Ask anyone who has been through it, but those first few days with the new chicks can be absolutely nerve wracking. You are constantly asking yourself those crucial questions; are my chicks warm enough… are they too hot… are they hydrated… are they eating… are their vents pasted over… why isn’t this one active… ect, ect.
(I know for us, we are checking on our new chicks every 2 to 4 hours for the first 3 days.)
But with every new born, the worry factor does come down with time. So the more homework you can do ahead of time, the better it will be for your chicks… and for you. And this applies to how much light your fuzzy little friends need.
The method we have found to be the best, is to provide the chicks with full light 24 hours a day until they start acting rambunctious. The time for this behavior will vary from flock to flock, but generally occurs around 4 weeks of age.
To understand why we do this, try and draw from you know about raising humans.
Newborn babies are famous for waking their parents every 2 to 3 hours to feed. But as they get older, their stomachs get bigger and so grows the time between feeding. I can tell you, it’s a ‘happy day’ when the little one can go all night without waking you.
Freshly hatched chicks are very small. Consequently, their ability to deal with things like being cold, hot, hungry or thirsty, is very limited. By providing them 24 hours of light, you give them the ability to deal with some of their needs, when they need to deal with it.
Can Baby Chickens See In The Dark?
Often when dealing with new things, we make assumptions based on previous experience. Most of us have had either a cat or a dog and are familiar with their ability to see in the dark. Cats, in particular, are especially infamous for tearing around in the middle of the night – ultimately knocking something over. But where cats and dogs have the capability to navigate in conditions we can’t, chickens are not so blessed.
A chicken’s capacity to see in the dark is roughly the same as a human. This means that it will be somewhat challenging for your baby chick to find food or water in the middle of the night, unless you have provided them with some light.
How much light is appropriate for your chicks, really depends on their age.
For the first two weeks, we give ours all the light we can. Chicks can to go from full-throttle to hard-nap seemingly right in front of your eyes. And they do it whenever they feel the need, whether it’s daytime or not. But this changes as they get older.
Somewhere around the 3 to 4 week mark, your fuzzy chicks will have notably changed from their baby behavior. And as their strength and stamina grows, so do their antics. This is where they can get themselves into trouble.
A 3 week old chick can easily fly to the top of a 2 foot brooder wall. Should this curious bird find themselves outside of the brooder, it is very unlikely they will be able to get back in. And with the heat lamp still necessary to maintain body temperature, they will likely perish if you do not return them. For this reason, it is advisable to dim the lights as this encourages them to stay put.
And finally, by 6 weeks of age, you can feel confident that your ‘chicks’ are physically mature enough to turn the lights completely off. This will simulate the actual outdoor conditions that they will spend the rest of their lives with.
Do Chicks Like The Dark?
While providing a night light is a good way to give confidence to your toddler, chicks find their greatest source of comfort from the company of their flock. Of course, nothing beats a mama hen, but chances are, if you have purchased your birds either online or from a nearby source, then there is no mama hen available.
Chicks, just like their adult counterparts, have very poor night vision. And because of this, they will hunker down as the daylight gives way to darkness. This is why chickens come back to the coop every night, as they instinctively look for a place of safety to pass the night away.
Being able to see things in the brooder at night, will not only allow your newly hatched friends to find their way to food and water, but will aide them in finding each other. And while it is true that the best night’s sleep happens in the dark, baby chicks have their own clocks and I have found that it is best to allow them to act according to it, rather than force them to act on mine.
I strongly recommend that you provide your chicks at least a little light for them to find their way around in the brooder at night.
When To Turn Off The Light For Chicks
As mentioned above, your chicks will quickly change from cute baby to rowdy hooligan in just a couple of weeks. This is where you need to intercede and change your ‘parenting strategy’ in order to keep them from harming themselves.
Depending on the breed, your chicks should have grown enough of their flight feathers to start making significant hops, somewhere between 3 and 4 weeks of age. If your brooder is not covered with bird netting, you will probably find your feathered friends perched on the walls of their brooder, curiously eyeing you as you go about your business.
While this behavior is adorable, it has the potential to be fatal. Keeping your chicks in the brooder until they are able to maintain their own body temperature should be an absolute priority for you. Also, it pays to remember that your chicks are completely helpless and should they get out in the open, any number of wildlife animals will not hesitate to make a quick lunch out of them.
So to recap, when you see that your chicks have developed enough of their flight feathers to clear the walls of the brooder, then it would be best to dim the lights at night as this will discourage any hyper behavior that could prove detrimental to their health.
For the record, it doesn’t have to be pitch black in the brooder for them to settle down – at least at 3 weeks of age. You can start with simply dimming the room light slightly and move towards total darkness as the birds get bigger.
One thing that must be included in the conversation of light for your chicks, is that there is a difference between a night light and a heat lamp.
Some heat lamps will provide a fair amount of light and in this situation, the night light and the heat source are one in the same. But some heat sources provide no light.
It’s best to plan your brooder ahead of time and be prepared as the needs of your chicks will be immediate – in other words, they should NOT wait until after you’ve gone shopping!
For information on a brooder design that will provide them exactly what they need from hatch till release (this is important as they grow really fast!), check out ‘How To Build The Perfect Brooder For Less Than $20’