Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.
Maybe you're the planning type who placed your chick order with a hatchery in October, or perhaps you spur-of-the-moment brought home a handful of fluff-balls from the feed store. Either way, there's a lot to learn about chicks your first time out of the gate, but you'll also be surprised by how easy chicks turn out to be. The tips below are excerpted from my 99-cent ebook Permaculture Chicken: Pasture Basics, which will tell you much more about each topic.
Speak their language. Chicks will tell you (quite loudly) if they're unhappy. Once you learn the difference between an interested peep, a contented chuckle, an alarm trill, and a shrill "I need help" cry, you'll be an expert at chick rearing. The more time you can spend with your chicks the better, too, since it'll be easy to notice problems if you're checking on your babies multiple times a day. Just don't be quite as nervous of a chick mother as I was the first time around --- when those newly hatched chicks topple over onto their faces, they're just taking a nap, not dying. They'll start acting more perky in a day or two.
Pay attention to temperature. Keeping your chicks warm is the most important part of chick care during their first week. In the wild, the mother hen would lead the chicks off the nest around day two, helping them hunt for worms but also allowing the youngsters to snuggle back under her feathers every couple of minutes to keep their body temperature high. If you're raising chicks without a hen, you have to use some kind of artificial brooder to replace the hen's body heat. We prefer the Brinsea Ecoglow brooder, which provides a warm surface for chicks to snuggle under while using much less electricity (and causing fewer fires) than a brooder light. No matter what you use to keep your chicks warm, be sure to keep the heat source in place for at least three weeks. (Slower-growing chicks in cold weather might need a brooder for up to six weeks.) My rule of thumb is that once chicks have replaced all of their fuzz with real feathers, they're ready to heat themselves as long as the temperature in their coop doesn't drop below freezing.
Make them a home. The perfect home for a chick is well-ventilated, with air exchange at least a foot above the ground, but no breeze at chick level. Especially when the chicks are young, you can achieve these conditions using an open-topped box, covered with a screen if you have young children, cats, or other predators nearby. Other factors to consider when housing your chicks include: brooder size (chicks need a small brooder for their first few days so they don't stumble away from the heat and get lost), dry conditions (until they're fully feathered, wet chicks can die quickly), sunlight (chicks love sunbeams!), and predator protection (rats are a huge problem with chicks raised in barns and sheds). In addition, you'll want to make sure the chick coop is somewhere you can check on it multiple times a day, especially during the first couple of weeks. We like to keep our chicks inside for a week or two, then to put them in an outdoor brooder just beyond our back yard so they can enjoy pasture on sunny days but are still close enough to keep an eye on.
Food and water. Chicks don't need to eat or drink during their first three days of life, which is why they can be shipped through the mail with few losses. Once mail-order chicks arrive on your doorstep, though, they need to start eating and drinking immediately, so many of their owners take the time to dip chick beaks one by one in the water dish and to show chicks individually to their feeder. Homegrown chicks are much easier, since they find food and water on their own quite easily after sleeping off their exertions. In either case, you'll want to provide a quality feeder and waterer. For the first week, I like to use a homemade feeder made by filling a one-cup plastic container with feed and cutting head-sized holes in the lid to give the chicks plenty of access to food without allowing them to spill any. After that, I upgrade to a purchased automatic feeder. For watering chicks in the brooder, you can't go wrong with an Avian Aqua Miser Original, also available in kit form. Be sure to choose a nipple-based waterer that won't allow your chicks' bedding to get wet, and which also keeps the youngsters' poop out of their drinking water.
If you take a few minutes to get the infrastructure in place, your first chicks should be easy and fun. And don't forget to take some time to just watch their antics - they get big fast!