Proper Heating For Chicks

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And what to do if you overheat one.

Mo collapsed 2.jpg
Chicks have very specific heating requirements.  When they are allowed to hatch with their mother they spend most of their time nestled under her where they are warmed by down.  As they age they'll venture out more and more.  When they first hatch they aren't able to regulate their own body heat.  So if you are raising chicks from a feed store, without a mother hen, it's important to simulate the heat they require.  For this you will need a heating lamp. 

The general guidelines are this:

  • For the first week of a chick's life the warmest spot in its box (or tub) should be at 95 degrees.  The box should be large enough that they can get out of the heat for breaks, to cool down.
  • Each week you should lower the general temperature by 5 degrees.
  • The best way to monitor the heat level is with a thermometer which should be placed to the side rather than directly underneath the lamp for a more accurate reading. 
However, if you don't have a thermometer you should do the following:

Start off with the heat lamp about 28" from the bottom of the area in which you are keeping your chicks.  Measure it with an actual ruler.

  • Keep a fairly close watch on the chicks to see where they spend most of their time.  If they remain constantly huddled right under the lamp, then there isn't adequate overall heat and you should lower the lamp by one or two inches. 

  • If the chicks are huddled as far away from the heat of the lamp as possible, then it's too low and should be raised by one or two inches.
  • In an ideally heated environment your chicks will be scattered throughout their quarters feeling comfortable enough to explore all corners.

What to do if you overheat a chick:

Last weekend we discovered one of our chicks collapsed.  In fact, we were sure she was dead because she seemed sunken, she wasn't moving, she was limp, and her eyes were closed.  While we were sadly trying to figure out where we would bury her, a sad office to perform on a mother's day, Philip jumped out of his skin when he felt her move a tiny bit.  She still seemed lifeless but he'd felt the tiniest movement of breathing. 

When chicks are tiny they are fairly fragile so we really had no hope that she would make it.  I took her with me into the house, wrapped her in a dry washcloth, planning to simply hold her until she died.  Thinking she would be more comfortable if kept warm, I proceeded to wrap her in a heating pad. 

Her beak started opening and closing very slowly, which seemed hopeful so I ran to get her some water to see if she'd drink and once I dunked her beak a couple of times and saw her throat make a swallowing motion, I ran to call the farm store for advice.  The first thing John the chicken man asked me was how low my heat lamp was.  He said it sounded like the chick was overheated. 

I measured how low my heat lamp was and discovered that I had it at 12" above the litter which was way too low!  I was really worried about not keeping the chicks warm enough and because I couldn't find my thermometer I was overcompensating.  In effect, I had cooked my littlest chick. 

On discovering that Mo was dying of heat exhaustion, I immediately removed her from the warmth of the heating pad and continued to force her to drink tiny droplets of water.  While the odds were clearly against her, when I heard her peep for the first time that morning I knew she had a chance. 

If this ever happens to you I would like to offer the following suggestions on how to revive a heat exhausted chick:

  • Remove the chick from the source of the heat immediately and if you have other chicks then adjust the heat lamp so that the other chicks are out of danger.
  • Don't bury a chick immediately on finding them collapsed.  With a large chicken it's easy to tell when they've stopped breathing.  One week old chicks are so small it isn't easy to tell.  Try the following tips before giving up.
  • Fill a very small cup (I used a demitasse) with cold water.  Gently dip the chick's beak into it being careful not to submerge their nostrils which are about halfway up their beaks.  Wait a couple of minutes before trying again.
  • If the chick's throat swallows the droplets of water, then she's still got a chance.  Keep doing this for a half an hour or so.
  • If your chick, at this point, starts showing stronger signs of life, I suggest adding a pinch or two of sugar to the water.  This can help give the chick added energy to help revive her.
It took Mo 1 hour before peeping. It took her 2 hours before she started trying to sit up and opened her eyes again.  It took fully four hours after we found her for her to stand up on her own again.  It took five hours for her to start eating scratch again and walking around.

  • Whenever you have an injured or sick bird it is imperative that you remove them from the rest of their flock.  Birds are not kind to injured flock members.  So if you are nursing a small chick back from heat exhaustion, you need to create a separate space for them to recover in.  We put her in a very small box with some food and some litter and set that near the heat lamp in the bigger box where the other chicks were, being careful not to put her directly under the lamp.
  • During the time she was in the separate box I gave her frequent drinks of water by hand because  I couldn't fit a watering dispenser in the little box.  Chickens are thirsty birds, making sure they have fresh cool water is very important. 
  • When I reintroduced her to the rest of the chicks I kept a close eye on them to be sure she wasn't being picked on dangerously.  I didn't consider her safe until I'd spent some time with them to watch the other chicks.
We were very lucky.  I know that in a similar scenario we very well might have lost her.  John the chicken guy advised me to get a replacement chick just in case, and we did that.  But I'm happy to say that Mo, a week after her near death experience, has continued to prosper and it seems she's going to make it.


Other articles on raising chickens:

Caring For Chicks: The First Six Weeks

Choosing Chicken Breeds For Backyard Flocks
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1 Comment

Hooray for Mo. She is a fighter! Thanks for the update.

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