There are a few things I like to do in the brooder to create a healthier environment for my chicks. Everyone who has brooded chicks knows that the water bowl quickly fills up with dirty shavings. In the first few days, when paper towels cover the floor to prevent the young chicks from eating the shavings and provide non-slip footing, the water bowl remains fairly clean. The bowl is filled with glass marbles to prevent drowning, and the poop is easily rinsed out when replacing the water. I leave a hamster waterer available from the beginning, and usually a few bright chicks catch on in the first day or two. (This hatch, it was Sneakers.) When I peel up the paper towels to reveal the shavings underneath at about the third day, I remove the water bowl and let the brood move fully to the water bottle. Their water remains clean and fresh, and they can be left for a full work day assured a clean water supply. I monitor the chicks during the transition to make sure everyone has caught on. Later, when they move outside, my chickens are ready to drink from a poultry nipple with no problem.
Most chicks are brooded with a heat lamp, a red light being preferable to white because it is less likely to encourage picking. Heat lamps are okay, but I would rather allow the chicks become used to a natural day/night cycle. Chicks brooded under lights often freak out at their first nightfall. Heat lamps can also fail or cause other problems. Light bulbs can burst from heat, burn out in the night, or fall and cause a fire. Lastly, they consume a great amount of electricity. For these reasons, I use an EcoGlow from Brinsea. It is a horizontal panel which is warm to the touch. The chicks go underneath for warmth as they would go under a mother. It uses far less electricity, which helps it to pay for itself in (what I heard was) six weeks of use, and allows chicks to self-regulate their temperature which aids in weaning from the heat source as they feather out. It does not go out, and it does not cause fires. Some people make their own brooder using heat tape on the underside of some horizontal surface. (Interestingly, you can brood chicks using the heat from composting manure if you have no electricity. Just a fun fact. 😉 )
This year, I added something new to their housing: a dish of sod. They climb the mound, jump off, fly off, scratch, and grab pieces of grass to chase each other around the brooder for; it provides entertainment, which always reduces the risk of unwanted behaviors. Additionally, they are gently exposed to microorganisms that they will encounter in the local soil, building some resistance if necessary, and are able to populate their gut with beneficial bacteria.
Lastly, I found myself without chick grit in the house this year and decided to add one more attraction to the brooder: a dish of sandy, gravely dirt. I dug from the dry stream bed in my yard, above the driveway so that it is not contaminated with chemicals, and placed the dish of sandy dirt with a variety of tiny rocks for them to use as grit for their crop. Amusingly, they spend a great amount of time scratching in this dish as well!
All in all, my goal is to keep the brooder clean, safe, efficient, and support their health and development. I love having them in the house – when they are still small, anyway – and I hope that they develop habits and strengths to give them the best start possible. For other brooding ideas, you can read my chick care tips from last year.