If you have ever held a baby chick, then you know just how small and fragile they are. The feel of their seemingly weightless bodies and the sounds of their nervous chirps as you hold them, give you a real awareness of the need to ‘be careful’. Even after all this time, I’m nervous when I see another person holding one.
But chickens are outdoor animals. And while an indoor brooder is necessary, in the absence of mama hen, it is not a permanent solution. At some point, your birds will need to go outdoors. The question is when.
Chicks can be outside provided they are offered protection against predators and the temperature is conducive to their exact needs. However, you should know, if either one of these things is neglected, even in the slightest, then it is very likely that your bird will perish.
And for the record, every predator with ears will hear the quiet chirps of your chicks as they go merrily about their day. Should this predator have young of its own, then you can expect their efforts to get at your chicks, to be quite significant. I have found that it takes considerable planning to ensure the predator doesn’t get what it needs.
With regards to chicks and outdoor temperatures, once again considerable care is necessary. Baby chicks do not have the means to regulate their body temperature. In the case of cooler weather, the chicks will often play for a time before running back to huddle under mama’s warm wing. In hotter weather, mama hen will lead her fuzzy charges to a cooler place of shade.
If no mama hen is available, then it is up to you to ensure the 24 hour care that these chicks need. And since very few of us have the means to be with the birds 24 hours a day, a brooder is usually employed to keep the chicks safe, cared for and all in one place.
When Can You Put Baby Chicks Outside?
Assuming that you have provided your chicks guaranteed protection, they can go outside as soon as your climate allows. This is going to vary from place to place, with the warmer southern climates being earlier than the colder northern climates.
Generally speaking, chicks should be wearing a good coat of feathers with the ability to handle temperatures around 65 degrees at 6 weeks of age. So long as your outdoor temperature is in that range, then you could consider letting them outdoors to play. However, it should be noted that the longer you wait, the more time they will have to develop their heat regulating abilities.
For us, living in a northern climate, should we get our chicks in spring, then we will generally wait until they are 8 weeks old before letting them move to the coop. At this age, they are fully feathered and have proven to handle the elements fairly well. We have seen then huddle together when there is a surprise cold and they seem to know enough, at 8 weeks, to get out of the rain or the blazing hot sun.
It’s worth noting, that when we move the chicks outdoors, they are being moved permanently. In the past, we have gathered up our chicks on warm sunny afternoons and taken them on short field trips outdoors. This can be a lot of fun. However, we no longer do this as chicks can be incredibly difficult to catch if/when they get lose. And a chick without proper care is at risk.
To understand the crucial nature of temperature and chick development, check out, ‘Will Chicks Die In The Cold.’
When Can Chicks Stay Outside Overnight?
As mentioned above, the longer you give your chicks, the more time they will have to develop their heat management skills. For our norther climate, 8 weeks old has proven to a safe age to handle whatever nature can dish out. But earlier can be applicable in certain situations.
For example, I once purchased a batch of broilers in late February. Admittedly, it was an impulsive buy (they were on sale!) and one that cost me much more than I could have anticipated.
Broiler breeds such as the Cornish Cross are unique in that they are fully grown and ready to harvest at 7 weeks of age. Unfortunately, this rapid growth occurred during an unusually cold March.
At around 5 weeks of age, I found myself changing the bedding in the indoor brooder twice a day and still unable to keep up with their needs. These birds were simply producing too much waste for the small confines of the brooder. Eventually, I became more concerned over the potential health risks from them being confined in their own filth than the freezing temperatures of the outside.
So… with great trepidation, I moved them outdoors to a chicken tractor with a very small and ‘cozy’ coop inside of it.
Combined with the small space (out of the wind) and their shared body heat, these 5 week old birds were able to handle the very cold temperatures – without any supplemental heat.
For the record, I am not recommending that you throw your 5 week old chicks out into the cold. This is, generally, a very bad idea! However, in my situation, I was able to capitalize on a fair amount of sunshine, as well as, careful preparations made in ample bedding material and a cozy coop for them to escape to.
When Can My Chicks Go In The Coop?
Temperature is not your only concern when moving your chicks to their permanent home.
If you have other birds that the newcomers will be sharing the coop with, then your chicks will need to have some size on them as pecking order is a definite thing for chickens.
At 8 weeks of age, your chicks will have grown considerably. And while they will not be able to dominate the older larger birds, they will not be so easily harmed.
Should you try to introduce your chicks to adult chickens earlier than this, then there is a very good possibility that the bigger chickens will kill the younger birds.
However, if the coop is empty and your young feathered charges free from the concern of oppressive older birds, then you can move your chicks to their coop as early as 5 weeks – provided the outdoor elements are conducive.
When it comes to matters of the flock, I find it best to trust your own instincts. No one knows your birds better than you do. And while it can be easy to read something from the ‘experts’, my advise is to follow your gut.
This might sound self-defeating as I have just written an article laying out some nuances of chick care, but you have to understand that each and every situation is unique. Everything from bird breed and individual personality, to all of the variables involved with your specific location, play a part in affecting your flock.
For this reason, I recommend that you wait as long as you possibly can to move the chicks. At 6 weeks old, they are going to look very much like adult chickens. But ask yourself, ‘is it worth ignoring any potential risks for the sake of one or two more weeks?’
Everyone’s situation is different, so if you’re confident… go for it! Chickens are happiest when they’re outdoors. Just make sure that you are moving them responsibly.
In the end, it’s all on you to care for your flock.