A Hard Lesson Learned in Caring For Baby Chicks

Learning How to Care For Baby Chicks Has Its Own Lessons

We learned a painful lesson in caring for baby chicks, and I’m hesitant to tell this, because I know some will condemn me. They’ll call me irresponsible, a bad parent. The guilt is still fresh. We’ve raised backyard chickens for five years. I grew up on a farm. My children have been involved in each step, a little at first, and more as they age. With the help of urban farming, I’m able to work part time. I rely on my family to help grow the food because I still have to earn a wage.

Currently we keep our chicks with broody hens, in sturdy cages within a climate-controlled greenhouse. I turn on a small heater at night, and a fan during the day. Yesterday, the sun never peeked through the clouds and the temperature in the greenhouse never rose above 80 degrees. We know exactly how to keep chickens cool in summer, especially when it comes to caring for baby chicks.

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As I showed my 13-year-old daughter how to care for baby chicks by cleaning the brooders, I stood over her shoulder the entire time. We lined a large bin with pine shavings and gently moved the hen and each chick into the bin. I showed her how to set the lid on askew so the little family wouldn’t escape but air could also circulate. We set the bin in a shady location. My daughter performed flawlessly. Maybe next time I would show her how to clean a chicken coop.

Yesterday, the brooders needed cleaning again. I also needed to go to work. My daughter said she could handle it, and wanted to practice caring for baby chicks. My husband was home, in case she needed help. So with her assertion that she had it covered, I left for a few hours.

Right before returning home, I checked my text messages:

“Your daughter is on a crying fit of sadness and woe. She killed 7 of your meat chicks.”

I felt like throwing up. I set the phone aside and concentrated on the road, wondering just how this had happened. Seven?

She waited in the driveway, holding a plastic bag with seven little bodies. Ten days old, they had white wings and fluffy butts. I felt the bag. Their bodies were hot.

“Okay,” I said, trying to remain calm. “Tell me exactly what happened.”

She told me how she had set the lid on the bin to contain the family while she changed out the dirty shavings. When she lifted the lid, seven were dead and the others panted in the heat.

“How long were they in the container?”

“I don’t know,” she wept. “Fifteen minutes?”

She was shocked how quickly the temperature can rise in a container when you don’t set the lid askew.

I’m not sure if it was fifteen minutes. She didn’t have a watch. My husband claimed she was in the greenhouse about forty-five minutes, and in that time had cleaned the first brooder before even placing the meat chicks in the bin.

I was angry, disappointed, sad, and sick to my stomach. But as I witnessed those bitter tears and gasping breath, I knew no discipline I could inflict would hurt as bad as the guilt she felt from her failure at caring for baby chicks. So I told her to take care of the little bodies then come in for dinner. I wasn’t going to punish her. A hard lesson learned.

Through the evening I wrestled with my own guilt. Condemning thoughts churned through my mind, the same ones others might hurl at me for the tragedy. What if I’d just cleaned the brooders myself, instead of assigning a child to do it? What if we had done it at night when temperatures outside descended to freezing? What if I hadn’t gone to work? What if I didn’t have a job, and I just stayed home to monitor every single detail of both my farm and my children? That night those meat chicks haunted my dreams. I woke several times, wondering if this isolated incident, through five successful years of chicken ownership, should convince me to give up urban farming and abandon raising heritage chicken breeds.

The rest of the chicks are fine. They received water and cool, clean bedding in time to fully recover. I know next time my daughter wants to work at caring for baby chicks by cleaning the brooder, she will cock the lid aside and set the container in the shade. It will be a while before I regain the confidence to leave certain chores to my children as I go earn a living. But eventually, we have to move on and learn from our mistakes in caring for baby chicks. Especially the really painful ones.

Originally published in 2015 and regularly vetted for accuracy.

  • Don’t feel guilty. Its how people learn. Im sure she learned something.

  • Your one and only mistake was by not just letting the mother hen do it all.She is the brooder.She will keep them warm-get them out of that greenhouse.

  • Elaine S.

    I had a painful experience today too. I’m new at raising chicks. I’ve never done it before, nor even owned any livestock. Bubble, the black australorp died today at around 3.30pm. I buried her in the shady corner behind the YUcca and next to the pomegranate. She was 5 days old. I don’t know why she died. When we first came home all four chicks were fine, but yesterday afternoon I noticed she didn’t want to come out from under the ecoglow brooder, and this morning was even worse. She had absolutely no energy to get up and use her legs. She sat in my hands for a good hour while I prayed and hoped she was getting strong again.
    I’m crying for her now, but it’s good that we still have the other 3 chicks who all are healthy and eating and drinking and running around the cage.

  • We had a very similar situation happen. We have a boxer that is not aggressive but has a strong hunting instinct. Because of this my husband and I were very careful and very diligent about taking care of the chicks in our brooder ourselves. After about 6 weeks we were feeling confident and not worried as much. My daughter asked to check on them and she went into the garage from the outside door, not the inside door and she didn’t remember to secure the door…. It was aweful and devastating. We contemplated all of the same things. But I think it’s important for us to always remember that we are doing our best. And that we chose this lifestyle for great reasons. Life is about a balance and things do happen as a part of life. And while these lessons are very hard for our children as well, they are learning great lessons in life through these experiences. So, thank you so much for sharing your story!

  • I feel your pain. We had an incident when our son was about the age of your daughter. My husband and I were going to be gone for an evening. Our chickens free range and we asked our son if he would close the coop door after the chickens were in for the night. We got home late, long after our son was in bed, and we went to bed without checking on the chickens. Later in the night my husband heard a commotion in the yard. We rushed outside to find our coop still open and our beloved Easter egger, Helen, gone. With a flashlight I found the other chickens that Han scattered into the night. In the morning I found Helen’s remains in the top of a garage near a raccoon nest. We were all devastated, especially our son who admitted he got distracted with friends and just forgot. It happens to everyone at sometime but it was a sad outcome for poor little Helen.

  • Your irresponsible by nature, it seems. Reading texts while driving is an even worse example of it than letting a child perform such a task unsupervised.

    • It must be nice to never make mistakes in your own life. So much so that you have time to troll boards and post overly harsh comments on others confessions. It is so good we have you to emulate. 13 is not a child but a young woman who learned a hard lesson. Life is hard, harsh and cruel enough without adding to someone else’s guilt. During the depression, and many a bygone era, 7-8 year olds were expected to tend to the chickens, and I am sure many accidents occurred. Kudos for raising a child with empathy. That’s what I took from the story. Your daughter held herself accountable for her own actions, felt true remorse for what she had caused. Your raising an incredible adult, don’t forget that lesson as a parent, your doing it right.

  • Cathy G.

    Judgment and defensive sarcasm doesn’t solve anything. My heart goes out to this very young teen who tried hard to be responsible and take care of the chicks. Right now her heart is probably breaking and she feels responsible and will live with this for as long as she remembers it. This was a huge task for a 13 year old to do after only being shown one time. Some people can perform tasks well after being shown once, others just need more support. I’m very sorry that this happened and hope your family will work together to get through it and support each other. It bothers me a lot that the dad made the text comment he did. Couldn’t he have supervised to help? Not trying to judge, just saying.

  • Sorry for your loss! Been there – done that. Don’t go into chicken or farming of any sort if you are a sensitive soul – there is tragedy at every corner. Hawks are our main predator. We can not free range anymore unless I am standing over the flock with a big rake. We have lost many to the hawks and even coyote in the day time. I feel sad every single time one is taken. Unfortunately my one very mean rooster, Fabio, is always spared. Sorry to say that I would not mourn his loss.

  • HI. A motherless chick showed up at my door step about 3 days ago now. I should explain that where I live, in the Caribbean , some chickens run free. We call them yard fowls. Anyhow, so I have this sweet little chick, I leave it water and coarse ground raw rice, oats, pumpkin, sesame, flax, chia and hemp seeds to eat when I am at work, because that’s what I have at home. It seems to eat them fine and I take it outside a few minutes in the evenings to free range. It’s crop (something I have become educated about since getting this little chirper) seems to very full when I get home in the evenings. It was hard yesterday evening and the night before last, it was swishy but looked bulgy and looks like an air pocket about to burst. So I didn’t give it anything else to eat after 7ish and it was flat again in the morning. Is that ok for it to be so bulgy? I did give it about a teaspoon of water that had a drop of raw, unfiltered apple cider vinegar the first night, then last night water with ACV and a bit of olive oil. Am I doing right?
    Sorry about so many questions but I am new to this, and I have become attached to the birdie who I am named Goldie. It also seems to have some separation anxiety because I only kept quiet at night if I wrap it in a blanket and put it next to me to sleep during the night ( I know that is a little gross but the only way to keep it calm at night. or it will keep jumping up to my neck and nestling itself in my neck. Does this mean that it is cold, even though we are tropical?
    I decided today to get 3 more chicks from a place that sells them but these ones are usually injected with hormones as eggs and they also clip the beaks to prevent them from pecking ach other, so I was told. So I need lots of information.
    Thanks for all your help. And do you have links for information how when they get bigger?


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