It is amazing to watch a mama hen with her baby chicks. Once the last one has hatched, dried off, and is strong enough to walk well, she leads them off the nest and begins scratching and pecking at food, and drinking water. The chicks imitate her and are all quickly pros at eating and drinking. It is as easy as that.
Unfortunately, without a mama hen to teach them, chicks from a hatchery or from your incubator can sometimes struggle to get the concept of eating and drinking. Each time we hatch out an incubation I work with the chicks to get them eating and drinking as soon as possible. Yes, they do have enough nutrition inside of them from the yolk to last a few days. But I have found that the sooner I get them eating and drinking and strengthened, the better off they are and the less early loss we have.
We normally start by focusing on getting them to drink, as eating seems to easily follow. We put a little sugar in the water to help give them a little boost at first.
Here are a few techniques we use:
The obvious one is to dunk their beaks. This works somewhat, and does get some water into them, but we have found that they are often so upset that we picked them up and dunked them that they don’t repeat the behavior themselves and start drinking.
When we have a weak chick we will pick it up and dunk it several times (giving it time to swallow fully in between dunks) every hour or two until it gets strong enough to learn to do it on its own.
Another technique we have found that works is to use one finger to tap the bottom of the inside of the water dish. This does a few things, first it imitates the mama’s beak going into the water. Second, the sound of the tapping seems to catch the chick’s interest and draw them over to see what is going on. And third, it causes the water to move a bit, and that movement often sparks the curiosity of the chick to put their own beak in and check it out. This method works best in combination with the last method we use – a laser pointer.
Have you ever played with your dog or cat with a laser pointer? They love chasing it. Well, we play with our chickens with it too. And that spurred the thought to use it to encourage the chicks to drink. We get their attention over to the water dish by tapping one of our fingers on the bottom of the dish in the water, then we shine the pointer into the water and move it around a bit. The chicks can’t help themselves and peck at the dot, thus getting a drink. We have found this process to be the most effective to teach them and get them voluntarily drinking on their own. Once they are all gathered around drinking and have a good fill, we will slowly move it over to the food dish and they follow and then start pecking at it there and eating.
The good thing is that chicks imitate each other, so once you have a few drinking and eating the rest are usually soon to follow. But be sure to keep a close eye and make sure they all get it figured out. There is often a slower/weaker straggler that needs some extra attention to figure it out.