By Kathryn Robles
Text copyright © 2016 Kathryn Robles
All Rights Reserved
Why You Need Chickens
Preparing for Chickens
Can I have chickens where I live?
When will I get eggs?
Where will they live?
What do I feed them?
Basic Chicken Health
Bringing Them Home
What Breed Should I Get?
Chicks, pullets, or hens?
You need chickens. You really do. Why? Because chickens are awesome. Why are they awesome? Because they just are. I mean, they eat bugs, lay eggs, and they look hilarious when they run. What other reasons do you need? Of course we could mention the fact that fresh eggs taste better than store bought eggs, that chickens in factory farms lead terrible lives, and that raising your own food is always a good idea. But we don’t really need to get into all that because I’m sure since you are thinking about getting chickens you’ve probably already are aware of those facts, (as well as the fact that chickens are awesome). Did I mention they look funny when they run?
Since you are now planning to get chickens it may seem overwhelming to know where to get started. You may even be tempted to walk into the feed store, pick out some chicks, bring them home and then figure it out. I really don’t recommend that for a couple reasons. First, animals need proper care and housing or they might die or be sad and miserable. Two, sad or dead animals are not awesome. You don’t get awesome points of your animals are sad, poopy, or dead; remember Giga Pets? Don’t worry, chickens are a little harder to forget about. I always killed my Giga Pet, and I have a pretty good track record with chickens. Anyway…
So, now not only do you need chickens, but you also need to know what you are going to do WITH the chickens once you get them. And you need to know where to get them in the first place, what to feed them, and about a million other questions that you probably haven’t even thought about yet. Don’t worry, this guide can help with that. Even if you are super busy with your 12 kids, three jobs, and 6 different hobbies you will be able to make tiny baby steps to responsible chicken ownership. Oh, you don’t have 12 kids, three jobs, and 6 different hobbies? Great, you can move along even faster and be frying omelets in no time.
You can race through like a hare and do huge projects all at once or you can get ready like a tortoise and go one baby step at a time. If you start at the beginning of this guide and work through each step you will be prepared for chickens once you get to the end. You can skip ahead and do some parts in different orders or combine steps into bigger chunks or even giant steps. I don’t recommend combining too much though, because if you are anything like me you have a tendency to be really excited about a project at the very beginning and then fizzle out when it feels like there is no end in sight. Having a series of mini-goals can be very inspirational each time you complete one, and it keep you excited for the next. With that said, your very first baby step can be found below.
Congratulations! You’ve taken your first baby step to becoming a chicken owner! Now that you’ve decided you want chickens there are a few things you need to do before actually bringing the fluffy critters home. You need to do some homework about how many birds you are allowed to have and how you can keep them. They need a home, food, and a few other things that we’ll talk about below.
First you need to figure out if you are legally allowed to have chickens where you live. If you are a renter, the first place you should check is your lease or with your landlord. Even if chickens are allowed in your city it’s never a good idea to violate the terms of your rental agreement. If you live in an HOA, check those rules and regulations. If they don’t allow chickens, you can approach your board about changing the regulations or you could move. I suggest moving because who needs more rules in their life governing what you are allowed to do with your own property!
If you are not allowed to keep chickens on your property don’t give up hope. You may be able to barter with a neighbor to house your chickens on their property. I saw this in action a couple years ago. A neighbor of ours decided to raise chickens and bartered with another for the use of their yard. In exchange for mowing their lawn and fresh eggs they were allowed the use of the yard to house their chickens and rabbits. Agreements like this can work out well for all parties involved, so it never hurts to try.
Another important aspect is whether or not your city allows chickens and what kind of regulations they have for keeping them. Keeping chickens against city code can lead to some hefty fines if you are found in violation. Chickens are becoming more and more popular and previously restrictive codes are constantly being updated to allow for backyard hens. A good place to start is at () as they maintain a forum dedicated to Local Chicken Laws and Ordinances. Many city codes can also be found online. Simply do a search for “[your city name] municipal code” and you should be able to find it. Once you get to the document check under any sections for animals as well as zoning.
Once you find your city code you should know important information such as how many hens you are allowed to keep, how much space it required to have them, whether or not you are allowed to have roosters, and if you need a permit. If any of these things are overly restrictive you can petition your city government to change the regulations. Individuals across the country have been doing this and leading the way for the urban chicken. This takes more than just baby steps to accomplish so if this is the route you are going to take a good place to start is by reading the article (http://grist.org/article/food-2011-01-05-how-to-get-your-city-to-allow-backyard-chickens/).
Whether you are keeping your hens in your backyard or a friend’s house you need to know what’s allowed and what’s not before you begin, thus the next baby step is below.
Hens should start laying eggs at about six months old. First-year hens will lay through the winter. By their second winter expect them to take a break from laying during their molt and also when it is dark longer. Some breeds of chickens will lay consistently up to four years or more while others produce well for about two years and then slow down. Chickens live for around eight years or so, so make sure you have a long term plan. Re-homing old chickens is not a good long term plan! If your long term plan is to dump your older birds on someone else, please don’t get chickens. [* *]If this is you, go take all the money you would have spent on your chickens and buy some high quality eggs from a local flock.
Chicken stew is definitely a long term plan, but if you’ve never butchered chickens before, it’s a good idea to go out and learn how to do it, or get all the information on who you can hire when the time comes. If you prefer, you can also keep the older hens as pets. We have a few older hens enjoying their retirement here. We like to buy two or three new hens every year or two to keep egg production up, and then the rest of our dozen-ish flock is varying ages.
Chickens have a few requirements in the kinds of housing they need to be healthy and happy. They need to be protected from predators and bad weather, a place to lay eggs, and a place to roost. The hen house or chicken coop can be as fancy or as basic as you like. You can refurbish an old shed or outbuilding, buy a premade coop, or build your own. It’s not necessarily difficult to build your own. My husband and I have now made four coops with almost no building experience when we started. If you choose to build your own, you may need to break down this baby step into several other baby steps. Make sure your coop is finished before you bring home your new flock! Chickens may think your washing machine is just fine to sleep on while their home undergoes construction (true story!), but you may not be as amenable!
Hens will need a minimum of 3 feet of indoor space each to be happy, but of course more is better. They will need at least one foot of roosting space each. Roosts should be at least one inch wide for them to be able to grasp onto. However, the best roosting option is a 2×4 board with the flat side up. This allows the hens to sit on their feet in cold weather to keep warm. If you have several roosts in your coop, make sure they are about 18 inches apart so the hens don’t have to squish together or get pooped on by the higher ups in the pecking order.
Hens that live in drafty home can get sick, as well as uncomfortable, but if they don’t have enough ventilation the excessive moisture will hurt them as well. What to do? Put the majority of vents on one wall and just a few on the other wall that can be opened only when the weather is warm. Plan on one square foot of ventilation per bird. The best walls to put vents on are the east and south sides so you do not get wind whipping through and making your ladies cold. If you are really into having a fancy coop you could install a solar powered fan to vent the coop for you.
Your birds will also want a cozy space to lay their eggs. If they don’t like what you’ve provided, or if there aren’t enough nest boxes to go around they will find other places to lay. Then you have to go hunting for eggs. If may be fun on Easter, but it’s NOT fun in the mud and rain! Hens do like to share nesting boxes (but not with too many birds) so plan on one box per three hens. A good size for nesting boxes is about one square foot. This is nice and cozy but not too tight. The hens will prefer the nest if it is dark, has a roof, and lots of straw for them to settle into. Hens like to lay in nests that have eggs in them already, so a good way to get them started is to place a couple of Easter eggs into the nest. Two seems to be the magic number; as long as there are two eggs in the nest they don’t seem to mind if you pilfer the rest of them.
You will also need to make sure that the coop is predator proof. The most common urban predators are dogs, raccoons, possums, skunks, hawks, and rats. To protect against dogs, you will need strong fencing and a strong coop. Hawks attack during the day from above, so netting, chicken wire, or lots of bushy plants for the chickens hide in will deter them. Raccoons can crawl and rip through chicken wire so you will want to make sure the coop can be latched and cover all vents. They can rip off staples and reach through a space even half an inch wide so make sure to use ¼ inch hardware cloth that has been screwed down tightly. They can also open simple latches so make sure the coop can be locked or has a tricky way to open and shut the birds in once it’s dark. If your three-year-old can open your hen house, chances are so can a raccoon. If your coop is raccoon resistant it will also protect against skunks and possums. Rats can dig and sneak through tiny spaces, although ¼ inch hardware cloth will keep them out as well. They will chew through anything that isn’t metal and will dig underneath to find weaknesses in the flooring. They are very persistent and very common in urban areas so it’s best to not leave the hens’ food out all day and night unless you have rodent proof feeders. It’s best to bring the chicken food out to your ladies twice a day so the rodents don’t think you’re running an awesome open buffet.
The traditional setup is to keep chickens enclosed in a coop and run, and in fact this may be a requirement for some city legislations. The advantage of this setup is additional protection for your birds from dogs and hawks. If you go with this arrangement make sure to have at least 10 feet of run space per bird and once again, more is better. Chickens will kill all the vegetation in a run. A common bedding material to use straw because it is easily raked up and composted. Another option is to set up a chicken tractor. A chicken tractor is a coop and run on wheels that can be moved around the grass to let the hens get fresh greens each day and mow your lawn for you. Chicken tractors can be heavy and awkward to move, so avoid heavy wood and building materials!
Another solution is to use a paddock system where your available space is separated into several fenced areas. The birds are allowed to graze in one paddock until they eat the grass down to a few inches tall and then are moved to another paddock to allow the first to recover. Generally, the coop is in the center, with several gates or moveable fencing to each paddock. The final option is to let your birds free range. Free ranging birds need about 250 feet of space each or they will eat down the vegetation. Free ranging birds will fertilize and conduct pest control with no effort on your part, but sensitive plants and seedlings will need protection until they get established. Free ranging chickens also need an outer perimeter fence so that they stay on your property and to keep neighborhood dogs away. They are at higher risk of being lunch for a hawk but should be able to hide under bushes in the yard to protect themselves. No matter what you decide to try first, make sure it’s all set up before you bring your birds home so they don’t take a trip to the neighborhood corner store or poop on your car roof.
Once you get your basic chicken accommodations arranged, it’s time to figure out what to feed them. The easiest option is to head to the feed store and purchase a bag of feed. Even with this there are several options. If you are getting adult hens, you will need layer feed which has the required calcium for manufacturing strong eggshells. If you will be bringing home pullets (teenage chickens) please get grower feed as the higher calcium levels can damage their kidneys.
Sometimes your hens might need even more calcium than what is in their feed. There are a couple ways to supplement. You can purchase ground oyster shells at the feed store, feed your hens high calcium foods such as milk or kefir, or feed them their shells once you’re done with the eggs. Some people will sanitize the egg shells in the oven then crush them to give them to the birds. I just toss them into my bowl of kitchen compost scraps and let my hens fish them out of the compost bin. They like scratching around in the compost bin looking for worms and tidbits and it aerates the top of the compost for me.
Besides calcium there are a couple other supplements your birds may need. I like to give my hens kelp meal, and they gobble it up. Kelp meal is full of nutrients such as copper, selenium, iron, magnesium, which means healthy birds and healthy eggs too. If your birds don’t have access to much space, then you may have to provide grit as well. Chickens don’t have teeth, so they have to eat tiny rocks that help break down their food to be absorbed in the digestive tract. If they free range they may be able to get enough grit, but it’s usually a good idea to have it available just in case. You can free feed oyster shell, kelp meal, and grit. There’s no need to restrict any of those.
Obviously chickens need water too. There are special chicken gravity waterers, but personally I think those are a HUGE hassle. A simple plastic bucket or rubber tub will stay much cleaner AND be easier to clean. (Poopy chicken water is NOT fun and should be reduced as much as possible). If you want to go really fancy there are automatic systems you can buy or assemble, but a hose and a bucket will be just fine. Another supplement for optimum chicken health is apple cider vinegar. It can be added into their water at a rate of one tablespoon per gallon of water. Don’t put it in metal waterers because the acidity will corrode the metal.
Whatever you do, please assume chickens can feed themselves by roaming around your backyard. While chickens will LOVE grass and kitchen scraps those are treats and not enough food to sustain healthy birds. My hens eat a LOT of grass, dandelions, and kid leftovers, but they also have to have access to feed with balanced protein, fats, carbs, and nutrients. Treats are fun and yummy, but you wouldn’t feel very good if you didn’t have a balanced diet and neither will your chickens.
Chickens don’t require a lot of special care when it comes to their health, especially if they have a good shelter and decent food. There are a couple tasks that you will need to do though, one of which is clipping their wing feathers. If you are totally free ranging your birds, it won’t matter if you trim their flight feathers or not. If you are in a smaller area, it’s a good idea to limit the height they can jump. Once I watched a neighbor’s chicken hop on top of a six-foot fence, fly from the fence to the roof, run across the roof, and disappear on the other side. It was hilarious, but not for the dude who should have trimmed his chicken’s wings.
Trimming the flight feathers does NOT hurt the bird. It’s like trimming your fingernails or your hair. The bird will be more annoyed that you are holding it than anything else. Also, you won’t even be able to see a difference when you are done. The flight feathers are underneath the pretty ones. To trim your bird’s feathers first grab your bird, gently spread the wing out and trim around the tips of the heavy flight feathers on one side. I have one bird that I can never catch so I have to sneak up on her while she’s sleeping, but other than that, it’s a pretty quick and easy chicken keeping job.
Another common concern about chicken health is mites. To check if they have mites examine the scales on their legs. If the scales are popped up or rough, cover the chicken’s leg in Vaseline twice a week until the scales are normal again. To help prevent mites make sure your chickens are able to dust bathe. You can give them a bin of wood ash if they don’t make dust baths in their run. This will also help prevent lice.
Some good basic first aid items to have on hand for chickens are scissors for wing trimming, Vaseline for mites and preventing frostbite, and Blu-Kote. Chickens are attracted by red and will peck red things so spray Blu-Kote onto open wounds to prevent the other hens from pecking at injuries. If one hen is in really bad shape it might be a good idea to separate her from the flock for a while until her wounds are less noticeable.
How extensive a first aid kit you plan to keep kind of depends on how you view the question of a hen’s purpose in life. Are they your treasured pets? Better keep it well stocked and have a veterinarian’s number on hand. Are you comfortable dispatching a sick or injured animal yourself? You may not need lots of tools to nurse it back to health.
You are sure you want chickens. You have a coop, food, water, and first aid supplies. Now comes the fun part! What kind of chickens are you going to get? There are lots of different breeds, and which breed you choose depends on why you want chickens. I’m a fan of going to the feed store and selecting from the breeds they have available. Some people may go looking for a specific breed. If you live in an area with extreme weather that will automatically limit your choices. If you live in a warm climate, hens with large combs such as the Andalusians, Malay, Catalana, or Sultans will be the most comfortable, but don’t keep these birds in a cold climate! They will be super sad and huddle in a little chicken heap in the corner of your hen house. If you live in a cold area go for a breed with a small comb such as the Buckeye, Cochin, or Astralorp.
Your purpose in keeping chickens also affects which breed you want. Some breeds are friendlier than others. Some breeds will lay more eggs for a year or two, others will lay an egg every few days for years at a time. If you want eye candy chickens go for something cute and fluffy or lays colored eggs. If you’re planning to eat them as soon as they stop laying, don’t go for the cute and fluffy. Space requirements also vary depending on the breed. Your bantams will be much happier in a small space than an active bird with strong foraging instincts. Most feed stores and hatcheries will be able to give you a few details on the breed, or the book Storey’s Illustrated Guide to Poultry Breeds has a lot of detail as well.
Once you have an idea what breed you might want, it’s time to figure out if you want chicks, pullets, or adult layers, and where to go to find them. Some people hatch out their own eggs in an incubator, but most people purchase day old chicks either from a feed store or hatchery and keep them in a brooder. They are adorable for a few days, but then they get a little bit stinky and really dusty. If you get day old chicks to raise yourself, make sure you have a place to put the brooder where you don’t mind the dust and odor.
Before you bring day old chicks home from the store or post office get a brooder set up for them. An easy brooder to make is a plastic tote, the kind with the snap on lids. Cut out the center of the lid and attach hardware cloth onto it for ventilation. You will need chick waterers and feeders. The kind that attach to mason jars are easy to find and easy to use. Your local feed store will have chick crumbles, which are small enough that the tiny birds can eat them. You will also need a heat lamp, and I prefer to have a thermometer to gauge the temperature of the brooder. You can get a feel for how warm the birds are by how they behave if you don’t have a thermometer. If they are huddled together and peeping they are too cold. If they are too warm they will try their best to get away from the heat source. Hang your lamp so that you can easily raise and lower it as needed. An over the door hook in my garage is currently where I hang my heat lamp.
The first few days keep the brooder around 95 degrees and then reduce it by 5 degrees each week until the brooder temperature is the same as outdoors or until they have fully feathered out (at about 8-10 weeks old). Cover the bottom of the brooder with some kind of absorbent material such as wood shavings, paper, or straw. For the first couple of days cover the bedding material with paper towels until the chicks know where their food is and don’t mistakenly eat their bedding. Each day check the chicks’ bottoms for pasting up, which means their droppings have hardened and blocked their vents. If needed, carefully rinse the chick’s bottom under warm water to soften the hardened poop so you can pick and wipe it off. Clean and replace their food, water, and bedding daily, or more often as necessary.
If you don’t have the time to care for chicks, consider getting pullets (teenage hens), or hens that are already laying. This is a good plan if you don’t want to wait until your chicks grow up before they start laying. The downside is you don’t have any control over how well the bird was socialized, so they may not make the best pet chickens. Pullets and hens can go right into the outdoor coop, so if you don’t want to dedicate space to a brooder this would be ideal for you.
If you are introducing new hens to an established flock, you need to make sure you quarantine them for 30 days. If you skip this step, you could lose your whole flock to disease. Once the isolation period is over, and the new birds are about the same size as the older birds, put the new birds into a smaller pen inside the chicken run for about two weeks. This allows the birds to see each other, but the new chickens are protected from being pecked and harassed by the others. When you first let the newer birds into the older flock, it helps to have multiple feeders and waterers so that the newcomers don’t get chased off constantly. It’s also a good idea to have lots of treats and branches to jump on to distract them all until the new pecking order is established. Remember not to feed pullets laying hen feed as the extra calcium can be damaging to them. Instead, feed everyone the feed for the pullets and add a container of oyster shell for the laying hens.
Congratulations! You are now officially on your way to being a backyard chicken keeper! Chickens are a great way to become more self-sufficient, are useful in the garden, provide pest control, entertainment and companionship. While chickens are not for everyone, if you do your prep work you will be able to enjoy your flock and provide quality care for them from day one.
If you would like to download a printable checklist of the Baby Steps to Backyard Chickens, please sign up for the newsletter at (www.farmingmybackyard.com/checklist). A link to a printable PDF checklist will be sent to you, as well as regular updates on keeping backyard chickens and other backyard farming topics. Thanks for reading!
You need backyard chickens! This short guide will walk you through preparing for backyard chickens from deciding if chickens are right for you to bringing them home. Each section includes an actionable step to prepare you for keeping urban chickens.