About the middle of February, peeping noises echo through farm and feed stores across Utah. It's baby chick season, and hundreds if not thousands of Utah residents will bring home days-old chicks for the first time.
Over the past few years, Utah has participated in a growing nationwide trend of urban residents choosing to harbor flocks of chickens. Even for inexperienced poultry people, raising chicks to egg-laying maturity is fairly simple. Here are the basics to help you get started.
Which to buy first: the chick or the egg?
When buying chicks for the first time, there are some important things to note. Most Utah communities have ordinances prohibiting roosters (hens do not need roosters to produce eggs) so many chicken owners prefer to buy only female chicks. Unfortunately, determining the gender of baby chicks is virtually impossible. When purchasing chicks, those labeled “straight run” include both female and male chicks. Pullets are supposed to be all females, but it isn’t unusual for an occasional chick to turn out to be a cockerel (immature rooster). Sex-linked chicks are cross-bred chickens that produce gender-specific color variations at birth, so purchasing black or red sex-link chicks ensures a flock of just hens.
Most farm stores also sell home incubators for people who want to hatch their own baby chicks, and a search of local online classified ads will produce several potential local sources for fertile hatching eggs. Those who go this route should know that success rates for home incubation are low. Maintaining proper heat and humidity levels is critical, and the eggs need constant monitoring for 28 days.
Providing the basics for baby chicks
Baby chicks’ primary needs are the same as any living animal: shelter, food and water. Shelter for chicks is a warm, dry box called a brooder. According to backyardchickens.com, a cardboard box will work just fine for "one-time or once-in-a-while use." A plastic storage tote or a wooden box is a more durable alternative.
The farm stores that sell chicks are good sources for inexpensive feeders and water containers specially designed for chicks, but a small plastic or glass container will also suffice. Chicks are messy, so food and water should be changed at least a couple times a day. Bedding made of pine shavings will help keep the brooder and the chicks clean. Replace it every two or three days as needed.
Warmth is easy to provide with an inexpensive reflective heat lamp, available at any hardware or farm store. The lamp should be about a foot above the baby chicks and the temperature in the brooder should be between 90 and 95 degrees.
“Watch the birds; they will tell you if they are too hot or cold," recommends Oregon State University Extension Service. "If they are cold, they will be huddling under the lamp, chirping loudly. If they are hot, they will be as far from the lamp as possible. Ideal temperature is reached when the birds appear to be acting normally, some eating, some drinking, some sleeping, etc.”
Raise the heat lamp a little each week to help the chicks adjust to normal temperatures. After four or five weeks, they should be able to survive without supplemental heat as long as they are kept in an area that is dry and free of drafts.
At about four weeks, the chicks will have enough feathers that they can flutter up like a helicopter. At that point the brooder needs a screen or lid on top to keep the chicks contained. The chicks can be moved outside at about six weeks, but they still need shelter and possible supplemental warmth depending on weather conditions. They will also need a protected enclosure to keep them safe from predators like raccoons, foxes, and neighborhood cats and dogs.
Depending on the breed, chickens will start laying eggs between five and nine months. The combs and wattles of hens will be bright red and fully developed when they reach egg-laying maturity.
Health and safety tips for handling baby chicks
Baby chicks can carry salmonella germs on their bodies, feet and feathers. That's why it's so important to practice proper hygiene when handling chicks, especially for children.
“Baby chicks are fluffy, cute and fun to hold. But when you handle a chick, the salmonella germs get on your hands. If you touch your hands to your mouth you can get sick,” according to the Utah Department of Agriculture.
To avoid illness, the department issued the following tips for handling baby chicks:
Wash your hands with soap and warm water after handling chicks.
Make sure young children wash their hands after handling chicks.
Never hold baby chicks while eating.
Do not nuzzle or kiss baby chicks.
Do not use the kitchen sink to clean a chick’s cage or feed or water containers.
Keep chicks out of family living areas.
Chicks and ducks are not good pets for children under 5 years old.
Flint Stephens has a master's degree in communications from Brigham Young University. He has raised urban chickens for more than a decade. His blog is www.mormonparentingsecrets.com.