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How to Buy Healthy Chicks for Raising Chickens

To raise healthy chickens, you must start with healthy chicks. That’s easy enough to say — but how do you know if the chicks are in good health? Even a reputable hatchery may miss the earliest signs of a problem. If you’re starting your backyard chicken flock with chicks, keep an eye out for any signs of distress or ill health.

The following tips are mainly for those who are going to buy their chicks from a breeder or store. Once you have mail-order chicks, you’re pretty much stuck with what you have. These tips may tell you whether something is wrong — and you need to call the hatchery.

How to Identify a Healthy Chick

  • Healthy chicks are active, but not too noisy. Of course, they do sleep more than adults, like all baby animals, but if disturbed, they quickly get up and move away.

  • If you look at a content group of chicks in a proper brooder, some will be under the heat lamp or near it sleeping peacefully, while others will be eating or drinking or walking around. They will be quiet except for an occasional peep.

  • Baby chicks should have two bright, clear eyes, and their rear ends, or vent area, should be clean. Their beaks should be straight. Some hatcheries trim the end of the beak to prevent chicks from picking at each other, so don’t be alarmed if the beak tip is missing. Their toes should be straight.

How to Identify an Unhealthy Chick

  • Never take a chick with cloudy or dull eyes, a twisted beak, bent or missing toes, or a dirty vent area.

  • Chicks that are very noisy are unhappy and stressed, either from being cold or hungry and thirsty. When they arrive in a shipping box, the stress is evident from the shrill cheeps. But if you place them in the right temperature with food and water, they should quickly calm down.

  • A droopy-looking chick may not be healthy. If a chick is touched and it responds very little, it probably isn’t healthy. If it’s lying on its back with its legs in the air, it’s definitely unhealthy!

  • Chicks that are panting, with their beaks open, are either too warm or sick. If they appear normal after being cooled down, they should be fine. If the chicks are as far from the heat source as possible, it’s probably too hot. If they’re piled on each other near the heat source and peeping loudly, it’s probably too cold.

    If chicks are very noisy but they aren’t obviously hot or cold and food and water are available, something else is wrong. While you can fix the temperature or hunger problem, avoid purchasing chicks if you can’t tell what is wrong.

  • The belly area should not look sore and red. The chicks shouldn’t have any wounds or bloody areas. (Newly hatched chicks will have a slight lump on the belly where the egg yolk was, and that’s okay.)

Whether you buy chicks, hatch eggs, or adopt adult birds, having a healthy flock begins with choosing healthy birds. Healthy baby chicks will be noisy and active when they arrive in the mail. If many chicks are dead or appear weak and drowsy, contact the shipper right away.

Serious breeders usually have their flocks tested and vaccinated for prominent diseases. If you’re buying from a hatchery, make sure the chicks are from certified pullorum-tested flocks. Pullorum is a serious bird disease that will kill all your chicks and endanger anyone else’s chickens in your area.

Ask what vaccines have been given for other diseases. If the option is offered, have the hatchery vaccinate your chicks for Mareks disease. It costs a bit more, but it’s well worth it. It is very difficult for home flock owners to vaccinate chicks.

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