A young chick needs help to stay warm. Until they're fully feathered out, their little bodies just don't have the ability to regulate their own body temperature. In nature, their mother gathers them up and uses her own body heat to keep her chicks toasty. However, when buying baby chicks from a store, they need an artificial heat source to replace their mom.
Because of this, it's necessary to set up an artificially created environment for 6-8 weeks, until they're big enough to manage on their own, apart from external heat. Although there are many different brooders you can buy commercially, it's very easy to set up one of your own for a fraction of the cost. Here's a list of the equipment you'll need:
- A heat lamp with a red bulb
- A container large enough for your chicks, their food
and water, and a bit of space to run around
- Newspaper and other bedding
- Food dish
- Water dish
When I've raised hens from chicks, I've started them out in a large dog crate. When they outgrew that, I went down to a local home improvement store and picked up an appliance box (call ahead so they'll save one for you--they usually break them down as they go along). These boxes are free and very spacious.
Another inexpensive container that makes a good brooder is a plastic storage container (minus the snap on lid). When I've used this kind of container, I've placed a leftover window screen (still in the frame) on top. Weight it down with books, etc. if you have an indoor cat or other animal that might like to get inside to feast on the chicks.
Setting up the Brooder:
Once you've got the container, add a few layers of newspaper to the bottom, but cover the newspaper with something such as wood shavings (pine or wood, but NOT cedar!) to help keep things dry and smelling better and to keep the surface from getting slick (which could potentially cause spraddle legs--a condition where the legs slip out to the side, making it difficult to walk.)
Stay away from using bedding such as: newspaper, cardboard, plastic, kitty litter, cotton batting, leaves, straw, hay, cedar shavings or dirt. Some of these substances cause lung irritation, others could potentially swell inside their fragile little stomach, causing issues, some may contain harsh chemicals or mold that aren't good for them at such a young age.
When my chicks were little, I kept them in the house, in a dog crate, but as they get older (and stinkier) I moved them into the garage (into a dishwasher box) while I waited for them to get old enough to move into the coop. A mud room, laundry room, etc. works well for the beginning stages of their lives, although a garage will work fine, too, as long as you keep the brooder warm enough.
A heat lamp fitted with a heat lamp (red) bulb is a good addition. The red helps keep the chicks calmer and isn't as hard on their eyes at night when they're trying to sleep. I have to admit, though, that I've used a regular light with a 60 watt light bulb and my chicks did fine. The point is to keep them warm. If you want, you can put a thermometer in the brooder, but really, if you watch them, the chicks will tell you if it's too hot. They'll spread out and stay as far away as they can from the heat lamp. They'll also tell you if it's too cold. They'll be huddled around the lamp trying to stay warm.
Put the light in and check on the chicks frequently. If they look too hot, raise the light a bit. If they look too cold, lower it. Once the chicks are running around and seem happy and content, you know you've got it just right.
Although I've never had this problem, some have said their chicks get stuck in the corners of boxes, so it's a good idea to place something inside to round out the corners so they know to keep moving and don't get stuck in one place.
Food and water containers are important. Baby chicks grow like weeds and they never stop eating (and pooping). Make sure the water dish you're using is shallow enough that they won't accidentally fall in and drown. Placing small pebbles in the container will help with this.
From Brooder to Coop
As your chicks grow, they might need a bigger place to stay even though they might not be ready to move completely outside. Once mine outgrew their dog crate brooder and moved into the appliance box, they moved from my apartment into the garage. I moved the heat lamp with them, and actually added a second one as it was much colder out in the garage. After 6-8 weeks (when they're completely covered with feathers), it's safe to move them outside into the coop.
Once you get your brooder set up, here's more information of raising chicks and taking care of your new chicks.
Are you worried about whether or not you should start your flock with baby chicks or older birds?