Choosing Baby Chicks for Your Backyard Coop

chicks under lightThe easiest way to get started with a backyard coop is by choosing baby chicks. Well, the easiest part is raising them – choosing is not always easy. There are dozens of breeds of chickens and they are all so different. You can choose bantams (smaller chickens), heavy birds (used for both meat and egg-laying) or smaller bodied birds bred to focus on egg-laying.

Chicks do require some specialized care, but with a little attention and careful breed selection, you can literally have them eating right out of your hand. Hens are more expensive than chicks, and they may not be tame if they have been raised without a lot of handling. If you don’t care about how tame they are and want eggs right away, check your local classifieds or Craig’s list for laying hens. If tameness matters to you, start with  chicks.

Pullets are the tiny hens and straight run chicks are a gamble. Straight run means they are as they hatch and you’ll likely have some roosters.

Children must be supervised VERY closely with chicks. One sudden move and they can cause serious damage to a tiny chick. Our rule is one child at a time and one chick at a time – and only with an adult within arms reach. No matter how careful you are, it is always possible for a chick to die of natural causes. Be prepared to discuss the chick’s death with your child. If you are lucky, your chickens will be happy and healthy for years. Just know that some losses along the way are to be expected.

If you are lucky enough to live near a farm store or pet store that supplies chicks, you can buy them directly. This is the best way if you only want a few chicks or if you want a nice variety. We are lucky enough to be near two different farm stores even though we live in an area that is mostly suburban now.

There are many places to order chicks online. Because chicks are alive, and obviously need to be kept warm and safe, shipping is expensive. You will also need to order a minimum number of chicks from an online hatchery. One hatchery I looked at this week had a minimum of only 6 chicks (better technology keeps chicks warm in transit better – in the old days it was a 25 chick minimum to keep them warm and healthy in transit). However, their shipping cost was $45. That would have equaled or exceeded the cost of 6 chicks.

The farm cooperative (IFA if you are in the Intermountain West) has a great selection of chicks, though you need to get there fast when a shipment comes in. They post a list of breeds and what days they will arrive so you can easily plan your flock. In my case it will take 3 different trips to the store to get my full flock for this year, since I want a wide variety of breeds. If you want all of the same breed, and are looking for a common breed, it is simpler.

On my first trip, I selected a Barred Rock, a Silver-Laced Wyandotte, a Golden Wyandotte, and an Australorp. All are hardy through the winter, heavy, general-purpose, brown-egg birds. I noted that the Amerecaunas that I wanted would arrive a few days later – so all my chicks would be about the same size. Then I went home and made the mistake of researching two of the more rare breeds I had seen at the store. The next day I had to go back and get a Golden Campine and two Cuckoo Marans. The Campine so I could get some white eggs and the Marans because they lay dark brown eggs!

It is best to get all of your chicks within a few days or a week of each other so you don’t have to protect smaller birds from the bigger birds. Chickens can be ruthless in establishing a pecking order and they can cause a lot of damage quickly if a smaller or weaker bird gets wounded.

Our farm store has a minimum of 4 chicks because they are miserable if they are alone. Also, 4 chicks can keep each other warm better than one or two chicks alone. Four is a good number to start with for a backyard coop since things happen to chicks or chickens on occasion and it is better to have one more chicken than you need, than one less! It is hard to safely introduce just one or two new chicks if you need to replace one after your flock is bigger.

Look for a store that has a clean cage and food and water for the chicks. It will be a little messy because chicks are messy. Beware if there is a bad smell, if the chicks look excessively dirty or if they are generally not well-cared for. The last thing you need is to take home diseased chickens! Select bright-eyed, active chicks. If they are sleeping, they should react to noise or movement. If they are lethargic and don’t move much, something is wrong.

Take your chicks straight home and put them in a safe place under a warming light. A regular incandescent bulb works or you can use a special warming light. Be very, very careful in setting up the light. Lights get hot and can cause fires. You want to keep the chicks warm but not hot. Each week you can move the light a little farther away until they don’t need it anymore. You can find lots of great information about raising chicks at http://www.backyardchickens.com.

The best place to look for information on chicken breeds is here at MyPetChicken.com. Some breeds are easier to handle than others. Some are more winter hardy, which is important if you live in the colder areas. They have different plumage colors, different sizes, and different egg colors. You can’t go wrong with a common backyard breed such as the Rhode Island Red, Barred Rock, Australorp or Buff Orpington. If you want smaller birds, many breeds also come in bantam sizes.

 

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