How to Care for Day Old Chicks

Hatched at home...chick from my own fertile chicken egg.
Hatched at home in an incubator.

For more information, check out my posts How to Raise Turkeys, Raising Meat Chickens, and Are Hatcheries Humane?

Spring Peep Primer

Are you thinking about raising chickens or other poultry this year? Are you starting from scratch? If you’re a newbie planning to hatch fertile eggs or order day old chicks through the mail, keep reading for instructions to care for those little puff balls. If you’ve already been through this process, it doesn’t hurt to refresh your memory. Although this is geared toward chicks, the instructions are the same for baby turkeys, ducks, geese, and other fowl.

The Basics:

  • Keep brooder temps at 95 F for the first week, decrease by 5 degrees each week.
  • Make sure there is room for chicks to get out of the heat.
  • Sugar water will give them a boost of energy after a long trip.
  • Keep food and shallow water containers clean and filled.
  • Make sure there are no drafts or sunny spots to cause temp changes in brooder area.
  • Make sure rodents, pets, or well meaning children can’t hurt or kill chicks.

Setting Up and Getting Started

Before the chicks arrive, be sure you have their brooder area set up and tested for a couple of days. You don’t want to find out that your only heat lamp isn’t working when you get home with your babies.

The new peeps are nice and warm in their Redneck Brooder Box.

Keep Them Warm

If you are using a heat lamp, turn it on two or three days in advance so you can adjust the height to provide the proper temperature. I have used an Eco Glow brooder instead, but now I use my Redneck Brooder System. It is safer (less chance of causing a fire) and uses less energy than a heat lamp. My brooder system mimics the warmth of a mother hen. If my chicks are going straight to the barn when the temps are low, I use seedling heat mats and a heat lamp. The heat lamp warms up their room and the brooder gives them a warm comfy place to nap. Make sure there are no drafts in their brooding area. If you only have a few peeps coming, consider keeping them in the house for a week or so to keep a close eye on them.

The heat lamp in my brooder room keeps the youngsters warm. Be sure to follow all safety instructions to prevent a fire!

For the first week of their lives, chicks should be kept in a brooding area that is 95 degrees Fahrenheit, with space to get out of the heat if they get too warm. Each week you will need to reduce the temperature of the brooder 5 degrees F until the youngsters are feathered out. If you notice the chicks piling on top of each other under the heat lamp, they are too cold. Lower the lamp, use a warmer bulb (an incandescent bulb may not be enough), or add another heat lamp to the brooder. If the chicks are as far from the heat lamp as possible and they are panting, the temperature is too high for them and the heat lamp needs to be raised or switched to a lower watt bulb. Be sure the peeps have room to move around and find the best temperature for themselves. I always keep a digital thermometer under the heat lamp and I check it several times a day. Be careful not to adjust the heat lamp and then get busy with something else. It doesn’t take long for extreme temperatures to kill baby poultry.

Turkey poults learning to eat.
Turkey poults learning to eat.

Food and Water

Make sure they have clean drinking water in a container that they can’t fall in and drown. Dip their beaks in the water when you first unpack them from the shipping box to teach them how to drink. Normally the mother hen would teach them this, but you’ll need to fill in. For the first few days, it’s a good idea to give them water with a little sugar in it. Three tablespoons of sugar to one quart of water is a good mix. This will give them a boost of energy and help revive them after their trip from the hatchery. Don’t use honey in place of the sugar, as it can have a type of botulism that could kill baby animals.

Provide chick starter crumbles for your little peeps and watch to see if they eat. If your chicks were vaccinated for coccidiosis, you should give them non-medicated feed. If they aren’t showing any interest in their food, try clipping up some tiny pieces of lettuce on top of the crumbles. The contrast will draw their attention and they should be eating in no time. For other types of baby poultry, check to see if starter crumbles contain enough protein.


Don’t use newspapers or anything that is slippery to line the bottom of your brooder. I use paper towels for the first few days if my chicks are in a brooder box in the house. This makes it easy to swap the paper towels several times a day as they get dirty. The old paper towels are composted. Once the chicks are moved to the barn, I use wood shavings for their bedding. They are easily raked away and replenished as the chicks soil them. When the peeps are a couple of weeks old I usually switch to hay or straw for their bedding and I’ve never had any problems. When they are really small they tend to trip over the straw.

Use paper towels or old dish towels to line the brooder box.

Sick Chicks?

Sometimes when the chicks arrive they’ve had a rough trip. If they seem to be having trouble, you can mix up a special ‘soup’ for them. Put an additional tablespoon of sugar in the quart of water and add some of this to their feed to make a soup. This will soften the food and make it easier for them to digest.

If you notice signs of pasty butt (droppings sticking to their little bums), be sure to gently clean the feces off with a warm, damp cloth. Don’t rub too hard and make sure you aren’t irritating or removing any skin. Give them a small spoon full of plain yogurt with probiotics to jump start the good bacteria in their digestive systems. Electrolytes for chickens can also be added to their water to give them some extra nutrients. Use this in place of the sugar, if desired.

Sometimes there is nothing you can do for sick chicks.
Sometimes there is nothing you can do for sick chicks.

Sometimes there is nothing you can do to save the little ones who arrive sick. Occasionally you will have one or two dead chicks in your shipment. Be sure you know the hatchery’s replacement and refund policy before you order and let them know immediately if you receive dead or sick chicks. The longer your chicks spend in shipping, the more likely you will have some losses. Consider paying extra for express shipping if it is available.

Pay Attention!

Life is busy and we often get distracted with all of the chores necessary on our homestead. However, making the investment in a batch of baby poultry isn’t just about the financial cost. You also need to invest your time and attention. Check on the chicks often. Make sure the temperature in the brooder doesn’t drop to dangerous levels if the weather turns or a bulb burns out. Keep a screen over the brooder box to prevent escape and hypothermia. Don’t let the water run out and keep food in their dish at all times. Little chicks create a big mess and you will need to clean their brooder out on a regular basis. Be prepared to pay close attention to your peeps while they are young and vulnerable.

Have you ever raised day old chicks? Are you planning to order or hatch any baby poultry this spring? What kind of poultry do want to add your homestead? I always enjoy hearing about your baby chicks!


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