Last Updated: 5/21/09
Brooding and Raising Chicks
Natural Chick Rearing
Introducing Chicks to the Flock
There are many ideas on sexing chicks. After reviewing them, I have decided that the average person basically cannot sex a chick until they are some two months old or in the worst case, the males start to crow and females lay eggs (normally at 6-months-old). Chicks can be sexed by looking at their vent but this is hard to do. It is such a big secret that you have to pay to go to a special school to learn how to do it. This method only works on day-old chicks and is only 90% correct. Some chicks (not all) can be sexed by looking at their feathers but this basically has to be learned by looking at lots of chicks of both sexes. It is some 60-80% correct. A few varieties of chicken can be sexed by other methods such as foot color, etc. or even actual color in the case of the few sex-linked varieties of chickens. A sex-linked chick is a different color depending on its sex.
Misty e-mailed me on 5/1/05: "...I used to work in a hatchery and that was my job, to sex chickens. Here is how you do it; you spread the wing out and look at the white things (don't know what you call them) on a male they are all even, on a female chick they are uneven some are shorter than others...."
Emma e-mailed me on 10/21/05 with this: "...I found that if you put the chick on its back, males stick their legs out and females keep them close to their body, this worked for me but note it might have been a fluke!..."
Peter e-mailed me on 7/10/06: "I sex day old chickens for a living in Australia using the instrument (often referred to as the machine) method. It can be done with 100% accuracy but most of the sexers work at 98% or better accuracy. I just wanted to write in to tell you that there is even less information on sexing chickens this way than there is by using the vet (often referred to as hand) method...."
Here are a few sites with information on sexing chicks. I updated this list on 8/11/06, finding archived links of the links that no longer work. These links were last verified on 2/20/07.
Sexing of Day-Old Chicks - this site sums it very well.
Sexing Chicks - this site has interesting information. This is also an archived version!
Sexing Chicks in the Backyard Flock and Sexing Chicks in the Backyard Flock which look like the same article to me but have different authors? Guess what, these are both archived sites too! No one keeps web pages around anymore! Thank goodness for archive.org!
Sexing Chicks Links
Sexing Chicks in the Backyard Flock (why do they all have the same title but are different?)
Once dry, chicks need to go in a brooder set to 95 degrees F. Most people who do not mass produce chickens keep babies in a cardboard box. They can go without food or water for a few days if needed as they will feed off their yolks. First foods should include chicken starter, earthworms, and vitamin supplements if needed. Fresh water is a must. A little sugar can be added (a tablespoon per pint) to help the chicks gain some energy for the first few days. Hatchlings that will not eat readily can be encouraged to peck and eat food by putting something shiny in it like a nickel. The floor should be newspaper covered with hardware cloth (no sharp edges) or paper towels for the first 2 to 4 days so the babies do not eat any bedding and do not get splayed feet from slippery newspaper. [For a link to a page that shows you how to help chicks with splayed legs or spraddle legs as they call it, go here.] After that time, the newspaper can be covered with wood shavings (do not use cedar or treated shavings). The babies can also be offered some chick grit (usually tiny pieces of granite) after they learn what they are supposed to eat. The brooding temperature can be decreased 5 degrees a week until, after about 5 weeks, it is down to 70 degrees F or room temperature at which time the chicks can go outside full time. They can go outside during warm days once they are a few weeks old but should come inside at night. Chicks will start to roost on mini-roosts at 4-6 weeks old. By the time they are 6-8 weeks old, they should be able to go without supplemental heat unless in a very cold climate. Hens start laying at about six months old. Roosters start crowing by 5 or 6 months old but sometimes can take almost a year.
For the three chicks I raised, I did the following. For the first few days, I provided warm water in the chick waterer and chick starter only. The floor was newspaper topped with paper towels until about two weeks when they started tossing it into the water. Then, I just used newspaper which is not great but it is cheap and easy to clean. I thought of using pine shavings but knew they would dump those into the water and make a mess. After about three days, I started feeding tiny amounts of shredded carrot, kale, grapes, spinach, collard greens, apple, etc. I made sure they were the right size for the age and size of the babies. I also started giving them a few live regular mealworms every day. In every case, young chicks will grab them fast and run in circles cheeping their hearts out. After running around a dozen times, they gulp down their prey. If there is more than one baby, they will chase each other and try to steal the mealworms. I was surprised when I had one baby (Beebee, the one I hatched myself), he did the same thing even though no one was there to chase him. It must be ingrained in their ways. At about four days old, I started to offer some baby chick grit. Some say it is not needed but I gave it since I fed foods other than chick starter.
Chicks should have chick feed for the first 6 weeks and then switch to grower until they are 20 weeks old when they can eat adult food. In my case, with adult hens, an expert told me it was okay to let the 6-8 week old babies start on the layer feed when I put them with the hens and skip the grower. This will delay their maturity but make them healthier overall he said.
Here are a few sites with information on raising chicks. These links were last verified on 2/20/07.
Raising Chicks Without Their Mom - an informative site
Caring for Chicks
Starting Chicks On the Right Foot
Caring for Baby Chicks
Grow Healthy Chicks - raising chicks en masse for human consumption and torture (but there is some useful information on care)
A few people have asked me about letting a mother hen rear her chicks and how that differs from the artificial methods on this site. It really is completely different! She will do all the work! Many breeds of chickens are bred to never brood. Brooding is a hen's desire to sit on and set the eggs and care for the chicks. If a hen does not brood, she cannot be a natural mother. Her eggs would have to be hatched artificially or put under a broody hen. Good brooders include brahmas and most bantams. A broody hen will tend to a clutch of eggs, adding to them and turning them a few times a day. Eggs from other hens can be snuck into her nest when she is not looking, and they are usually accepted. Once she has a full clutch of about 6-15 eggs depending on her age, breed, and desires, she will sit on the eggs to brood them. She will only come off the eggs once a day or so for a few minutes to drink, eat, and defecate. She will just vegetate there on the eggs. If pestered by humans, dogs, predators, or roosters, she will often abandon the eggs. It is a good idea to leave broody hens alone and keep them away from other animals.
If a hen has been brooding a clutch for more than 3 weeks, the eggs may not be viable. I would wait until 4 weeks to remove the clutch from her just to be sure. They can be broken to see if any developed and how well/far. Just as with artificially incubated eggs, the eggs can be candled. This is best done quickly and when the hen is off the nest. Wear gloves. It may be hard to get a dark area to do this though. If there was a rooster with her before egg laying, and the hen is sitting properly on the nest, then the eggs should be developing and really do not have to be candled or checked. Unless she has too many eggs, they basically should all hatch. The hen has a brood patch of naked skin under her belly that she sits right on the eggs to keep them warm and humid.
The hen turns the eggs many times a day. When she feels them start to wiggle and hears cheeping, she will look at them and cluck back. Once they start to hatch, she will continue to brood them and sit on them until they are dry. Then, she will lead them from the nest to find food. You can put out the same foods mentioned to feed artificially incubated chicks. They love live bugs but can and should have chick starter as well. If the hen and chicks are loose, then they should find enough to eat. Then, predators are a great concern. While the mother will defend the chicks to the death, a hawk, fox, or other predator could easily get chicks and/or the mother. For cautious people, mother hens and chicks should be kept in fully enclosed cages to protect them. Roosters will often defend the mother and chicks as well but some may turn on the chicks. The mother will try to keep him in line but there is that risk of a rooster killing chicks. Dominant hens will also sometimes try to kill the offspring of "lower" hens. While still young, each night, the hen will brood the chicks (sit on them) so they are always toasty. She also broods when it is too cold or raining. When she feels they are old enough, she will integrate them into the flock as well. If kept separate, see the next section on how to integrate chicks into the flock. You would house the hen and chicks together during the transition.
So, you can leave the work to her. You would only need to intercede if it were abnormally cold and then bring the mother and chicks to an inside setup. One person e-mailed about a bantam and her chicks that she hatched in the winter which is very unusual! I said to bring them inside of course.
On 7/8/05, my hen, Pondet, hatched two chicks from four eggs (two vanished during incubation). I found that all of the information I wrote above was true for her. See my chicken page for more information on Pondet and her chicks as well as photos. The day they hatched, the dominant hen, Spicey, attacked Pondet on the nest and tried to get her chicks. We built a temporary separation fence in the chicken run to keep Pondet and the two chicks from the three adults. Because the chicks had not yet left the nest, I do not know how the rooster, Sugar, would have responded and whether he would have tried to hurt them. I did not want to take the chance. Dominant hens do not want other hens to hatch chicks when they cannot. Spicey was an Easter egg chicken with no broody instincts while Pondet is a Delaware, an heirloom breed of chicken. She was a good mother and very protective.
On 4/27/07, Pondet went broody again on a single egg. Here photo brooding is above. Chickie hatched on 5/17/07. She my my chicken page for the story.
This is the plan I used for introducing the three chicks I raised (in two batches of two and one), and it worked well. I have a dog cage/kennel that is a metal cage of about 2 feet by 3 feet. I bought it to house Salty (one of my hens) when she had bumble foot and later was attacked by a hawk. I put the cage within my adult hens' cage. I put a tarp over it to keep out rain. The bottom was filled with pine shavings and had to be changed after thunderstorms. A special bowl that attaches to the side was used for water as they would have put the shavings into any bowl on the ground. Some branches were added as roosts and play toys for them but they never used them. Beginning at 5 weeks for Sugar and Spice and 4 weeks for Beebee, I put the chicks in the cage with the door shut, only on warm, dry days. They came in at night or during the rain. The bedding was changed if a rain rendered it wet. Wet is the biggest enemy of chicks as it can result in coccidiosis (spelling may be wrong) among other problems like simply being too cold. At 6 weeks old, I let them out and watched how they interacted with the hens. In both cases, the older hens chased and pecked at the chicks who screamed in response. For the first few days, they were only out with supervision, then they were out during the day but brought in at night so that by 7 weeks old, they were fully outside. Using metal pins, the cage door was kept open so the chicks could get in there but the hens could not. Or, that was the idea. As Sugar and Spice grew, they were the size of Clarice by 7 weeks old so Clarice would go in and eat all their food. I began putting Sugar and Spice's bowl on top of the dog cage. Then, Beebee had the inside. By 8 weeks, the chicks were fully integrated into the "flock" (I only had five total) although the hens would still chase and peck at the chicks but not as often. Beebee was quite funny. He would not be rejected or give up and came back for more when the others pestered him. By 6.5 weeks old, Beebee was roosting in the chicken's house. The others did not want him there, so Beebee roosted on the window sill! At the same time, a Carolina wren had a nest with babies in there too! If you have roosters, integrating chicks into the flock may take longer as a rooster may try to harm the chicks.
My hen house had a heat emitter so I could turn that on at night if it was cold for the first few weeks the chicks were integrated in with the hens. If I had no adult chickens, I could have put the babies in the hen house at only a few weeks old (although it is pretty dirty) with the heat lamp in the heat emitter's socket.
Our hen Pondet hatched two chicks on 7/8/05 by herself. As soon as they hatched, Spicey, the dominant hen jumped onto Pondet and tried to peck her and the babies hard. We put up a chicken wire fence dividing the chicken's pen into two sections. Unfortunately, the babies were not in the section with the main house so that at 19-days-old, one chick vanished, presumably eaten by a snake (songbirds were given the snake cry). I then swapped the sides the chickens were on. When the remaining baby (Speckles) was 2-months-old, I let them all together (one big rooster, two hens, and one baby). They got along great until December 2006 when Speckles decide to try to kill his father. He failed; I separated them. For details, see the page on my chickens.
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