.

Keep an eye on ’em!

The other potential health risk to be alert for is called “pasty butt.” I’m not making this up and it’s exactly what it sounds like. Basically, the little chicks can get “clogged up” by compacted wastes on their backside, so be sure to keep and eye on them and wipe their hineys off with a damp paper towel, or a q-tip and water or olive oil as needed. Chicks that become listless or have bloodied droppings are also a cause for concern.

Here’s the final brooder box setup:

We’ve just added the chicks with a handful of feed on the paper towels. They’re basking underneath the heat lamp like a NYC snowbird beach-goer arriving in Florida!

Brooder box setup with heat lamp on and chicks inside

Brooder box setup with water, heat lamp on, and chicks inside (feeder not yet added).

Safety notes!

It should go without saying that you should remember to wash your hands both before and after handling your chicks. There are numerous diseases transmissible between humans and birds, some of which can be fatal (bird flu!) or quite devastating (ocular histoplasmosis). Likewise, when the chickens are adults and you are cleaning their coop, wear an appropriate dust mask and take a shower promptly afterwards, throwing your clothes in the wash while you’re at it. Keep a pair of outdoor/chicken shoes too, that you don’t wear inside the house.

That’s pretty much it! Remember to follow all the feeding/heating/cleaning guidelines outlined in your reference books and enjoy the adorable thrill of baby chicks. They grow up very quickly and are at their cutest in the first two weeks. Before you know it, they’ve grown tall and gangly, sprouted pin feathers and acne, and they start getting broody and hanging out with the wrong crowed…oh wait, that’s just teenagers.  😀

Enjoy listening to their little cheeps and holding them in your hands as they fall asleep. Laugh at their antics as they clumsily trip around, play football with treats, and pile into contented heaps at the end of a day.

If you have any questions about raising chickens, drop me a comment!

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