Spring is the time of year tiny baby chicks appear in advertisements, store windows and backyards looking as cute as the feather fluffballs they are. That lasts about 2 weeks, and then suddenly you have an actual chicken. For everyone out there who has been thinking about getting backyard chickens, this is what's involved in taking care of them.
Spring, specifically Easter, is the time that everyone who has ever thought about getting chickens thinks about it ... again. It's exactly when I got my chickens 11 years ago. They were an Easter present. And I did not know a single thing about chickens other than the fact that I'd always wanted them.
I've had several different small flocks of chickens since my first bunch. I started off with what were the chicken equivalent of mutts with some Rhode Island Red, Ameraucana and possibly a bit of actual dog in them. Cuddles was known for coming when I called her and jumping up in my lap. In fact, if you aren't familiar with Cuddles or keeping chickens, you should really read this post about her first.
I'm down to 2 chickens right now; my Black Copper Marans Josephine, and my Blue Copper Marans Mabel. Both are geriatric at the age of 8 and I'm going to let them live out their lives before I get a new flock and start from scratch again.
If you want chickens or just GOT chickens, you probably have some of the same questions I did over a decade ago.
Table of Contents
Keeping Chickens: What You Need to Know
Taking care of chickens is similar to taking care of your pet dog or cat. You have to feed them the right food, watch for any health issues and clean up their poop. If you're already rolling your eyes I suggest you stick with PEEPS.
What do they eat?
Chickens eat chicken feed. You'll be able to buy it at a local farm store. Yes. You probably really do have a local farm store. The feed costs around $15 for a bag of regular feed or $22 for organic feed. A 24kg bag will feed 4 chickens for around a month.
You can stretch that feed by fermenting it. Fermenting chicken feed is no big deal, it's just adding water to it and allowing it to sit a few days until it ferments. I have a whole post on doing it here. The result is full of good bacteria and nutrition that's more easily absorbed due to all kinds of very sciency stuff. It'll make sense if you read the post.
Chickens will also eat good food scraps from salads, vegetable peelings, fruit, nuts, leftover mashed potatoes and on and on. They're carnivores so they'll also dive right into meat. It's why they love to hunt bugs and mice. Yes. Chickens are excellent mousers.
Can I get just one chicken to see if I like it?
No. Chickens are very social creatures and one chicken would be painfully lonely. Starting with 2 chickens is even a bad idea in case one of them dies. Plan to start with 3 or 4 chickens for a happy, happy flock.
How soon before I get eggs from my chickens?
You'll be waiting a long time to get one from your rooster, but young hens (pullets) will start to lay when they're 4-6 months old depending on the breed. If you want eggs immediately then buy 4-6 month old pullets instead of cute little chicks. The disadvantage to this is you haven't hand raised them so they might not be as friendly and cuddly as one you've raised from day one.
How long do they lay eggs?
The older a chicken gets, the fewer eggs it will lay per year.
Chickens are born with a certain number of egg yolks in them ready to be turned into full fledged eggs. For the first year they lay almost every day (depending on the breed because some breeds lay a lot more.) By the third year of laying a chicken will lay less.
Older chickens will lay quite regularly in the spring and then drop in egg production during the rest of the year.
By the time she was 8, Cheez Whiz only laid a couple of eggs a month at the most. My current 7 year old chickens are each laying an egg every other day but that's unusual and will likely slow down to a few a month once spring is over.
Do I need a rooster for my hens to lay eggs?
Nope. Hens are like ladies. They walk around with hundreds of eggs inside of them all the time regardless of whether there's a man around. The rooster only fertilizes the egg so the hen can have chicks. No rooster = no fertilized eggs = no chicks.
Where do you buy chicks?
You can actually buy chicks (usually 1-2 days old), pullets (young hens that are at or close to laying age), or ready-to-lay hens (they've already laid their first egg). There are advantages to all of the options, but for now I'm talking about chicks.
A lot of towns have farm animal auctions. Also, if you live anywhere near a farm, chances are they have chicks, chickens or fertilized eggs for sale. Google it. Craigslist it. Kijiji it.
You can also mail order day old chicks from hatcheries. This is one of the easiest and most popular ways to get chicks but you won't be getting show quality chickens. You know the pretty pictures of chickens you see of certain breeds on Pinterest? Hatcheries generally don't provide that type of representation of the breed.
But if you just want eggs you might not care. Keep in mind if you order from a hatchery there's always going to be a minimum order of many chicks. They need to travel in groups to keep each other warm during shipping.
For show quality chickens that are perfect examples of their breeds, you should get your chicks from a chicken farmer who shows their chickens or whose hobby is breeding for perfection.
How can I tell if a chick is a boy or girl?
That's a tricky one. Some chicks you can tell immediately because they're what's described as autosexing. That means they're an obviously visible characteristic that lets you know immediately if it's a boy or a girl. A boy chick might have a dot on its head and a girl chick a stripe on its back for example (as with the case with Cream Crested Legbars.) You can read this post here on how I sex my chicks.
Where do the chickens live in the winter?
Jamaica. Or Florida maybe depending on flight prices.
Mainly though they just live in the very same coop they live in the rest of the year. Taking care of chickens in the winter isn't very different than caring for them in the summer. Chickens are covered in feathers just like other birds that live outside all year are. They're very good at keeping warm but not nearly as good at cooling down.
So if you're worried about the weather taking a toll on your chickens, you should be more worried about the heat than the cold. It's also more important to keep a coop dry than it is to keep it warm. Dampness can kill a chicken and create respiratory illnesses.
How do you keep a coop dry? Make sure you clean out the poop and make sure your coop has a lot of open venting. Yes. Even in the middle of winter the coop should have open venting for moisture to escape.
Chickens also don't like to get drafts so make sure the coop venting is well above where they roost at night. Bottom line, look into what breeds will do the best in whatever weather you have. Some breeds are better with the heat and some are better with the cold.
This post explains exactly how I winterize my chicken coop for my cold Canadian winters.
What if you're not home to put them in the coop at night? Won't predators eat them? Yes. Yes they will. But there's an easy (and frankly life changing) solution to that. Installing an automatic coop door the way I show you to in this post will save you ALL kinds of worry.
How often do you need to clean the coop?
I clean the inside of their coop where they sleep twice a week and for the rest of my coop and chicken run I use the deep litter method. This is where you leave all the poop, give it a rake once a week and add more bedding on top. I clean out the entire thing 3 or 4 times a year, transferring everything to my compost bin and then starting over in the run with a new 5" layer or straw or pine shavings.
What to do with chicken poop
Chicken poop and bedding can go straight into a compost pile or bin. Sometimes I just mound it up and lay a tarp over it. The poop and straw is a perfect combination of materials for making fast and hot compost. I do hot composting which produces fully ready compost in one month. You can read about how to hot compost here.
Do chickens stink?
Sometimes. But mainly no, especially if you just have a small backyard flock and not a ginormous chicken barn. No worse than dogs or kids. And if you do what I say regarding coop maintenance then neither you nor your neighbours will ever smell your chicken coop.
Are they loud?
They can be but normally not for long periods of time. When they lay an egg chickens will sometimes squawk around for a while and it can get LOUD for a few minutes. Chickens squawk after laying as a way to divert the attention of any predators that might be around - not because it hurts. Sometimes they'll get upset at each other or something they perceive as danger and will get loud but other than that they're quiet. Mainly chickens just make cooing sounds no louder than a cat purring.
Can they get sick?
Oh boy. Yes, they can. Chickens get a variety of ailments. Some I've experienced with my flocks and some I haven't. Common problems with chickens are Bumblefoot, prolapsed vents, respiratory problems and mites. Personally my flock has experienced Egg Yolk Peritonitis, Fly Strike, general bloody wounds, mites infestations and sour crop. If you're serious about getting chickens read this post about The Life and Death of Cuddles. Yes. This is chicken husbandry.
What else do I need to know?
Chickens aren't an accessory. If you never even thought about having chickens before the great chicken rage of the past decade they might not be for you. Or they might! You have to give it careful consideration and know that they're living creatures that you're committing to taking care of. Take these next few things into consideration ...
A Case Against Owning Backyard Chickens
If more than a couple of these things bother you, you might not like keeping chickens.
- If you go on vacation you'll need a chicken sitter.
- You'll need to feed, make sure their water is clean, and give them a quick health check every day.
- You will touch chicken poop.
- You will need to build or buy a coop to keep them save from predators and the elements.
- Even with a coop much of your time will be spent worrying about predators.
- You will become addicted to chickens. You will want more and more chickens.
- You'll discover some chickens are cuddly and want to sit on your lap all day while you pet them.
- You'll discover some chickens want nothing to do with you and may even bite.
- Eventually they will die and it will be very, very sad.
You now know a tiny bit about what it's like to own backyard chickens. Give it the thought it deserves. Now if you'll excuse me I have a couple of geriatric hen eggs to gather and poopy shoes to clean.
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I need more details on the poop board! Our ladies are making a giant mess of things in the coop. I don't think they all face the same direction on the roost at night. We have 3 of them, in a little-ish coop, with a bumped-out nesting box. They are getting poop in their water and food--gross! Do they need to have the water and food available to them inside the coop at night, or can it be out in the run for daytime consumption? We let them out into the run first thing, and they get to free-range for a couple of hours each afternoon.
I'm sure you've figured this out by now, but in case it is useful to someone else, I will reply. Chickens sleep and poop at night. They eat, drink, and poop during the day (-: The food and water should be out in the run - not in the coop (especially the water, so you don't create a damp coop, which can lead to respiratory issues in the chickens).
p.s. Mine almost always sleep forward-backward-forward-backward, and so on down the line. I haven't heard an explanation for this yet, but I'm sure there must be some reason they do it. I sure didn't teach them this!
I am LOVING your blog! I am hoping to start my own small flock in the city (I'm allowed up to 15). My husband isn't quite on board with it, though I am 1000% gung-ho to get started! Any words of wisdom to encourage him getting chickens would be a good choice?
Hi Josette! Thanks so much. Well my first word of advice would be to start with 4 chickens or so. ;) That will give your husband an idea of how easy they are to keep (although it is livestock so there is work involved) and how cute they are. Also starting with 4 or so will give you a better idea of what kinds of things to look for in your next chickens. For instance my first 4 were basically mutts and they were great. My next 2 were Black Copper Marans which lay beautiful dark, DARK eggs but they have a tendency to go broody which means they want to sit on eggs and hatch them. Look up my post on broody hens and you'll see why this is a pain. Others are more skittish (Ameraucanas) and some chickens are super docile and friendly (Buff Orpingtons). Also, nothing makes a better hostess gift than a basket of farm fresh, laid that day, eggs. :) ~karen!
I am also an urban chicken owner and my ladies are LOUD in the mornings- especially in warmer months when everyone, of course, has windows open. Even if your city allows hens, id recommend letting neighbors know ahead of time. We’ve had no noise complaints, but I often feel bad that we’re waking the neighborhood at 5am! Also, our main “predators” are rats! They don’t hurt the chickens but will come in an eat the food. I’ve had to really rat-proof my coop. The upside of urban chickens is that we are the neighborhood attraction. So many people walking down the sidewalk do a double-take when they see the chickens in the yard. Many parents bring their young toddlers by visit the chickens. I’m down to just 2 now (recently lost my 7 year old to old age) and it’s certainly been a fun adventure.
Offer eggs to anyone who might complain about the noise. That seems to help, and get rid of the extra eggs. This year I'm going to try water glassing some.
I'm also going through a "chicken math" issue. We need to replace a few and even though I want 6 I'm sure I'll get more. They're like potato chips, you want all the flavors.
Read as much as you can online about raising chickens and don’t buy them without researching pros and cons first. Karen has given me extremely helpful advice that I could not find in books or other online sources. Chickens are more work than you would think, especially as chicks. You will obsess on fear of a predator harming the chickens, every poultry owner does. Disposable latex gloves are of immense help in daily coop cleaning. I bought a child’s rake at a garden store and use that for weekly tidying of large part of coop. Hens can bond well. Mine run to me when I enter their playroom aka chicken run and then they cluck the latest gossip. Chickens can be very meditative to watch, similar to watching a fish tank of beautiful fish.
man, our local farm stores have chickens right now (now that I live in the sticks, instead of the middle of los angeles)
THEY ARE SO CUTE IT HURTS ME. It was *REALLY* cute to see the bantam chicks the other day, they're like 1/2 the size of regular chicks which are already super cute.
I can't wait til we have the bandwidth (or stop moving, maybe) to have chickies! Thanks for the overview!
Great post and additional comments. I would only add that chickens can live to be 20 years old, so you will need to decide if you want to keep them for pets after their egg-laying days are over. Personally, I will need to do in my 30 3-year-old chickens in a couple months to prepare for a new batch. I am not looking forward to it, but it is a reality. Sadly, you can NOT integrate new chickens into an established flock. The pecking order is real and especially if they are younger and smaller, they will be attacked and probably killed. So don't think you can get 3-4 and then add to them one by one. It will be traumatic to watch.
Hi Mim. I've integrated new chickens into old flocks plenty of times. You can't just throw them in there and wait for them to battle it out but doing it slowly over the course of a week or two is totally doable. ~ karen!
Karen, you're right. It can be done, especially with small flocks. But I have also seen chickencide take place with friends' small, established flocks. It needs to be done carefully. Thanks for clarifying my overly emphatic statement!
Just saw Tree's question below re. extra eggs. I take 8 - 10 dozen to the local food shelf every week. They are hugely welcomed and it is a great feeling to know they are being used.
I have trouble giving away my eggs as well! Partly because 2 out of 4 hens lay with cell spots and it grosses everyone out. Can't say I blame them. I'm just used to it now. ~ karen!
I agree with Karen - a small flock can accept newcomers. I have had success with chicks and adult hens. In case it's useful... Chicks - keep separate until a certain age (research online for the best time) and introduce them at night. Adults - keep them in a separate enclosure for a week or so (partly for quarantine and nit control) so the others can see them but not reach them, then integrate gradually a few hours each day. A generous run or free range space helps.
My chickens only ever live to 6 or 7 years old, but then I only get large breeds, so maybe thats why? Do bantams live for 20 years? And I've been keeping chickens for about 15 years now and successfully integrated existing flocks with new chickens many times. It takes patience and repeated exposure of one to the other before making the final leap. Also, they must be nearly the same size. You have to keep the new ones separate until they are almost fully grown. The only way around this is to let a broody hatch chicks and those babies are accepted by the flock without much fuss. Also, my chickens die of natural causes. You don't HAVE to kill your animals just because they slow down in laying. Even a 6 year old hen lays an egg every once in a while.
I have a 6 year old hen that lays eggs! Not a lot of eggs, but still, lol. I would also agree that while perhaps there is a 20 year old chicken somewhere the majority of them would not live to even close that. I'd say count on maybe an average of 5 years before they die of natural causes even with extremely good care. ~ karen!
I go in the farm store at this time of year just to slowly stroll by the chicks. It makes me happy. We need to see another batch of pictures from your hens and some of their eggs, please! It brings back happy memories.
Consider if you know enough people to give the excess eggs to! We've resorted to giving them to anyone who comes to the house. I spent all morning baking and still ended the day with more eggs than I started with.
Do you have any thoughts about the Eglu Go Chicken Coop? https://www.omlet.us/shop/chicken_keeping/eglu_go/
Had a quick look. I would be concerned that run would not keep out raccoons or weasels. Depending where you are and what predators are around, you may need something more robust and with smaller mesh.
I'm going to go with "Rent the Chicken" for one summer (May to October) as a test to see if we can handle caring for chickens in our Toronto backyard. It's expensive but seems like a relatively easy way to "test the waters". I'm mostly concerned about raccoons.
How did it go?
Here are my four- Banana, Reba, Elvira and Cher! They came to live at my house after 3 years of living at my daughters (ex’s) - we picked them out as chicks and I’m thrilled to have them with me here! The day after arriving I found 3 eggs in the coop and they’ve been laying everyday since! I love these girls, and I thank them every time they lay eggs! Bok bok! 🐔
I have Slim, Chick Fil' A, Zekrom, and Moltres. I get four eggs a day and they are such nice chickens! The girls love to hang out with little kids and are mostly fine with being picked up and carried.
Last count we have 108 Chickens, it started with 6 no more than 12 ever!!! lol now every spring we get all the little ones at Tractor Supply that people don't want after chick days are over. then we love and train and feed these until full grown and then we sell them to people like you , we are careful they have the same beliefs as we do, use great foods and know how to care for the babies we lovingly grew. We had an automatic door and waterer it was all for the babies to keep them healthy including giving shots and flu vaccines. it can be fun and they all have wonderful personalities. We had a great green space but it was on the other side of the pool so we opened our cage doors and they would cut through It was so funny. they knew they were going to the greens and bugs!!
I love your chickens. I think I'm too lazy to own chickens, however, so I console myself with coffee table books of unusual breeds, lol.
I have loved your chickens from the beginning and always ask about them.... cuddles was special...
She really was! ~ karen!
Hi Karen, got a question that’s been on my mind for quite a while. Actually it’s kept me awake nights long before I saw this post. Like you, I have 2 geriatric chickens ( the last of a flock of 6). I’m concerned about how the last one will fare if her sister dies. I just love my girls and dread that day. Do you have a plan for that eventuality? Please share!
Hi Patti! I will probably give the last one away to someone I know who owns a farm. Then start new. Although to be honest my dream is they die together in their sleep, lol. ~ karen!
I have the same dream for mine!
I really want chickens. I had chicks when I lived in the mountains and it was a disaster for me and for them. Never again with that. I agree with you that it is your responsibility to know what you are doing.
So, right now we have a yard near open space. It is predator city. It is the suburbs, but we have coyotes, foxes, owls, hawks, snakes, raccoons, and feral cats. Those are just the ones we have spotted since we moved in. I want / love chickens with all of my heart, and they are big in permaculture, but I think my boyfriend is right that we probably can't get them. It would be the same situation as before, and that would not be fair. So I just watch your chicken videos and get happy that way. :)
Hi Jennifer! The way around that is to use chunnels or just have really well constructed coop that's enclosed in hardware cloth. (the floor too) ~ karen!
I have 3 Ohio Buckeyes and 1 older Barred Rock. All are excellent layers (pale brown eggs). The Buckies arent terribly friendly when compared with the BR (which is unfair, since I raised them from chicks) but they're very good backyard birds. They were bred to withstand cold temps, lay lots of eggs, and can be used for meat: great dual purpose girls.
Yep, them there Peeps iz mighty tasty creations. I can't decide if the yellow ones taste better than the blue ones, but I do prefer the yellow. Go figure. Maybe it's a "Chicago" thing?
I DO however applaud your dedication to farming and animal husbandry. The critters with whom you share your life are most fortunate indeed.
Thank you for the update on your girls, Karen! Good to hear they are laying after the winter break. I just came in from poop pickup - Dollar store kid's garden rake works so well for that, it's really not much of a chore. They were chortling to me, demanding to go outside ... in spite of snow and damp. Visiting with chickens always calms me and reduces stress, really makes my day!
They really do help reduce anxiety. I mean unless you are afraid of chickens in which case no. ~ karen!
HI Karen, funny you have posted on chickens because I was thinking of asking your advice.
I am on my second batch of chickens. I gave away the first ones because they were bad girls - they killed the rooster and were after the barn cat.
Anyway I got some baby chicks and now they are at the point of laying one egg a day.
My issue is when I go into the 'coop' (which is a converted horse stall- with outdoor access for good weather) to feed/water and clean up the poop they peck at me. It's ok right now while I am wearing my insulated coveralls and winter mitts and boots, but I am not looking forward to summer.
Any suggestions on how to stop them pecking at me?
Hi Joanne - they may be curious and bored, wanting attention, or trying to integrate you into (the bottom of) their pecking order! Chickens explore anything with their beaks, hoping it is food. If you bring treats they can also peck to get your attention. Or, maybe it is aggressive dominance behaviour, with ruffled neck feathers. If you think that is the reason - snap back. Be the boss, tap their beak or head equally hard in return or kick out enough to push them away. If you 'submit' to a bossy hen they will keep bossing. You may find some more help on backyardchicken or similar sites.
Hi Joanne. Some chickens are just pecker heads. The best you can do is handle them as much as possible while they're young. At this point, when they're bigger, I'd try feeding them by hand if you don't do that already. Not all of their feed, just some scratch in your hand so they see you as something to like. It's also possible they're just pecking at your clothes, but once you aren't wearing the big bulky items they'll stop. ~ karen!
My mouth is hanging open....8 years old? Wow...we never had one that passed the age of 3 1/2 or so. The life span is usually 2-3 years old when they stop laying, go into menopause and die (just like us...damn.) Their long lifespan could be due to the breed. We've raised hens and roasters, turkeys and pheasant. It's really a wonderful part of life and I think everyone should try it at least once.
Hi Kelly! I've had quite a few live to this age and I'm not sure why! These two are from the same breeder. The other who lived a very long life, Cheez Whiz, was a mutt chicken. :) ~ karen!
I have my last one who will be 10 years old in a couple months. I was worried when her "sister" (the last of 6) passed last fall, but she has been doing pretty well for a lone geriatric chicken. Who knew a chicken would live so long?!