It’s so rewarding to watch cute, fluffy baby chicks grow up. Especially when they grow into hens and produce fresh eggs. Baby chicks need lots of time, care, and attention, and need to live inside to stay warm. As baby chicks get older, how can you tell when the time is right to take them outside?
- Human-raised chicks can go outside when they have their feathers, at around 4 to 6 weeks old, as long as it’s not too cold out.
- Hen-raised chicks stay with their mother and can go outside immediately, as their mother is their personal, traveling heater.
Baby chickens need to be kept warm in the first few weeks of life. They are incredibly sensitive to temperature and if they are put outside too soon it could kill them.
Baby chicks cannot maintain their heat since they don’t have feathers. If you’re hand-raising them in a brooder, then it’s a good idea to keep them inside while they’re fluffy.
Chicks will give plenty of signs to let you know when they are ready to live outside, and we’ll take a closer look at these below. With this information, you’ll know exactly when the baby chicks are ready to go outside.
When Can Baby Chickens Move Outside?
Hen-raised chicks can be born and stay outside with their mother and fellow hatchlings, while human-raised chicks need to live in their brooder until their feathers come in to keep them warm, though they can go outside on field trips to acclimate to the outside.
As long as the temperature outdoors is above 65 degrees, baby chicks can go outside when they have most of their feathers, at around 4 to 6 weeks old. Most chickens develop feathers by 5 or 6 weeks, but some breeds may take longer.
Baby chicks will start to get their feathers from around 7 to 14 days old, depending on the breed. Just a few weeks later, they will be covered in feathers, and this is a sure sign it’s time for them to go outside.
Another sign’s time for the babies to go outside is if the brooder suddenly looks small and overcrowded, or if they are cranky with each other.
At around 4 or 5 weeks chickens start to scratch, and you might notice a lot of dust. A dusty environment isn’t good for the chicks, and this is another sign it’s time for them to go outside.
In the wild, baby chicks are born outdoors, so they’re exposed to the elements from day one, but they have their mother to keep them warm. Without a mother hen to regulate their heat, the chicks have to be kept in a brooder.
We raised our first two sets of chicks (6 in each set) in the brooder. We moved the first set outside at about 10 weeks old, as it was still quite cold out, and they hadn’t been able to go outside much previously due to all of the snow. I also had to finish building their coop!
Our second set moved outside at about 6 weeks old, but we moved them into a small coop with a brooder heater, as it was still early spring. We slowly weaned them off the heater while also merging the new flock of 6 pullets into the flock of 6 fully-grown hens.
Got a broody hen? That’s the perfect mom for your chicks so they can stay warm! Read more about broody hens in my article here: Broody Chickens: The Complete Guide.
What’s a Brooder?
A brooder is a small, safe, secure enclosure where you can raise baby chicks. It will usually have a heat source such as a lamp or brooder heater to replicate the heat from a mother hen. Indoor chicks spend their first weeks of life in a brooder until they’re old enough to go outside.
The brooder should be big enough to allow around one to two feet squared for every chick, this might look like a lot of space at first, but they quickly grow into it. If you have the time and skills, you can make your own brooder using cardboard, wood, a box, or a container.
Chicken keepers prefer round brooders without square corners. This helps prevent crushing and suffocation. The brooder will need bedding, food, water, and a cover if the walls are less than 12 inches high, as well as a heat lamp.
Note: In my experience, a kiddie pool is a great size for a brooder if you have more than 6 chicks. Just know you’ll need to make taller walls. For 6 or fewer chicks, a large plastic tub (35 gallons or more) is a great option. Cut air holes in it and the lid, and then you can cat-proof your brooder with screen-door material or chicken wire.
Young chicks are curious, and they might jump out of the brooder. Use chicken wire or animal netting as a cover to keep adventurous babies safely contained.
If the brooder is homemade, ensure there’s plenty of ventilation and a heat source such as a heat lamp to keep your chicks warm. The chickens also need an area to retreat from the heat if they wish. Alternatively, you can buy brooders online, which are fully set up and ready to go.
How Long Do Baby Chickens Need a Heat Lamp?
Baby chicks need a heat lamp to keep their environment warm until they’re ready to go outside at around 4 or 5 weeks old. A heat lamp provides both light and heat, essential for a baby chick’s development in the first weeks of life.
In the first week, chicks need to be in a warm environment of 95 degrees. The idea is to gradually reduce this temperature over the space of several weeks to accustom your chicks to outside temperatures.
In the second week reduce the brooder temperature to 90 degrees and keep reducing it by 5 degrees each week. Eventually, the brooder temperature will roughly match the temperature outdoors when it’s time for the chicks to move into their coop.
However, measuring the temperature gets to be a pain. Instead, watch the chicks’ reactions to the heater, and use that to gauge the temperature.
- Chicks huddling under the heat lamp and light are too cold (or asleep). Lower the light slightly to keep them warmer, unless they’re just sleeping. Then, wait and see.
- Chicks getting as far away from the light lamp as possible are too warm. Raise it up and let them cool off. They don’t need as much heat!
Baby chicks are very susceptible to the cold, and temperature fluctuations can even kill them, so check the temperature in your brooder regularly. If the lamp isn’t providing enough heat, the chicks will all huddle up below it.
If they don’t go near the heat source at all, it’s too hot. Adjust the ground temperature by raising the lamp to make it cooler, or lowering it to make it warmer.
Invest in high-quality, reliable light to reduce the risk of fire, and hang it with a chain, rather than rope or straps. The light mustn’t be too close to bedding or your baby chicks’ water.
If using a lamp for heat and light, plan on keeping it on constantly. If the heat lamp doesn’t give off any light, or an alternative heating source such as a brooder plate is being used, the chicks will need supplementary lighting, ideally on a timer.
They will need constant light for the first two or three days so they can find the food, water, and source of heat.
Keep the supplementary light on all the time as if it were a heat lamp. Baby chicks will sleep with a light on. Alternatively, after a few weeks, you can get your chicks used to night cycles by removing the light at night. Or, you know. Use that timer.
The best way to get chicks used to dark cycles is by using natural light through a window if possible. Baby chicks don’t like being plunged into darkness when you suddenly switch a light off.
Red light vs. white light
The color of the heat lamp also plays a part in the baby chicks’ well-being. Most chicken keepers recommend using a red heat lamp over a white one. Red light is more soothing than white light.
Furthermore, chicks can’t see a wound in red light, so this will prevent attacks on wounded chicks. Most keepers avoid white heat lamps because the intense glare can keep chickens awake all night cheeping.
Caring For Baby Chicks – The Essentials
Baby chicks are small and cute, but they’re very demanding and super sensitive to their diet and environment. As well as a heat lamp, your chicks will also need food, bedding, and water in their brooder.
We’ll take a closer look below at all the essentials you need to know about raising baby chicks. These steps cover non-health basics, so if you want to know 9 Reasons Why Baby Chicks Die, then read that article I wrote, as it’ll help save you a lot of grief and worry.
Step #1 – Food
Baby chicks need special starter food, which is also known as chick crumb or mash, that is much easier for chicks to digest. Once chicks get their feathers, they move on to grower food. Always follow the manufacturer’s instructions about switching your chicks from starter to grower food.
Buy your chicks a purpose-made feeder. If food is left out in a shallow bowl, the chicks will tip it out, poop and pee in it, and quickly ruin it. To save money on food and to keep the brooder clean, this is a great investment.
Around 3 or 4 weeks, give your chick small treats such as chopped-up mealworms or vegetation. Only give chicks treats in tiny amounts. Too many treats may upset their stomach and cause malnutrition if they’re too full to eat their balanced food.
Need more info on feeding chicks? Read these articles I wrote:
Step #2 – Water
Just like food, if baby chicks are left water in a shallow, open dish on the floor the chicks will ruin it. Furthermore, it’s easy for baby chicks to drown in shallow water. Give them water in a raised chick waterer. These are safe and will keep the water cleaner for longer.
In the first few days, observe the chicks closely to make sure they’re all drinking. If they can’t find the water try gently dipping their beak into it.
Need more chick watering info? Read my article, How To Keep Baby Chicks’ Water Clean (with pictures).
Step #3 – Bedding
Chicks will need bedding to stay cozy and also to absorb their poop and pee. The best type of bedding for chicks is a 2-inch layer of wood shavings which are soft, fluffy, and absorbent.
You shouldn’t use cedar shavings, because these have a strong aroma and oils that may affect the chick’s lungs.
For extra cushioning and absorption, put paper towels down as a base for the shavings. Don’t use newspaper as it’s not very absorbent, it’s slippery, and may cause deformities such as splayed legs.
Be careful which bedding you combine with a heat lamp, as it can be a fire risk. Make sure you read my article on the Light and Heat Requirements for Baby Chicks: The Essential Guide!
Step #4 – Grit
Chickens don’t have teeth. Instead, they grind food in their gizzard (a muscular part of their stomach) with the help of grit. Baby chicks don’t need grit if they only eat easily digestible starter crumbs or mash.
Once chicks start to eat hard food such as treats or vegetation, they will need grit to help them break down the food. Some keepers suggest using a smaller grit for baby chicks, such as parakeet or canary grit.
Chicks don’t need grit if they’re getting starter feed. But when they’re off starter feed? That’s when they’ll start needing it. Read more about grit in my article, This is Why Chickens Eat Rocks and Stones.
Step #5 – Roosting
A perch or rooster isn’t essential for baby chicks, but some develop a roosting instinct from around 14 days old. A few roosting poles will provide extra activity and make the baby chicks super happy in their brooder.
Roosting poles for chicks need to be around half-inch in diameter and 5 inches off the ground. Don’t put your roosters over the food and water, chicks will poop while they roost.
Wondering Do Chickens Need Toys? Entertaining Your Chicks and Chickens? Your answer is in that article, so go read it!
How Long do Baby Chickens Need to Stay Inside?
Baby chicks must stay indoors, under heat, for the first 3 or 4 weeks. After 3 or 4 weeks, if it’s warm outside, you can take your chicks outdoors for short periods during the day. Outdoor time will help chicks transition gradually to living outside full time.
When it’s time for your chicks to live outside, it’s less traumatic for them if they make a gradual transition. At three or 4 weeks old, if the temperature is at least 65-75 degrees, you can let the chicks have some time outside in the sun in a mini chicken run.
While outside, the chicks will get used to noises, they’ll get used the climate, and will also get some beneficial exercise.
The outdoor run must be sturdy and secure so the chicks can’t get out and also so predators can’t get in. A short, grassy area is an ideal place to put a nursery run so the chicks can have a little scratch and a nibble. Start with an hour outside and gradually build up the time they are outside.
Put the baby chicks in a sunny place, and make sure they have a shady area as well as food and water. Never leave baby chicks unattended outside because they’re extremely vulnerable at this age.
If it rains or gets cold, or if they seem distressed, bring the babies back indoors. It’s a good idea to carry the chicks in and out by hand so they get used to being handled.
How do I Put Baby Chicks Outside Safely?
A sudden environmental change can be stressful for baby chicks, so make the transition slowly and monitor your chicks closely when they go to live outside. If these are your first baby chicks and they have their own coop and run, keep them locked in the coop for the first few days.
A few days inside will help your chicks acclimatize to the weather and identify the new coop as home. As cute as they are, both you and your chicks will be happy when it’s time for them to live outside.
If you have adult chickens, most of the time baby chicks will fit in with a flock as long as they have enough space. Adult chickens will usually only bully babies if the run is overcrowded.
If the chicks are put out with adults, make sure water, feeders, perches, and ramps are accessible for their shorter height. Keep a close eye on them for the first few days to ensure there’s no bullying and that the babies are eating and drinking.
Best Products For Baby Chicks
When you’re getting ready to raise baby chicks, you really need the right products. Here are a few that have worked well (or some that worked less well) for us, so that you can have a better idea of what to do (or not do!).
Best Heat and Light Sources for Chicks
We used a brooder lamp and red light bulb combo (similar to this one on Amazon) with our first two sets of chicks. It worked fine, but it was always a concern. A similar setup ended up causing a friend’s living room to catch fire (and killed the chicks).
It’s a decent beginner setup, but know that it isn’t risk-free. It’s less risky if you use it with a hanging setup like the one in this kit (see the best pricing on Amazon here), with or without the walls.
If you want the safest heat source option, it’s this RentACoop brooder heating plate (click here to see availability on Amazon). It’s what we plan to use going forward, combined with a regular lightbulb for managing light for the chicks. It comes in several sizes, too, depending on how many chicks you plan to raise
Best Brooder Options
For keeping chicks, if you’re raising 6 or fewer, get a large, 35-gallon-plus plastic tote. Poke some air holes in the sides, and cut a section out of the lid. Line the holes with some chicken wire, some screen door mesh, or some hardware cloth (like this on Amazon). Seriously. It worked for us!
If you’re raising more chicks, then a kiddie pool or a giant box also works. If it doesn’t have sides, make sure you increase the height with something like this starter kit’s cardboard walls (on Amazon). We used that the first time when we discovered that a kiddie pool is way too big for only 6 chicks. The lamp-hanging part, though, was totally amazing.
If you want to get a heater and a pop-up brooder in one, then this Incubator Warehouse InstaBrooder with Vrooder heater plate (on Amazon) looks like a solid option. Plus, it stores a ton easier than a customized plastic tote!
For taking your chicks outside, don’t take their plastic tote brooder out with them. It’ll attract a ton of fun, even if there’s snow on the ground. Instead, wait until the snow is gone and then use this pop-up chicken pen (click here to see the best price on Amazon).
Best Chick Brooder Feeders & Brooder Add-Ons
You’re going to need a way to feed your chicks, and most options will involve a mess. Even so, getting a hanging feeding and watering option (like this one on Amazon) once the chicks are at least a few days old does help minimize the mess somewhat. It worked better than the DIY feeder I made out of a yogurt container one year, anyway.
You’ll also want to get your chick some starter feed, like this Manna Pro on Amazon. In my experience, it doesn’t need to have antibiotics or medications in it. Some probiotics are nice, but not necessary. In fact, don’t actually buy a chick starter feed online. Go buy it from a feed store. It’s a much better deal there, and it’ll likely be locally sourced.
Get your chicks a mini perch like this one, too. It’s on Amazon, but it should give them something to do other than just hang out in the brooder.
Your brooder should also have some sort of bedding. There are options (like this one) on Amazon, but they’re a ton more expensive than going to your local feed store and buying some equine pine shavings.
For the same price listed on this product on the day I published this article, I can get more than 12 cubic feet of pine shavings from the feed store that are pretty dang similar.
Key Takeaways and Next Steps
Before baby chicks go outside, they must have most of their feathers to help them regulate their body temperature. For most chicks, this happens at around 4 to 6 weeks old. If it’s warm out, but the chicks in an outdoor nursery run for an hour or two a day when they are 3 or 4 weeks old.
During this time the chicks will get used to outdoor sounds and noises, and they’ll also acclimatize to the weather. Make sure the nursery run is safe and secure from predators, and always supervise your baby chicks when they’re outside.
If you are interested in reading more about raising chickens, here are some great articles to read:
- This Is Why Baby Chickens Lay On Their Side
- Do Chickens Make Good Pets?
- What Time of the Year Do Chickens Lay Fewer Eggs? Cold VS Hot Weather
- How Much Water Do Chickens Drink Daily?
They’re all articles I wrote and published on this site, and they’re all packed full of the information I’ve learned through study and experience. So please let me save you some of the hard work – go give those a read next.
Learning from your own experience is essential, but learning from others is also intelligent. These are the sources used in this article and our research to be more informed as homesteaders.
- “AVIAN DIGESTIVE SYSTEM – Small and Backyard Poultry.” Poultry Extension, poultry.extension.org/articles/poultry-anatomy/avian-digestive-system. Accessed 21 Feb. 2022.
- “Brooding and Caring for Chicks | 1.” Extension, 8 July 2021, extension.unh.edu/resource/brooding-and-caring-chicks.
- Cooperative Extension Publications. “Bulletin #2227, Maine Poultry Facts: Lighting For Small-Scale Flocks – Cooperative Extension Publications – University of Maine Cooperative Extension.” Cooperative Extension Publications, 6 Aug. 2021, extension.umaine.edu/publications/2227e.