Five week old Golden Sexlink in a brooder

Raising Baby Chicks for Beginners, Part 3: Caring for baby chicks

Once you have all the gear you need to raise baby chicks, it’s all about the know-how. Yes, their tiny fluffy bodies, teeny feet, and sweet chirps will demand all your attention for cuddles and training; but baby chicks are also fairly sensitive and require specific conditions to thrive. Here you’ll find answers to the most common questions about caring for baby chicks, as well as our best tips and tricks for keeping them healthy and happy.

First Things First: Set up a Brooder

Proper caring for baby chicks begins with a good brooder, where you will raise your chicks until they can live in their coop. The brooder needs to maintain a steady temperature that, depending on their stage of development, can range from 95 degrees to as low as room temperature. When the chicks arrive home, their brooder should already be set up and heated. Dip their beaks in their water and feed to orient them, and then set them under the heat lamp to get warm. For detailed instructions on setting up your brooder read Part 1 of our Series on Raising Baby Chicks.

Lavender Orpington baby chicks foraging in the grass
Chicks are delicate babies that need special care.

What temperature should the brooder be?

Chicks must be protected from extreme temperatures, and drastic temperature changes, and should have a constant source of heat until they are fully feathered. For this reason, we don’t recommend keeping the chick brooder outside, or in a drafty garage.

Day-old baby chicks should be kept around 100 degrees Fahrenheit. By the end of their first week, the temperature should be just 95 degrees. As they grow, they will quickly develop more true feathers and need less heat to stay warm. Each week the temperature can be dropped another 5 degrees as follows:

  • 1 week old – 95 Degrees
  • 2 weeks old – 90 Degrees
  • 3 weeks old – 85 Degrees
  • 4 weeks old – 80 Degrees
  • 5 weeks old – 75 Degrees
  • 6 weeks old – 70 Degrees

How do I tell if the brooder is at the right temperature?

You can use a thermometer (or lots of other nifty tools mentioned in Part 1 of this series), to manage the brooder temperature. However, it’s worth noting that certain factors, like breed, ambient temperature, wellness, and the time of year, may cause your chicks to develop more quickly or more slowly than normal. So you should also understand how to watch their behavior to see if they’re too hot, too cold, or just right. Chicks can manage their own temperature by moving towards or away from their heat source; so install the heat source in one corner of the brooder to allow chicks a good range of motion.

When they are too cold, you’ll find them huddled in the corner closest to the heat source. When they are too hot, they will crowd together in the corner furthest away from the heat source. If the temperature is just right, they’ll make the most of the brooder area to eat, drink, sleep and play. If the temperature reaches dangerous extremes for the chicks, they’ll begin sending a distress signal: a loud, incessant, and shrill chirping to get your attention.

This is why it’s a good idea to set the brooder up inside the laundry room, spare bedroom, or just off the main living spaces, where you can hear them if they’re calling for help.

Five week old Golden Sexlink in a brooder
Until chicks are fully feathered on their heads, they need to be kept warm.

More Important Things to Know

Properly caring for baby chicks doesn’t stop with the brooder – it only begins! There’s a lot more to delivering the best care for your cute feathered friends. Learn more about feeding, transitioning to coops, and learning behaviors.

When can I move my chicks to the coop?

As they age, chicks lose their baby fluff and grow in true feathers in a pattern beginning with their wings, and ending with the top of their head; just like molting. Chicks are considered fully feathered when true feathers cover their head and neck. Depending on the breed, the time of year, and the conditions of the brooder, this happens at around 6-8 weeks old; and it means they are ready to move into the chicken coop.

When the weather is warm, chicks can go directly to the coop as soon as they are fully feathered. When it’s cold, you may want to give them just a couple more weeks until their bodies get bigger and their feathering gets fuller (like wearing a little down jacket).

If your chicks are 6-8 weeks old and still have bare spots where they haven’t grown in their feathering on the neck, backs or bodies, then the brooder temperature has been too warm for them and should be lowered to encourage the growth of warm feathering.

Buff Orpington adolescent foraging outside
Chicks usually go outside into their coop around 6-8 weeks old.

What should I feed my baby chicks?

Baby chicks require a chick starter feed that is high in protein (around 20%) and easy for their young digestive system. The extra protein in this feed will assist them with the rapid growth and development their bodies go through as chicks. Chick starter comes in three main forms: crumble, mash, and whole-grain (like Scratch and Peck).

Mash tends to be dusty and messy, as chicks can pick out what they like, and discard the rest. Crumble generally promotes the most well-balanced diet as all the nutrients are packed into pellets and then crushed into a smaller digestible form.

Whole grain feeds are generally the most wholesome, and closest to the natural diet of a foraging baby chick, but are the most expensive and require supplementing with chick grit for digestion. You can switch them to a chick grower feed at 10 weeks, or continue the chick starter until the birds reach 4-5 months old, and switch them to a laying feed.

A handful of King Feed 20% chick starter crumble feed
Chicks need to be fed crumbled starter feed with 20% protein.

How often should I feed my chicks?

Unlike other beloved fluffy animals (ahem, dogs) who will eat everything in front of them, chicks take only what they need. This means you can leave their feeder full and allow them to graze as they please, rather than feeding them a certain amount once or twice per day.

Do my baby chicks need grit?

Grit is essentially how chickens chew their food. Chickens forage for small stones, rocks, sand, or coarse dirt that can be used in their gizzard to break down food before it moves to the stomach. For baby chicks, formulated feeds like crumble and mash are already broken down, so grit is not necessary. Using grit with these types of feeds can actually cause an impacted crop.

On the other hand, whole grain chick feeds can contain whole seeds, grains or legumes: foods that are too large to digest without being “chewed”, so it’s necessary that the chicks have access to grit. Grit should not be mixed directly into the feed, but rather made available in a separate free feed dish for chicks to take as needed. Chick grit is usually made of tiny pieces of rocks like granite and can be purchased at your local feed store.

Once chicks are old enough to go into the coop, they should be able to forage for grit in the earth.

When can I start giving my chicks treats and kitchen scraps?

If you’re providing chick grit, you can offer small treats or kitchen scraps as early as two weeks old. If not, wait until they’re outside in their coop and have access to earth for grit before offering them raw or cooked whole foods and treats.

Plastic 1 quart chick feeder in a brooder
Purchase special chick feeders and waterers to maintain clean food and water

Do I need to purchase chick feeders and chick waterers?

Yes! It is not safe to use a small bowl or dish for drinking water or feed. Chicks are not aware of when or where they relieve themselves, the danger of even a shallow bowl of water, or the necessity of keeping their food and water clean. They will walk around in a bowl of food or water, poop in it, play in it, spill it, and can even drown in it.

A proper chick waterer and chick feeder will limit the risk of drowning, spillage, and sanitation issues. However, it won’t eliminate the mess entirely. Clean the waterer and feeder regularly, and refresh the water as often as possible to help your chicks stay healthy. 

What health supplements can I use for my baby chicks?

Baby chicks can benefit greatly from having Chick Vitamins & Electrolytes in their water. If you do not have these on hand, you can help perk up your newly arrived chicks by adding a tablespoon of sugar, honey, or another natural sweetener to their water for a half-day. This also works for chicks who are runted or lethargic to encourage movement, eating, and drinking.

Alternatively, if you have raw apple cider vinegar on hand, it can be used in plastic waterers at a ratio of 1 tablespoon per gallon of water to help keep the waterer clean and provide vitamins and minerals. For chicks with pasty butt, grind up oatmeal and sprinkle it in their feed. If chicks show symptoms of stargazing or wry neck, add thiamine to their diet by sprinkling nutritional yeast in their feed.

Young boy cradling a Buff Orpington baby chick
Take care of your chicks by listening to their sounds and paying attention to their body language.

What should I watch or listen for to make sure my chicks are healthy and happy?

Chicks communicate with their mamas by the way they chirp. Gentle peeps and coos mean they are happy and content. Loud, incessant chirping means they need something: usually food, water, or warmth. Listening in can give you an idea of when to check in on the brooder. 

Likewise, you can understand a lot about their health by their activity level, their posture, their growth rate, and their droppings. Lethargy is usually the first sign that something isn’t right. Chicks do spend a lot of time sleeping, just like babies. But if you see they’re sleeping more often than normal, with their heads tucked into their chest and their feathers puffed out like they have the chills, then it’s likely they’re not feeling well.

Keep an eye out for bloody stools and pasty butt which can be an indication of stress and Coccidiosis. Pasty butt, a buildup of droppings on their vent, should be cleaned regularly. Use warm water and a towel to gently remove the poop from blocking their vent. Chicks will occasionally pass stools with small red bits of intestinal lining which is completely normal.

You need only be concerned with bright red liquid blood in the stools. If one chick develops much more slowly than the others, it may have an issue with nutrient absorption, Coccidiosis, or it might be a runt.

Nearly feathered White Cochin baby chick
Chicks can develop at different rates, and some need special care.

​How often should I change the bedding in my brooder?

Cleanliness for baby chicks is of utmost importance. Most afflictions suffered by chicks can be prevented or alleviated by keeping their feed, water, and bedding clean.

The frequency with which you should change the bedding will be determined by the density of chicks in your brooder, their age, and their health: big chicks create more waste than little chicks; a larger group of chicks will create more waste than a smaller group of chicks in any given area; and sick chicks create more runny, and potentially contagious, droppings than healthy chicks.

Soiled and moist bedding is a breeding ground for Coccidia, naturally occurring protozoa that can cause a condition in chicks called Coccidiosis. Little chicks with tiny feet and legs aren’t as effective at scratching and turning over their bedding as adult chickens, so droppings will begin to build upon the top layer of bedding.

Droppings that are not absorbed by the bedding are picked up by curious or foraging chicks and can begin an infection of Coccidiosis. In between bedding changes, spot clean the areas of heavy use, and regularly turn soiled bedding over to bring fresh and clean bedding to the top. When these kinds of intermediate cleanings no longer produce an absorbent and fresh top layer of bedding for the chicks, it’s time to change the bedding.

For many home brooder set-ups, a weekly bedding change is sufficient; but be vigilant and ready to change it more frequently as needed.

Golden Sexlink baby chicks in a brooder with dirty paper towels
Clean the brooder bedding often to prevent chicks from eating contaminated bedding.

Is there any way I can move my chicks outside early?

If the chicks are getting difficult to keep in the house (jumping out of the brooder, knocking over their feeder and waterer, picking on each other, or soiling the bedding too quickly to keep clean), you can move them to the coop a little earlier as long as you provide supplemental heat.

We strongly advise against moving them outside any earlier than 3-4 weeks old. Simply run an extension cord to the coop to plug in a heat lamp for them. Timers can be helpful in hot weather and with older chicks to schedule the lights to turn on and off automatically in the morning and at night so they don’t get too cold at night or too hot during the day.

Can I take my little chicks outside to play for a short while?

Yes! It’s fun and safe to take your chicks out for little play dates. With supervision and protection from any other larger pets or animals, bring your chicks out on a warm day to spend some time in the sun and explore the grass or dirt. Smaller chicks should spend less time outside if it gets cold or windy. Happy trilling or soft chirping will confirm they feel safe and warm.

If they huddle together, stop exploring, and begin to chirp loudly or incessantly, take them back inside to warm up and relax. Chicks are fast and love to explore, so do not leave them alone.

White Leghorn baby chicks playing in green grass
Baby chicks enjoy supervised play dates outside to get fresh air and sunshine, and play in the grass.

Learn More

We want your backyard flock to be a flapping success! Read our complete three-part series on preparing for, buying, and caring for baby chicks. Visit Part II and Part III now!

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