Chicks hatched in an incubator have no Mother Hen to keep them warm. Without care and warmth they won’t survive, so you need to have a brooder ready before they start to hatch.
If you’ve ordered some day-old chicks, they too will need a brooder waiting for them.
Even if you use a broody hen for hatching, it’s a good idea to be aware of what is required for artificial brooding in case of emergencies.
What is a brooder?
A brooder is a contained area that provides a warm and safe environment for chicks. Extra warmth is supplied by a heat lamp or electric panel heater like the Brinsea Ecoglow that’s keeping these chicks warm below.
Chicks pop from under a Brinsea Ecoglow brooder for food. Photo courtesy of Simon Pickles.
Making a brooder
You can buy a brooder, but it is easy to make one using whatever is readily available.
For a few chicks being raised indoors, a good-sized cardboard box is often the easiest option, with the advantages of being both free and disposable. One drawback is that cardboard easily becomes soggy, especially when brooding waterfowl. Damp conditions are dangerous for young birds and can lead to Coccidiosis. It’s important to keep the brooder clean and change bedding frequently.
A large cardboard box is ideal as a brooder for small numbers of chicks.
Other ideas are a plastic storage box, a child’s sandpit or paddling pool, a deep wooden drawer or crate – a friend uses a plastic indoor rabbit cage. This works well, being easy to clean and with the added security of the wire cage, but would need some extra draught protection in most environments. Like Victorian ladies, chicks don’t like draughts so the brooder must protect them from sudden changes of temperature, whilst allowing plenty of ventilation.
Make sure your intended brooder is roomy enough. While all the chicks should be able to congregate under the warmth of the heat lamp, there must also be an unheated part of the brooder where they can eat, drink and exercise.
Bear in mind too that wobbly little chicks grow surprisingly quickly into lively, energetic young birds, and will need space to move around freely as they develop. Overcrowding leads to disease and stress-related problems.
Chicks vary in size, according to their parents – small chickens produce tiny chicks compared to some of the heavier breeds, and quail chicks are miniscule! If the brooder looks too large at first, it can be partitioned with cardboard. This can later be removed to allow the chicks more space as they grow.
All young birds are very vulnerable, and the brooder should be covered with wire-mesh to keep out inquisitive pets and prevent escapes. Some chicks try out their little wings after only a few days, and it’s amazing how high they can jump!
If you are hatching in larger numbers than can be accommodated in a contained brooder, a brooding enclosure will be required. You can buy plastic brooding panels, an adjustable brooding ring, make the pen out of pieces of cardboard taped together, or use a roll of corrugated card. Make sure the sides are high enough to keep the chicks from escaping once they start to grow.
When brooding on this scale, a circular pen is required to prevent chicks from huddling in corners and suffocating each other. They should be in a fairly restricted area while they are little to keep them close to the heat and food, but as they start to grow and become more active their space should be increased accordingly.
Where to put the brooder
For a small hatch a quiet indoors room will probably be the best bet. Ideally this should be somewhere the temperature is fairly constant, without lots of comings and goings to cause fluctuations.
As long as it isn’t draughty the room doesn’t need to be especially warm, and shouldn’t be too hot – be careful about using a conservatory in summer.
Chicks need light – either natural or electric – in order to develop properly. They should also have some hours of darkness at night.
When choosing your site, bear in mind that chicks produce quite a bit of dust and mess.
The brooder could also be placed in a suitable outbuilding or even in the coop where the young birds will eventually live. As well as being free from draughts, the building must be completely rat-proof. Rats will be attracted by the smell and will kill the chicks if they gain access. As rats are very good at getting into places they are not required, cover wooden floors with wire-mesh or a double layer of chicken wire.
A children’s play house came in useful at raising these Cream Legbar chicks.
There must also be power for the heat-lamp, and either a good source of natural light or electric lighting.
A secure outbuilding is usually required if using a brooding enclosure.
A traditional heat lamp consists of a powerful bulb with a metal shade, suspended from a chain. Heat is increased by lowering the lamp and decreased by raising it.
The heat should be reduced week by week as the chicks grow larger and start to develop feathers.
A more up-to-date option is the electric panel, which consists of a heated plate on legs. The chicks go under this for warmth, as they would with a hen.
As the heat lamp is the most expensive part of the brooder, it’s worth taking some time to consider which type will suit you best.
Traditional heat lamps
The heat lamp must be fixed really securely above the brooder – it would be disastrous for it to fall on to the chicks! It should be hung from a chain, attached to a ceiling hook – although I noticed a great idea for suspending it from a wheeled clothing rail.
Heat lamp bulbs get extremely hot and can pose a fire hazard, so make sure it is well away from cardboard and bedding. There should also be a wire guard around the bulb to protect the chicks (and the handler!).
Some typical heat lamps for chicks suspended securely on a chain.
Although chicks need light, if a white bulb is used for heat they have no period of darkness in which to rest – this can lead to pecking problems caused by stress. Infra-red bulbs are better, while ceramic bulbs emit no light at all (but remember there will be no obvious indication if the bulb stops working).
Whatever you choose, always keep a spare bulb handy.
You can buy heat lamps here.
Infra-red or Ceramic bulb?
Electric panel heaters
Apart from offering the closest alternative to natural brooding, there are several other advantages to this type of heater:
Running costs are considerably cheaper than with a traditional heat lamp.
- The unit doesn’t get anywhere near as hot as a bulb, making it much safer.
- The heater stands on its own legs and doesn’t require hanging – this can be more convenient, especially when brooding chicks indoors.
- If brooding different sized chicks, the unit can be adjusted so that one end is lower than the other.
- The chicks have the added security of a hiding place where they can rest.
- In a small brooder a lamp can provide too wide an area of heat, but a panel heater only warms the space underneath it.
There are some considerations to bear in mind though:
- Panel heaters are more expensive to buy than heat lamps.
- Although panel heaters come in different sizes, a second one may be required if hatching operations expand more than anticipated.
- The panel provides less heat than a bulb, so may be less suitable for very tiny chicks in a particularly cold environment.
- In some models the power indicator light isn’t very clear to see.
- Sometimes the panel height can be rather fiddly to adjust.
- The chicks can’t be easily checked when they are under the panel.
- Unless positioned carefully, a rectangular panel heater in a box brooder can create narrow spaces where chicks may become trapped.
- Chicks love perching on the heater, but droppings bake on and can be difficult to remove.
Drinkers and feeders
Buy a narrow-lipped chick drinker to prevent chicks soiling their water, getting wet or drowning – all of which can happen with an open container.
A small feeder, ideally with a partitioned trough, keeps the chicks out of their food and stops them from scratching it into the bedding.
Standing the drinker and feeder on tiles, or suspending them just above floor level, helps keep water and food separate from the bedding. Don’t make them too high though, as stretching can cause the chicks developmental problems.
Always place the feeder and drinker outside the heated area.
Feed and bedding
Chick crumbs vary in quality – buying the cheapest can be poor economy as apart from possible nutritional deficiencies, the chicks may find them difficult to eat. Chick crumbs are a complete food, although it’s a good idea to supply some chick-sized grit too.
You can buy Chick Crumbs here and there is more advice on feeding chicks and what to feed in an emergency here.
Dust-extracted shavings make good bedding, although there is the danger of small chicks eating them until they work out where to find their feed. For a small hatch, a thick layer of paper towels can be used in the critical first few days, and this has the advantage of being very easy to keep clean. Newspaper may seem a practical solution, but it is too slippery at first and can lead to chicks with splayed legs. However, newspaper can be useful for lining the bottom of the brooder, as long as it’s covered with plenty of bedding.
Once chicks are a couple of weeks old, newspaper can usually be used with care.
Preparing the brooder
Get everything ready in good time so that you can check it will all work properly.
If the brooder has previously been used, it should be thoroughly cleaned, disinfected and allowed to air – in an ideal world, this would be done straight after the previous batch of chicks had moved out.
Cover the floor of the brooder with a good layer of bedding. If your brooder is a cardboard box, lining the bottom with an extra piece of cardboard or some newspaper will help absorb excess moisture.
Set up the heat lamp or panel heater. A digital thermometer can be used to check the temperature, although the chicks will soon show whether they are comfortable. Cold chicks huddle together cheeping loudly, while too much heat causes them to move as far away from the lamp as possible. If they lay there panting, they are definitely too warm, and overheating can cause fatalities. Keep an eye on heat levels if the outside temperature is particularly high, remembering that things will cool down considerably at night.
Make sure the feeder and drinker are cleaned and ready. Stock up with chick crumbs – now all you have to do is wait for the eggs to hatch!