Our birds communicate by performing behaviors. These behaviors are strong indicators as to what they need and want and can change depending on age. Looking specifically at the behavior of newly hatched chicks, we can use our observations to better support their needs for health and proper growth.
At a very basic level, chicks need a good quality feed, fresh water and the right temperatures (around 95 degrees F during the first couple of days). Healthy chicks follow their instincts and begin with pecking behaviors to help increase their chances of finding food and water. While they’re motivated to perform instinctual behaviors, they need time to develop these while also learning other specific behaviors which may or may not be observed in all chicks or flocks.
Learning to eat and drink (referred to as foraging behavior) is key to chicks’ survival and, just like humans, the sooner they locate food and water the better. There are many different behaviors to observe in newly hatched chicks to ensure they’re properly eating and drinking.
During the first days of life, it’s normal for the chicks to peck at objects with their beaks closed. This behavior is thought to be exploratory where they’re learning what objects may or may not be nutritious. Chicks depend on each other to develop these learned behaviors, which is one of the reasons why chicks should be purchased in groups of four to six at a time.
Interestingly enough, chicks in isolation eat less.
You may also notice that chicks will peck at each other’s beaks. This isn’t aggressive, but an encouraging behavior among the flock to find food and water. Lightly tapping our chicks’ beaks with a pencil or our finger can help to stimulate this searching behavior.
When it comes to eating and drinking, we can encourage our chicks to search for water by dipping their beaks in their drinkers and assess if they are eating enough by their crop fill. The crop is a muscular pocket of the esophagus located at their throat and is enlarged and easy to feel when full. The goal is to have all chicks with a full crop by the first 24 hours of life.
Another well-known behavior of new chicks is to gather under the heat source. To encourage feed intake, the heat source should be close to the feeder, so birds spend more time pecking at feed and not at each other.
Another foraging behavior that has shown to be beneficial is litter pecking. Providing wood shavings or straw in the brooder for just 10 days after hatching can help reduce feather-pecking in adulthood.
Read more: Here are some seasonal tips for free-ranging chickens.
Sleep & Play
Do you sometimes check on your chicks and wonder if they are dead or sleeping? Don’t worry! Seeing your chicks sleeping on their tummies with their necks and feet stretched out is a very normal sleep position. Sleep is essential for all animals and especially important for younger animals.
When a young animal sleeps is the primary time the growth hormone is released. Think of it this way: When they’re sleeping, they’re growing. Egg-laying chicks grow by about a third of their body weight each week for the first 6 weeks of life. Limited research on chicken sleep exists, but in a study published in the Journal of Poultry Science (“Feeding Condition and Strain Difference Influence Sleeping Behavior in Newborn Chicks,” 2003), researchers suggested breed differences exist: Broilers (meat birds) sleep more than egg-laying birds.
They also observed that fasted birds sleep more than fed birds, hypothesizing that these chicks are trying to conserve energy.
Where and how chicks are sleeping and spending their time is also an indicator of their comfort level with the brooding temperature. A huddled flock of chicks is a sign they are cold, whereas the opposite happens when they’re too warm. If the chicks are avoiding the heat source, the temperatures are too hot, and they may even begin to pant.
A comfortable flock of chicks will be evenly distributed around the brooding area.
Chicks also can exhibit some play behaviors such as sparring and frolicking. Sparring is the chick version of play fighting. Chicks may jump, kick or peck at each other without touching or causing injury. Sparring behaviors in young chicks don’t appear to be a predictor of aggression in adults.
Frolicking is when a chick spontaneously starts to run then rapidly changes direction while flapping their wings. This behavior typically appears in young chicks and seems to trigger the behavior in other chicks, where one chick frolicking will cause another chick to start frolicking. The more space a chick has, the more they’ll likely perform these play behaviors.
Unless we hatch out our own chicks, our birds are raised without any chicken parental guidance. The study “Effect of broody hens on behaviour of chicks” (Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 2010) showed that chicks brooded with a hen for the first 25 days after hatching are more active, less fearful and even develop adult behaviors such as dust bathing and pecking at the floor sooner than chicks not brooded with a hen.
Providing a broody hen also reduced the amount of gentle feather-
pecking between chicks. However, we don’t know if this effects feather-pecking later in life.
Broody hens are better suited to be with a flock of chicks than one that isn’t broody. A hen is required to provide maternal support to these chicks. Placing a nonbroody hen in with the chicks, then, will likely do more damage than good.
Another potential benefit of raising chicks with a broody hen is the transfer of microbes. Some evidence suggests that mother hens can transfer some microbes to the chick via the egg, but their environment influences the microbial abundance and diversity. Because most of our chicks aren’t raised with a broody hen, providing a chick with the right bacteria early on via a probiotic is another way to ensure good bacteria are colonizing the gut.
Having a flock of newly hatched chicks can be exciting and a little nerve wracking. Rest assured, keeping a close eye on their behavior can help you to better support their needs to raise comfortable, healthy, growing chicks. Don’t be afraid to help them by encouraging foraging behaviors to support eating and drinking, understanding their sleeping habits and adjust accordingly, and provide room for play behavior.
Most importantly, whether the chicks are raised with a broody hen or not, keeping the chicks together in a flock is required and key to expressing the behaviors necessary for survival and happiness.
This article originally appeared in the March/April 2023 issue of Chickens magazine.