What To Look for in Chicks

Our chicks are now five weeks old, and are basically smaller versions of chickens.  They have finally moved out of our bathroom into the garage, and I think we are all happier for it (especially Chewy, who was having such anxiety about exactly WHY she was not allowed to eat the chicks, when they were right there in her territory.)  Of the seven chicks we bought, six survived, thrived, and seem happy as little birds can be.  Here’s what we looked for to make sure the chicks were as healthy as possible when we bought them.

1. Clear Eyes

clear eyed chick

It’s important to make sure the chicks eyes are clear, not at all opaque or cloudy.  They should look curious and alert, not sleepy or disinterested.

2. Clean, bug free feathers

clean feathers

It’s also important to make sure their feathers are clear of mites and lice, and look to be in generally good condition.  This particularly applies to chicks younger than two weeks, as once they hit the two week mark, they start getting their adult feathers and look a little bedraggled. 

3. A clear vent (butt).

clear butt

Yet another important trait to look for is a clear vent (rear end) that has no fecal matter blocking it, and again, no small bugs of any sort.  Pasty butt usually has to do with being exposed to environmental triggers such as too hot or too cold a temperature, and can signify stressed out chicks.

4. Chicks who are active, curious and annoying.

While it can take a day or so for the chicks to settle fully in to their new home, when they do, they should be interested in their surroundings, their food and water.  If using a heat lamp, they should be scattered around the brooder, not huddled under or away from the source of heat.  If using a heater, they should be in and out from under it, getting food and playing around and returning under it to rest and sleep.  It is quite normal for them to lie down for a while, even on their sides (scary the first time you see it) but they should also hop up when prodded.

Of course, none of these are guarantees for survivors – we checked and observed each chick carefully, and still lost one after two days to unknown causes.  However, especially if picking up your chicks from a feed store, these qualities give you a fighting chance for healthy and thriving chicks who will contribute to your homestead. 

Basic Lessons from Chicks: Tips for Designing a Custom Chicken Brooder

Well, that sounds elegant, doesn’t it?  A custom chicken brooder.  Makes me picture a picturesque corner of the barn, decked out with little chicken arm chairs and bookshelves. It doesn’t bring to mind the ramshackle dog crate combined with cardboard and twine that currently resides in our living room, but hey! I’m trying to learn how to be scrappy.

chicken brooder

Anyway, after being a chicken keeper for all of three weeks, I am shocked by how much I’ve learned about how to keep chicks, and the people raising them, happy campers. 

1) Give them much, much more space than you think they need. When we got them, they were teeny-tiny (and stinking adorable) and six little chicks very easily fit in our rubbermaid bin. 

rubbermaid brooderchicks in brooder

However, after two incredibly short weeks, they went from stinking adorable to just plain stinkers (thankfully not in terms of odor, as we added pine shavings for deep litter bedding as soon as they figured out how to feed themselves – more on that in a moment.) They were incredibly loud, pokey at each other (not violent, but not particularly lovey-dovey either) and constantly climbing all over each other.  They also continuously made their water filthy, and we had to refill their bedding almost every day because it became so soiled.  So, we decided it was time to move them to more palatial circumstance, and the change has been incredible. If I could go back in time, I’d have started them in the dog crate and not bothered with the smaller space. 

2) Keep their food and water separate from their play area. Funny story: we bought 20 lbs of Scratch and Peck organic, non-GMO, soy and corn free feed for our little flock.  Within 16 days, over 3/4 of it was gone.  At first, I was so impressed that they were eating so much, but also a little overwhelmed – they were easily going through two quarts a day.  Being super pregnant and a bit brain dead, I also didn’t notice how quickly their rubbermaid brooder was filling up. It was only after about a week that I noticed that their six inches of bedding wasn’t just pine chips, but was in fact almost entirely food that they threw out of their feeder. I was more than a little annoyed, to say the least.  So, first we raised their feeder and water onto a small box (the kind used for boxed soup) which helped a bit, but what really made a difference was a) changing the type of feeder and b) raising both the food and water onto a big box so they have to fly up six inches to eat. 


Now, I only have to change their water once a day (instead of 5-6 times) and their food every 2-3 days (instead of twice a day.)  I also recommend a box with a shiny finish, as it’s very easy to wipe clean with a damp cloth.   You could also, of course, use wood, but I needed a quick fix. 

3) Use deep litter. Trust me on this – deep litter makes a word of difference when it comes to chickens.  It not only pretty much eliminates odor, (it has a rustic, pine-y smell which I find totally pleasant) but the chicks LOVE it.  They scratch in it, play in it, jump on it, sleep in it, you name it.  Also, if you compost and/or have access to a compost heap, the pine shavings combined with the nitrogen rich droppings are a fabulous addition to your heap, so there’s little to no waste.  I don’t plan on emptying out the shavings until they are in their coop – instead, I’ll just add about an inch at a time of shavings whenever it looks low or dirty.  Again, now that they’re in a larger brooder than they need (for now, at least) this is probably an every 3-4 day job.

deep litter in the brooder

4) If at all possible, splurge on a heater, versus a lamp. This is really up to you and your budget. I am a firm believer that the expense of a chick should mostly come from their food, as whether you raise them for eggs or meat, you will also be consuming that food. I’ve seen incredibly fancy brooders with chicks that seem equally content to our brooders, which were $10 and free, respectively. That being said, I absolutely adore our Brinsea Ecoglow brooder heater (<— affiliate link!) and wouldn’t use anything else, even though it is literally 8 times the price of a standard lamp.  However, with standard lamps comes a significant fire risk, as well as a good amount of risk of either over or under-heating the chicks.  Six of our seven original chicks have thrived under this heater (one died, but it seemed just a failure to thrive after two days of being home) and have had no pasty butt or other common chick issues.  Considering we’re out and about so much, not having to worry about the lamp falling and catching on fire is absolutely worth the cost, plus the fact that the chicks seem to use it like a mother hen – going under for comfort, and coming out for food and play, makes it seem worth it.

5) Use what you have whenever possible. Just like the honey badger (I know, such a vintage reference) chicks don’t really give a shit.  As long as they have warmth, food, water, and some companionship from other chicks, they don’t need much at all to be happy and healthy.  We used Chewy’s old dog crate (we apparently thought she’d grow up to be a Great Dane?) with twine and cardboard, but could just as easily have used a refrigerator box or an old cabinet turned on its side if that is what was around. Chicks poo on everything, so having a cardboard liner for whatever you use definitely makes cleanup easier.  

Hopefully, these tips will help you design a brooder that is right for you and your flock!  

Welcome to the (Hen) House!

When I was about 10, my mom and I went on a whim to a pet store.  Already, I’m sure you can guess this was a truly terrible idea.  We walked out with Mitzi, a 4 month old dachshund who had been living in the 2’ x 2’ box for a month.  She was needy, adorable, and totally batshit crazy.  I’ll never forget my mom calling my dad on the way home, saying, “I just did a really, really, really, really, really bad thing.”

Mitzi the dachsund

(Photo curtesy of my mom, Terry Berenson, San Diego animal photographer extraordinaire!)

That line has become a joke in our family, although I never expected to use it myself – this time, for coming home with seven small chicks. 


In all fairness, we knew we were going to get chicks, and had been planning on it for years. However, we also planned to wait on adding any new animals to the “flock” until baby van der Hoorn is born in oh, 5 weeks.  But, one look at these speckled sussex chicks, and we couldn’t resist picking up 6.  Plus the one extra unknown breed, named Rando Calchickian, because, hey, she would have been left all alone without them!


Unfortunately, one of our chicks failed to thrive and died after 3 days.  It was heartbreaking, especially because there was nothing we could do – we tried sugar water and all the usual treatments, but unfortunately chicks just aren’t as hearty as other young animals, particularly before they’re feathered. 


However, the remaining six seem to be as hearty as can be.  They are ridiculously silly, adorable, and fairly loud. I do look forward to having our bathroom no longer smell of pine shavings (covering the paper towel you see in the photo above), but for now, it’s quite fun to go hang out with the girls on the edge of the tub.

As we learn more, I’ll post more about the process. However, if you have the chicken itch, I couldn’t recommend Harvey Ussery’s book, The Small Scale Poultry Flock, more.  I’ve read parts of it over and over, and it really tells you everything you could possibly want to do with chicks, chickens, and other fowl.

Have a great weekend!