While your kids might be bouncing around in excitement from the fuzzy little chicks you’ve brought home, you, as the ‘grown-up’ may harbor secret whispers of concern. You’ve either read or heard just how crucial things are for raising chicks and you’ve got a justifiable sense of worry. The chick checklist has been gone over multiple times and your brooder is a palace. But still, it would be nice to know that you’ve done everything right.
This is where your chicks behavior can give you a sense of calm.
There are five signs of a healthy chick; they eat, they drink, they poo, they play and they nap. So long as you are observing these five behaviors from every member of your new flock, you can silence those whispers of concern. This doesn’t mean you should relax, just that you should stop panicking.
- Eating – For new chicks, eating will start with initial pecks of curiosity. Much like their adult counterparts, chicks peck at everything. So it shouldn’t take too long before they are grazing Starter Crumbles all throughout the day.
Don’t worry too much if the feeder doesn’t seem to be going down. Just keep a careful eye on them and then take notes on who has eaten and how hasn’t. Once you’ve seen each new chick eat, at least once, then you really shouldn’t have to worry about food again (unless someone gets sick).
- Drinking – In the first 72 hours, this behavior is the most critical to me. Chicks have to be shown ‘this is food’ and ‘this is water’. And while the small birds can go a little while without food, the lack of water is not as forgiving.
A common method of teaching your new chicks ‘this is water’ is to simply dunk their beaks in the waterer before releasing them to explore the new brooder. We have found that this works well, but is not guaranteed to work all of the time.
For this reason, we will employ the spoon method. This practice utilizes the chick’s natural instincts to peck at something new. And if the bird is thirsty, you will see that they take their time in quenching their thirst.
There is no greater relief to me than seeing the chicks ignore the watering spoon – usually around day 5. This tells me that they’ve figured out how to use the waterer and are using it when they feel the need.
- Pooing – Baby chicks won’t poo a whole lot that first week. But this changes as they really start to grow. Understand that you will need to check their butts – daily!
The fuzzy feathers around a chicks vent can provide a surface for poo to collect on. If this waste covers the cloaca and hardens, then it will block off the chick’s digestive system. This is called a ‘pasty butt’ and can be fatal to your uber adorable friend.
Should you find that your chick has a pasty butt, you should immediately set about removing the blockage by softening the waste in warm water. (Be careful not to get your chick too wet as they chill easily)
Once the birds have started replacing the downy fuzz with real feathers, this problem gradually goes away. But it will be a part of your daily checks for a while.
- Playing – Chickens are a flock animal. This means that regular engagements with each other is part of their routine. You will see them occasionally pecking at each other when something annoys them, as well as, going face to face and raising themselves in challenge as they practice for the pecking order. In moderation, this is all normal, and quite frankly, entertaining to watch.
If, however, you see one particular chick being routinely driven away from the flock, by multiple members, then it would be wise to keep an eye on things. The singled-out bird might actually be sick and the other chicks know it. (If you have any concerns, reach out to a chicken forum for advise).
- Napping – Chicks are fun to watch. They can go from falling asleep on their feet to full-throttle running around in just a matter of a few seconds.
What’s even more amusing, in a bewildering sort of way, is where they choose to sleep and the strange contorted shapes they can make while sleeping. There’s been more than one occasion where I’ve looked in the brooder and panicked as I thought the bird had perished.
Of course this comatose behavior disappears in an instant should another chick choose to walk over the top of them. But then, at least you know that your chick was just napping.
Warning Signs Of A Sick Chick
Nothing starts your day off quite like looking into a brooder full of happy active chicks. Hearing those merry little chirps and watching that rambunctious running around, just gives you a sense of life. But in the same regard, seeing a chick that isn’t quite doing so well, is enough to wreck your sense of calm. These adorable little fuzzballs are quite small, and as such, have very limited reserves to deal with potential health issues – meaning, you don’t usually have a lot of time to address things.
For this reason, it pays to be proactive when caring for your flock. Knowing what to look for can really make the difference. Signs that your chick may be ill include lethargy, panting, unstable on their feet and a general disregard for food and water.
- Lethargy – A happy chick is a busy chick. These little birds will start scratching and pecking at the bedding within moments of being released from the box you brought them home in. They are also quite vocal, constantly chirping for seemingly no apparent reason.
If you see a bird that isn’t moving a whole lot, you should make a mental note of it. This isn’t necessarily a bad sign, as your chicks will take power naps all throughout the day. But if the same chick is still not moving, say 30 minutes later, then it would be wise to investigate.
You can try dropping a treat in the brooder to see the response. If the chick rouses from their slumber and decides to join in the activity, then chances are, the chick was just tired. But if you see the little bird, act as if it wants to engage but just doesn’t have the energy to do so, then this could be an indicator of a potential problem.
- Panting – Panting is an easy sign to observe. This heavy breathing is generally accompanied with lethargy and generally means that the situation is quite critical.
However, it is important to understand that panting is not just an indicator of illness, but is also a sign that the bird is just to hot. And while heat stress can certainly be fatal, it is easily resolved (just back off on the supplemental heat).
If you observe panting from a single bird, then odds are that you have a sick bird. But, should you observe multiple birds panting, then addressing the temperature would be a wise choice.
- Unstable on their feet – This sign of illness can be a little harder to distinguish. Standing still and swaying back and forth while easily observed, doesn’t necessarily mean that things are wrong. In fact this is normal behavior and often occurs when a chick is too tired to keep playing, but unwilling to take a nap.
What you’re looking for, with regards to illness, is slow progress as the chick moves from one place to another. If the bird stumbles or seems to be struggling, then there is a real good chance that your chick is in trouble.
Baby chicks can move incredibly fast, so seeing a bird that has difficulty moving about is not normal and should be immediately looked into.
- Not eating or drinking – A lack of intake is bad for a chick’s health for obvious reasons. These baby birds are growing tremendously fast and require a fair amount of calories regularly to do so. Failure to consume adequate nutrition can lead to a lack of proper development or worse.
With that being said, it can be almost impossible, especially with larger flocks, to know who is eating and how much. So the most common time to recognize a disinterest in food or water is when they are already sick and you are offering them some.
I have found that even birds that are utilizing the waterer, will give the watering spoon an annoyed peck before running away. Should you place the watering spoon up close to a lethargic chick and they ignore it while refusing to move, then it is very likely that your bird is sick.
While this article discusses the unfortunate and unpleasant reality of chicks and illness, it should be noted that the ‘bad times’ are not as plentiful as you might think; provided you are meeting the needs of your flock.
It has been our experience, that chicks purchased from a reputable online source tend to do VERY well. This is not to say that everything goes smoothly, 100 percent of the time. All life has risk and nothing displays this more than raising a livestock animal. But understand, when it comes to baby chicks, once you’ve made it past the initial 72 hours of being your care, the chances of success increase dramatically.
Another thing that you can do that will increase the likelihood of a successful flock is to join a chicken forum. The help that I have gotten there has been absolutely incredible and I highly recommend any potential flock owner to join – even if you’re just going to lurk for a while.
Of course, no amount of lurking will beat the real thing. So if you’ve done your homework and are willing to put in the work, take the plunge and start your own backyard flock. I think you’ll find that these amazing little birds will add a real positive impact to your life and to the lives of your family.