Last week was hatch day at my house. After arduously pecking free of their eggs, the three tiny chicks were soggy, tired and almost ready to face the world. Just before chicks hatch, they absorb the remains of the yolk sac that has nourished them throughout development. This gives them about twenty fours hours to find access to food and water. As luck would have it, I knew they were coming. After spending a last night in the incubator to dry off and recover a little strength, their new digs awaited.
An outbuilding on my property misleadingly called the “Artist’s Studio” will be their home until reaching chickenhood. Most of the time the space is used for storage, but when new chicks arrive, it houses a simple particle board chick enclosure. Lined with wood shavings and lit by a single brooder lamp, the four-by-four pen is home for my growing chicks. They will spend about ten weeks there before they are ready to join the rest of the flock.
The first few days are critical for new chicks. Priority one is giving them a warm environment. They just left a controlled temperature of about a hundred degrees, after all. As they settle into the world, anything less than ninety degrees or so may prove fatal for a delicate day-old chick. For the first week, our brooder lamp hangs about eighteen inches from the floor of the pen. The chicks are very particular about body temperature and will position themselves as close or as far from the heat source as they need to be comfortable. If they are huddled together directly under the light, the lamp may need to hang a little lower, just as wallflowers may need the lamp raised. As time goes by, their need for higher temperatures will fade and the lamp will be raised weekly to accommodate them.
There is a ritual to introducing chicks to a new pen that is essential, but I also get a kick out of it. Never having taken a sip of water before, each chick must be introduced to the pen by dipping its beak into the water source. I use a fairly standard chick waterer, which is a narrow trough that screws onto a mason jar. Chick waterers need to be narrow and shallow to prevent accidental drowning. Adding a little sugar or electrolyte and vitamin supplement to their water for the first few days provides a helpful energy boost.
Boy, baby chicks have a lot to learn. Not only do they need a helping hand with the water, but it even takes them a couple of days to get the hang of food. Until they figure it out, I line the bottom of the pen with newspaper and scatter some starter crumble around. Feed trays are in place, but until they get the knack of it, anything within reach can be mistaken for food. The newspaper discourages them from filling up on wood shavings instead of actual food. Oh, chickies! What would Michael Pollan think? As one might guess, nutrition is important for a growing chick and “starter feed” has higher protein than adult feed to promote growth and heartiness.
Great job, chicks! What a difference a week makes. Already nearly double in size, any confusion on how to eat is long gone. They are still downy and chick-like, but that will change soon. They grow up so fast ...