How Do I Care for Baby Chicks?

— Written By Laura Oliver and last updated by

Soon you will hear the familiar chirping of fresh baby chicks in many local stores. These sweet baby chicks seem like the perfect gift for youngsters, but could quickly end in tears if they do not receive the proper care. Just like all babies, chicks need a variety of care items and consistent attention in order to thrive. Some supplies you may need to house a small number of chicks include a brooding box, a heat-lamp, appropriate dry bedding material, a thermometer, and feeder and waterer for chick’s small beaks, along with plenty of clean water and feed.

Chicks require a balanced diet to thrive. When you bring your chicks home a “starter” diet is required, and chicks should have feed available at all times. Baby chicks should NOT be fed scratch, table scraps, greens or other feed formulations that are intended for adults. These foods reduce the nutrient intake of the chicks and will result in poor growth or death. Water is another critical element. It must be clean and room temperature. Be careful not to place your waterer too close to your heat source as chicks will refuse to drink warm water.

Heat is another requirement of new chicks. Baby chicks are unable to regulate their body temperatures and require supplemental heat even when kept indoors. Chicks should be started at 95 degrees, reducing the temperature 5 degrees each week until birds are feathered or ambient temperature is reached. A good rule of thumb is if they are huddled together they are too cold, and if they are moving away from the heat source they are too hot.

Shelter and bedding are the final pieces to the chick care puzzle. Chicks are extremely vulnerable to predators, so if you are keeping them in an outdoor space special care should be taken to ensure they are protected. They should also be allowed plenty of space so that they can eat, move in and away from heat, and so that bedding is not saturated between cleanings. Space requirements are 1/2 sq. foot per bird from 0-4 weeks of age, and 1 sq. foot per bird from 4-8 weeks of age. Bedding selection is also important. You want to select something that is absorbent and insulates the chicks from the ground but is not slick. Slick surfaces (newspaper, cardboard, glass, etc.) are dangerous for your chicks often resulting in splayfeet and other diseases that will ultimately result in death. Bedding should be changed often to ensure a sanitary space for your new animals. Sanitation is the best defense against disease.

Martin County 4-H is excited to offer a new hen breed for this year’s 4-H Poultry Chain participants! This year youth will receive a minimum of five Welsummer chicks for their project. Welsummers are a Dutch breed of Kellogg’s rooster fame. They are a docile, fast growing breed that lay large dark brown, often speckled eggs. These unique eggs and the lovely plumage of this breed were key factors in the decision making for this year.

Are you interested in animals, but aren’t sure about the large animal livestock show? The 4-H Poultry Chain may be for you. Small animal shows allow youth participants to get a feel for livestock shows without space and financial investment required for the large animal show. Registration for this year’s poultry show goes until February 15, 2019. The week of March 11 participants will be contacted to pick up their chicks from the N.C. Cooperative Extension of Martin County office, which they will raise, train, and care for in preparation for the show on October 8. On the day of the show youth drop of their three best hens for judging in the morning and come back after-school to participate in a showmanship class and sell their judged hens. Participating youth and families are supported throughout the process with guidance on caring for their animals, a showmanship clinic to improve their showing skills, and regular mailings to keep them up-to-date on the project. Registration information can be found on the Martin County 4-H Poultry page.

If you would like more information on caring for chicks, the 4-H poultry chain, or any other livestock issue, contact Laura Oliver, County Extension Director, 789-4370 or

Additional resources on chick care and other small flock resources may be found on the Small Flock Management Resources website.