Keeping brooders at optimal temperatures helps babies stay healthy. But when can chicks go outside?
Hens will let offspring spend longer moments outside, as babies age. Wings develop and tufts form on tails. Then chests fill in. Eventually, babies have enough coverage that they no longer hide beneath wings to keep warm.
When Can Chicks go Outside for Short Trips?
Though they’re not old enough to live outside, chicks living in brooders can enjoy short “field trips” starting around weeks three and four. Caring for baby chicks is more fun as you take them onto the lawn to peck at grass and chase bugs. But stay wary of weather, outside temperatures, and the chicks’ ages.
These field trips allow chicks to exercise and expand their diets. Exposure to the elements, at appropriate temperatures, “toughens” and acclimates them so the first night out isn’t such a shock. And it allows you to bond with brooding chicks as they grow, which creates a gentler and more human-friendly hen or rooster.
When Can Chicks go Outside Permanently?
Chicken growth charts can be difficult to find, but an Internet search shows how little fluffballs with nubby wings grow into pullets and cockerels. “Fully feathered” is the point where all fluff has been replaced by true plumage. Chickens self-regulate temperatures by fluffing their feathers and creating air layers. If even the neck still has fluff, brooder babies aren’t ready to sleep outside.
Until then, use the rule that newly hatched chicks need ambient temperatures of 95F; each week after, reduce that by five degrees. They can spend all day outside if temperatures stay within the right range for their ages. But remember that even if it’s warm enough, wind and water will chill a chick. The more chicks are in the flock, the more they can huddle for warmth and you don’t have to rush them inside as fast.
Outside “playpens” should be fully enclosed, with all openings too small for chicks to squeeze through. Always cover the enclosure’s top, because birds this small are at risk of cats and other predators. Even blue jays can enter topless enclosures and terrorize chicks. Smaller wild birds may bring diseases.
Keep food and clean water available, as well as shade and somewhere the chicks can seek shelter. Shade/shelter can simply be a box lying on its side.
Bring chicks inside if it rains, or if you see them huddling together instead of exploring their surroundings. Also, if their daytime “playpen” is unsecured against predators, bring them inside anytime you cannot supervise.
Try carrying them one by one, out to the playpen and back in, instead of hauling a pet carrier full of babies. This gets them used to being handled and makes them more trusting. It lets them know that being grabbed by their human owners isn’t something to fear.
As babies near that six-week mark, turn the heat lamp off. Let them experience days and nights within your house or garage. The brooder won’t expose them to weather extremes, but eliminating a heat lamp during the last week or two lets them acclimate. Remember, adding heat to outside coops is dangerous! Transitioning gradually from a heated environment, to unheated but comfortable, to outside and sheltered is easier than going straight out at week six to brave the elements.
This six-week timeline has exceptions. Research how to care for baby chicks and illnesses they may face. Coccidiosis is more common when baby chicks spend time outside because protozoa can be spread by wild birds. But coccidiosis is easy to treat with medicated chick feed and probiotics. If you see pink, meaty-looking, or bloody stools, stop “field trips” for a few days and treat the babies. Respiratory issues are also carried by wild birds, and some are highly contagious. Though infectious bronchitis is a virus, and cannot be eliminated with antibiotics, keeping babies sheltered and warm during illness reduces stress and risk of secondary infections. When can chicks go outside if they’ve been sick? After they no longer show symptoms, especially if you have other chickens they may infect.
Whether chicks are outside or in, always ensure they have clean bedding, food, and water, to reduce stress and risk of infection. Watch how they act: do they huddle to keep warm, are they lethargic, or do they happily flap around and peck the ground? That happy flapping and pecking are your best signs that babies are healthy and warm enough.
Chicken Heat Table
|0-7 Days||95°F||Now is not the time to let babies
stay outside the brooder more than
a couple minutes.
|Week 2||90°F||Babies start flying very early! Be sure the
heat lamp is secure and can’t be reached.
|Week 3||85°F||Chicks can make short trips outside,
if the weather is nice and warm.
|Week 4||80°F||Let chicks enjoy more time outside, but
keep a close eye on them.
|Week 5||75°F||Is your house 75F? Turn off the heat lamp.|
|Week 6||70°F||Start acclimating the chickens, letting them
spend all day outside unless the weather is
cold and rainy.
|After 6 Weeks||Ready for Outside!||Fully feathered chicks can endure 30F and
lower. Acclimate them before putting outside
for good. Be sure coops are draft-free.
Get more great tips from Marissa for raising baby chicks in the April / May 2017 issue of Backyard Poultry.