A hen will look after her brood, meaning all you have to do is provide suitable food and keep their house clean. If something happens to her, or you adopted chicks by themselves, you’ll need to take on the mother's role, in particular with regards to providing warmth. Although they are relatively independent compared to, for example, pigeon squabs and can feed themselves, chicks also need a special diet.
Housing Your Chicks
Chicks need a brooder, which could be as simple as a sizable cardboard box, for the first couple of months of life. This keeps them contained and close to the heat source. Use paper towels for the first two weeks, then aspen wood shavings, shredding newspaper or paper-based pellets as the litter.
Without their mother, they’ll also need a heat source in the form of a heat lamp for poultry -- widely available from farm stores, although you could also use a plain 100- to 250-watt bulb with a reflector. Keep the temperature at about 95 degrees Fahrenheit -- the temperature they’d get under their mother. After two or three months, you can transfer the chicks -- who’ll be pullets by now -- to your typical chicken coop and run.
Feeding Your Chicks
For the first couple of weeks of life, chicks need a fine, high-protein crumbly food. They may struggle to eat adult food, and it does not have the right nutritional balance. Supplement the food with chopped hard-boiled eggs, green vegetables, and earthworms. Water is also essential, but chicks can easily drown or become cold, so use either a commercial chick waterer or a very shallow bowl filled with pebbles. You’ll need to very gently push the beaks of newly hatched chicks into the water so they learn how to drink, since their mother would usually teach them this trick. They also need grit to help them grind their food -- that’s the function of chicken gizzards. Offer it in a separate bowl, not mixed in with their regular diet.
Transitioning to an Adult Diet
Pullets need slightly less protein than the chicks but don’t need extra calcium until they start laying eggs. Commercial foods for pullets are available, which you should gradually mix with the chick food over the course of a week. Supplement with the same foods you gave the chicks. They too need grit until they have access to the outdoors.
Caring for Your Chicks
Apart from replacing the litter every other day and feeding daily, basic care involves reducing the temperature by about 5 degrees per week. As their feathers develop, chicks will overheat when the temperature is too high. Check them several times a day, making sure the bedding is clean, the food and water topped up and they aren’t too hot or too cold -- you can gauge this by how close they are keeping to the heater. Also keep an eye on their behinds and remove any stuck-on feces. Provide a perch after a week or so.
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Judith Willson has been writing since 2009, specializing in environmental and scientific topics. She has written content for school websites and worked for a Glasgow newspaper. Willson has a Master of Arts in English from the University of Aberdeen, Scotland.