How to Be a Mama Hen


Your chicks have arrived! You got the call from the feed store or post office to come pick them up. Now it’s your job to be a mother hen for the next several months. What do you do?

Newly hatched chicks have a few simple needs. Meet those needs and they should grow into adult, egg-laying hens in about six months.

Where to keep the chicks
chick-lah-057rFirst of all, your new babies will need a safe brooder of some sort. They probably arrived in a cardboard box, but cardboard is too hard to clean. I use a large plastic storage bin with pretty high sides. Instead of putting on the lid, I stretch 1-inch chicken wire over the top, folding it over the lip to secure it. This keeps the chicks inside (it’s amazing how high they can jump). If you have a lot of chicks, kiddie swimming pools make excellent pens.

Some sort of bedding will absorb droppings and provide some traction for those skinny claws. Wood shavings work great. Newspaper is another option. Whatever you use, it will need regular cleaning. (I put the dirty shavings out in the garden as mulch.)

Temperature control
This brings us to the next essential: warmth. Mama hen’s body is 100°F, and that’s what the chicks need at first. Since you don’t have nice warm feathery wings, the next best option is an old-fashioned light bulb. A flood lamp (such as used in outdoor lighting) works well. You can buy a hanging socket, or use a reflector with a clamp. The goal is to position it over the chicks at just the right height. You don’t want them shivering directly underneath, nor do you want to roast them (yet).  You can use a thermometer, or just observe the chicks. If they are comfortably spread around their enclosure, you know you’ve got it right.

Leave this heat lamp on all the time. Then, as the chicks grow, slowly reduce the temperature by raising the light, monitoring their behavior to make sure they’re still comfy. Finally, they can go outside when they have enough real feathers to keep themselves warm (at  four to six weeks old).

chicks-eating-lah-027Next on the list is food. This one is easy. Pick up a bag of start-and-grow, or other similar chick feed at the local feed store. It comes as a grainy crumble, just the right size for tiny beaks. Assume that the chicks will make a mess and waste a considerable amount of food.

This starter food comes medicated or non-medicated. The medicine is to prevent coccidiosis. By the age of eight weeks, they have built up a natural immunity to this disease, and should be switched to the non-medicated feed. They can continue on that diet until they start laying.

I have a chick feeder consisting of a mason jar (that you fill with feed) and a metal screw-on dispenser. If you have more than a few chicks, you can get larger feeders. None are very expensive and they last for years.

chicks-drinking-lah-015Chickens of all ages need clean water available to them at all times. Providing water is much like offering food. You can get a similar dispenser (plastic, in this case, so it doesn’t rust), and you just keep it clean and filled. If you can raise it up a little, perhaps on a wooden block, it will collect less bedding. Chicks are pretty klutzy, so you don’t want an open water dish. They’d probably fall in.

If they don’t find the water dish in a reasonable time, pick them up and carefully dip their beaks part way into the water. (Of course, be careful not to drown them!) Chickens aren’t the smartest of God’s creatures.

Although not exactly a “need,” I like to tame my chickens while they’re small. Overcoming their innate fear of me makes it much easier to take care of my flock later on. With that in mind, I spend some time every day gently picking them up and holding them in my cupped hands. They’re so light and fragile, it’s hard to believe they’ll grow into sturdy hens by fall.

chick-sprawled-lah-040And that’s it. Don’t be concerned if your day-old chicks sprawl on the bottom of their pen. They’re just taking a nap. (They do look pretty funny sometimes!)

You will need to check new chicks twice a day (morning and evening is fine) the first week or two. Keeping things clean is the main challenge. The droppings and crumbled food both give off a significant amount of fine white dust, so house them in a place where that won’t be a problem.

I like having my baby chicks close at hand. For one thing, I like them near enough that I can hear their contented peeping. And besides, baby chicks are just so darned cute!

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