When chicks are hatching they should be left alone. At first they are wet and look a bit bedraggled. It will take several hours before they move about properly - remember they have been curled up inside the egg for 21 days! Their fluff will gradually dry out and as it dries they will move about the incubator to await the arrival of their 'brothers' and 'sisters'. If all eggs were fresh at the beginning of the incubation process, hatching may begin as early as the 19th day. Older eggs and those from certain breeds will need to be incubated for the full period of twenty-one days.
Upon completion of hatching the chicks should remain in the incubator overnight. They need no food for the first 24 hours after hatching because they are still absorbing the last of the yolk. The chicks can be observed to be 'resting' in this period because of all the energy needed to break out from the shell. You can also observe the 'egg tooth' at the tip of the beak, which was used to break through the shell of the egg.
It is important to prepare a 'brooder' for the chicks. The brooder is a device designed to provide heat for the chicks in the absence of the natural mother. The brooder can be heated by a variety of fuels. Paraffin or oil were once common, but an electric source is now commonplace. The heat source is suspended centrally, usually underneath a canopy. If dull emitter ceramic infra-red lamps or bulbs are used they do not need a canopy but are suspended over the area where the chicks are to be reared. Whatever type of appliance is used it should be warmed to a temperature of 90°F (30°C) for 24 hours before the chicks are placed in it. The whole area, including the floor litter, will then be comfortably warm and there will be no 'huddling' when chicks are introduced. A large disused glass fish tank can often be adapted to provide a good brooder, but it is important to ensure the temperature is correct. It is often sensible to have two heat sources if using bulbs, so that the chicks will be kept warm in the event of a bulb 'blowing'.
The chicks will make various 'notes' to show their 'mood' and it will soon become known to the observer what these mean. When conditions are right and the chicks are thriving they will sit together, but not bunched up, and 'purr'. If they are too hot, they will lie about, usually as far away from the heat source as possible, and gasp. Should their brooder not be warm enough, the chicks huddle together and 'cheep' all the time. These voices, together with the state of droppings and general appearance are good signs as to the health of the chicks. The chicks can be gently and carefully handled at this stage.
Chick rearing is greatly simplified if ready-mixed feed is used, commonly known as 'chick-crumbs'. It is usual to feed chick-crumbs in the first month, and a constant supply of fresh clean water is essential. Appropriate containers should be used, in the case of water to ensure the chicks do not drown. The lids of coffee jars are about the right size for the first few weeks. Although baby chicks are small, they are not delicate and do need nourishing, satisfying food to enable them to thrive and grow the necessary plumage. The feeding programme can either be several small meals a day at intervals of not more than four hours or freely from a trough during the hours of daylight.
According to their breed and the time of year, chicks are usually brooded for six to eight weeks. The heat is gradually reduced as the chicks get older and grow. If using a suspended heat source, this can be raised higher periodically. If using light bulbs, the wattage can be reduced gradually.
It is interesting to observe how the chicks increase in weight and size as they get older. Feathers will be observed to grow from the wings after only a few days. It is amazing to think that the strong, healthy, active, chick managed to come from inside a small egg!