In my 11 years of chicken keeping, I had never ordered chicks in the mail from a hatchery until this year. Most of the time I buy chicks at the feed store, or if I want to add a few new ones to the flock and I'm not particular about the breed then I’ll hatch my own barnyard mixes. This year I decided to treat myself to some of the more unusual breeds that they don’t carry at my local feed store, so that meant mail ordering. I’ve always been a bit apprehensive about ordering mail order chicks due to the risks of shipping delays or cold weather resulting in mortality of the chicks. But after doing some research I decided to give it a try, and I’m glad I did. Here’s my experience with mail order chicks and a description of the chick brooder set-up that I’ve been using with success for many years.
In this article I’ll cover the following topics:
Shipping and arrival
Final thoughts on mail order chicks
Shipping and Arrival
My chicks shipped on a Monday, and I was told to expect them between Tuesday and Thursday. I called my local post office to let them know I was expecting an order of live animals, and I signed up to receive shipping notifications via text message from the post office. The post office told me they would call as soon as the chicks arrived and that the call could be at any time, potentially early in the morning. I was so excited on Tuesday that I got up before 6 am, but I didn’t get the call from the post office until noon that my chicks had arrived. I rushed to the post office to pick them up. I had expected a loudly peeping box of disgruntled chicks, similar to the loud peeping that will usually accompany you home when you bring chicks home from the feed store. But instead, my box of chicks was very quietly peeping, seemingly quite content. It is common practice now for the hatchery to include a heat source under the bedding material, and the box size was pretty small which meant the chicks were all close together, further helping to keep them warm. Once I got home and opened the box, I saw that 2 of the 14 chicks I ordered had died during shipping. The other 12 were active and appeared healthy, and I got everyone settled into the brooder right away. I know it’s tempting to want to play with these cuties right away, but it’s important to give them time to rest, hydrate and eat before getting to know them.
It’s a good idea to get your brooder set up before the chicks arrive to make sure that the brooder is up to the proper temperature and that food and water are already in place so that you can get your chicks settled in with minimal disturbance after their journey home. My husband built my brooder using 3/8-inch plywood. It is 2 feet wide, by 2 feet high, by 4 feet long. It’s a spacious size that I like because it is easier to keep clean and it gives the chicks plenty of room to grow. You can keep your chicks in a smaller brooder, some people use plastic storage bins or cardboard boxes. Just keep in mind that if you have a smaller brooder you will need to clean it more often and it won't be too long before they outgrow it. You’ll also want something with fairly high sides because chicks start to fly quickly, and they will soon be trying to fly up and perch on the sides of the brooder. If you don’t want to build a custom brooder but want something larger, you can use one of the plastic or steel watering troughs that they make for livestock.
Now that you’ve picked out your brooder, you’ll want to fill it with a few inches of bedding material. I like to use pine shavings, although some people prefer a pellet type bedding. These are both good choices and are very absorbent which is important because moisture in the brooder can quickly lead to illness. I use paper towels to cover a portion of the shavings closest to the heat lamp for the first few days to keep the chicks from pecking at the shavings until they figure out where the feeder is and they get used to what they should be eating. Avoid using materials such as cardboard or newspaper which are slippery and can result in the chicks developing splayed or spraddle leg. Also avoid using cedar shavings, the aromatic oils in cedar can irritate their sensitive respiratory systems. You should clean your brooder frequently to remove droppings and any areas of bedding that have become moist. The smaller your brooder is the more often you’ll need to clean. Excessive droppings or moisture can lead to illness especially coccidiosis, which can be deadly in a hurry. Depending on the size of your brooder, you’ll want to spot clean it every day or every few days and change out all the bedding at least once a week.
There are a few options for heating the brooder. I’ve always used a a heat lamp with a 250 watt red infrared bulb. I attach it up high and securely with a clamp to a tall stick that is mounted to the brooder. You'll want to be sure that you can easily raise or lower the heat lamp to adjust the temperature in the brooder. Heat lamps require special safety precautions because they are extremely hot to the touch, so make sure you have it fastened securely so that it doesn’t fall. If you have small children, you'll want to make certain that the heat lamp is installed in such a way that they don't accidentally touch or run into the heat lamp. Another popular option for heating the brooder is a heating plate. I have not tried this yet, but for smaller numbers of chicks in moderate climates they can be a good choice. For me personally, since I typically move my chicks to a larger outdoor brooder at about three weeks old, when our nighttime temperatures are still usually in the upper 30's to low 40’s, I am more comfortable using a heat lamp because I know it provides the amount of heat they need. Heat plates are small and this limits the number of chicks that can fit under them, especially as they grow. Heat plates will only heat the area under the plate, whereas a heat lamp provides more warmth in a larger area. The brooder temperature should be 95 degrees for the first week, and the temperature should be decreased by 5 degrees every week. If you use a heat lamp you’ll want to set it up on one side of the brooder so there will be a warmer side and a cooler side of the brooder. This will allow the chicks to self regulate their temperature.
Proper nutrition is very important for developing chicks so you’ll want to use a ‘starter’ feed that is specifically formulated for chicks and contains the correct amount of protein, vitamins and minerals they need. I use Scratch and Peck Feeds naturally free organic starter. Along with the starter, you’ll need to provide chick grit which is what the chicks use to grind up food in their gizzard. Sprinkle the grit over the top of the feed, and top up the feed and grit daily. At about 8 weeks old, I transition my chicks to Scratch and Peck Grower Feed along with increasing the grit size to grower grit. I add a powdered vitamin and electrolyte supplement to the chicks’ waterer for about the first week. It gives the chicks an extra boost, which can be especially helpful if the chicks have had a stressful first few days in shipping. Use a waterer specifically made for chicks that has a shallow drinking reservoir. Chicks can drown in a minimal amount of water, so I also add marbles in the base of the waterer which reduces the depth of the water. I raise my waterer and feeder a couple of inches above the height of the shavings to prevent the chicks from kicking shavings into them quite as easily. Water can become dirtied quickly so check it several times a day to remove shavings, and provide fresh water once a day or any time you find poop in it.
It’s important to let your chicks rest as much as possible the first few days in their new home. Of equal importance is that they quickly find the water and food and begin eating and drinking. You can dip the beak of your chicks into the waterer as you put them in the brooder to show them where the water is, but I’ve always found that just tapping my finger in the waterer and feeder is enough to get them to come over and investigate and they usually figure it out pretty quickly on their own. To get the chicks accustomed to being touched, I put a small amount of feed in my hand and slowly lower it into the brooder, talking to them softly. They are usually quick to come over to explore and start pecking, and after a few of these sessions it's usually fairly easy to sneak your hand underneath a chick and pick it up. Avoid making quick movements and loud noises that can startle the chicks. I also try to pick up chicks from underneath rather than approaching them from above which looks like a predator and can be stressful for them. I keep my chick snuggle sessions to a few minutes at a time for the first week. Chicks can chill easily and can also get stressed easily, and you don't want to jeopardize the health of your chicks for that perfect photo opportunity.
Final Thoughts on Mail Order Chicks
My mail order chicks did not need any additional care beyond what is typical for chicks purchased at the feed store. The chicks arrived quickly and were all active and eating and drinking on their own the first day I got them home. Should your mail order chicks be lethargic or reluctant to eat and drink, you may need to take special measures to revive them. The hatchery should provide you with information for caring for your mail order chicks. My chicks are a week old now, and I’m happy to report that they are all thriving. I did not find any difference in the health of these chicks from chicks that I’ve purchased at the feed store. It’s not uncommon to lose the occasional very young chick due to failure to thrive, and the 2 chicks that didn't survive shipping were likely due to that. I have experienced chick loss within the first week with chicks I’ve bought at the feed store as well as chicks we’ve hatched here at the farm. My recommendation if you are considering ordering mail order chicks is to select a shipping date when you can be reasonably certain to avoid weather extremes (both cold and hot) which can make the journey more stressful for the chicks. I selected a March delivery date wanting to avoid the colder temperatures and snow storms that are common in January and February. This was a positive experience for me, and I found it a great way to add some fun new varieties to the flock. I will definitely be doing it again, after all it is the best kind of happy mail!