As someone who does lots of public appearances and is photographed holding a chicken fairly often for promotional purposes and photo shoots, as well as someone who occasionally welcomes film crews to my home to record television programs, I need for my chickens to be friendly and be able to handle being picked up and held for sustained periods of time.
Bringing home baby chicks can be an exciting learning experience, especially if you have children. And while chicks don’t imprint on humans like ducklings or goslings might, they will end up being far more friendly adult hens if you spend lots of time with them as they grow. Some so-called experts recommend not handling chicks for the first few weeks after they hatch, but I couldn't disagree more. I think it's very important to hold your chicks and let them feel your heartbeat. They love to snuggle in your hand against your skin, warm and safe.
But keep in mind that baby chicks are likely only days old when you get them. Their bones are soft and delicate. They have intricate respiratory systems that can be easily damaged if they are squeezed or held too tightly. Chicks also need to be kept under a heat source (set at 95 degrees the first week, then lowered 5 degrees per week), so unless you keep your house abnormally warm, remember that any time that you take them out of their warmed brooder, you are risking chilling them.
The best way to pick up a chick is to circle its body with your hand, your fingers loosely around the underside of its body and your thumb across its back, holding the wings in place, or by scooping the chick up from underneath, gently cradling its belly in one hand and placing your other hand over its back. Never let a baby chick stand on your open palm, especially if you’re standing up, because they’re likely to hop off or flutter their wings and end up airborne which will likely end in a bad fall.
For the first few days after you get your chicks, watch them in the brooder for as long as they want, and talk to them using a soft voice, but resist the urge to pick them up. Let the chicks get used to their new life and recover from the trip to your house. You can use slow movements and stroke them on the head or back if you wish. After a day or so, try putting your hand, palm side up, into the brooder and letting your chicks inspect your fingers and hop onto your hand. Sprinkling some chick feed onto your hand can help encourage them. Talk to them so they get used to your voice.
Once your chicks are comfortable with you and literally “eating out of your hand”, you can try taking them out of the brooder. Have small children sit on the floor and put the chicks in their lap (a cloth or towel draped over their lap first is a good idea to keep the poop contained). And in fact, it’s actually a good idea to sit on the floor any time anyone is handling chicks. They can be skittish, and a fall from just a few feet can easily cause injuries.
Let your chicks walk around, hop onto your lap or arm and just generally get used to being around you. Note: if you hatch chicks under a broody hen, it's imperative that you spend lots of time around the new family because the chicks will be more apt to imprint on the broody hen than on you, so see if the mother hen will let you take turns 'babysitting' and allow you time around the new chicks.
Everyone should wash their hands in warm soapy water after they’re done handling the chicks, and children should be taught not to touch their faces, and especially not to put their fingers in their eyes or mouth, to prevent Salmonella. The disease can be transmitted to humans after touching chicks that have come in contact with it. Children under five years old make up the majority of Salmonella cases, most likely from hand to mouth transmission of the bacteria. Symptoms in humans include cramps, diarrhea, nausea, chills, fever and headaches. Generally not fatal in healthy adults, salmonella can result in death in the elderly, young, sick, pregnant woman and those with compromised immune systems.
Children under the age of four or five are probably too young to actually hold baby chicks themselves, because they might accidentally squeeze them too hard, drop them, or step on them, all of which could prove fatal to a young chick. Younger children can instead be taught to gently stroke the chicks while an adult holds them, or sit on the ground with the chick in their lap. And children of any age should never be allowed to handle chicks without adult supervision.
Hands-on time with your chicks should be limited to several short sessions of just a few minutes each, several times a day. Chicks are babies and spend lots of time sleeping. They get tired quickly and also get cold. If your chick starts peeping loudly, that’s a sign it’s cold and should be returned to the brooder. Taking out only one chick at a time is best. Chicks move fast and things can quickly get out of control if you are trying to keep track of several at once. You should handle them only in a closed room that the family pet can’t access, in case a chick does escape your grasp.
As long as you remember how fragile your new baby chicks are and take precautions, and remember that they need lots of sleep and heat, spending time handling and playing with them, even dressing them up in cupcake tutus if the mood strikes! - and offering them treats such as chopped leafy greens, raw oatmeal or fresh chopped herbs (be sure they have chick grit to help them digest it) - will go a long way towards ultimately having a friendly flock of backyard pets. Have fun with them! They're only young once and they grow so fast!
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