Since it's spring time and many of us will be getting new chickens we felt like it was time for a chicken 101.
First off, let's talk about chickens. Even though the idea of getting fresh eggs from your backyard every morning sounds great, you may have a few concerns about keeping them. I have wanted to have a farm for as long as I can remember but when it hit me that I might be able to keep them in my own postage stamp lot I had a lot of questions. I'm going to address them below:
First off, are they noisy?
I imagined keeping chickens would be something akin to the geese at the park and that there was no way my neighbors wouldn't complain. I was surprised to find that with the exception of the roosters(male chickens) these birds are pretty quiet. Definitely quieter than my neighbor's dogs! My hens will sometimes cluck around and squawk at one another but it's such a small sound I doubt that their noise would ever carry over my fence and disturb anyone. Now, I never had more than 6 hens at once so I can't comment on large flocks!
What about the smell?
I was surprised to find that my hens smell very little. The smell really relates to the size of the coop and the number of birds you are keeping. Their waste is not even close to as stinky as other animals and will quickly work it's way back into the earth - unless you are requiring them to stay in a small confined space. Even doing that, as long as it isn't smaller than each each bird requires, you will only need to "clean" their coop every few weeks. At our house that meant raking or shoveling out some of the bedding and adding it to the compost pile and then replacing it with fresh pine/straw.
What about disease?
Chickens are hardy animals. They take care of themselves as long as they are given the freedom to do so. Large factories where thousands of birds are housed together in confined spaces are disease spreaders - not backyards. If one of my chickens were acting funny I'd notice it immediately and take action. Chickens are clean animals and if they were starting to get really dirty that would be a sign that something is wrong - which a backyard chicken owner would notice when a factory worker might not. They aren't complicated animals and they don't come into contact with other chickens so they are pretty safe and healthy. Also, when I first got chickens I was worried about the bird flu until I read an article on whether or not backyard chicken owners should worry about bird flu. The article pointed out that Americans don't tend to drink the blood of obviously sick chickens or eat chickens that have died from disease. I think we fail to realize that other cultures might not take the same precautions ordinary Americans would and therefore put themselves more at risk. In the end, you really don't need to worry.
Are they expensive?
They sure don't have to be! Just like other family pets you can go and spend over a thousand dollars on a mansion of a chicken coop or you can build your own or even pull it together from things you've already got. And their feed is pretty cheap - and it can be even cheaper if you feed them kitchen scraps. Plus, a chicken's favorite meal is found right in your own backyard. Letting them roam around your backyard grass and find bugs will not only make them happy but the grass will add some omega 3's to your eggs not to mention decrease the amount on bugs out there!
Where do you get chickens?
There are a few places to look but the easiest place is your local feed store or IFA. You can also look on local classifieds like craigslist. You can also order them online and get live chicks shipped directly to your door! Sometimes these hatcheries require a certain number of chicks per order so you'll need to consider that. The price of chicks should range from $1.00 on up a piece. Some breeds are rare and sought after and can cost more. Also, it is important if you are planning on keeping these in your suburban backyard that you are getting females only! Female baby chickens are called pullets and it's something you need to ask so that you don't keep waiting for eggs from a male chicken!
What breed should I get?
I started by just buying what looked cutest to me at the feed store and while that isn't terrible it might not give you some of the characteristics you desire. If you didn't know it, not all hens lay the same number of eggs. Some hens lay extra large eggs every day and others only lay small eggs once a week. The best place to look is on mypetchicken.com at their breed list - they even have a questionnaire that you can fill out with what you are looking for and they will recommend the best breeds for you. That site is also great for lots of basic questions and even buying coops online.
When do they start laying eggs?
Waiting for your first egg can take an eternity! Hens will generally start laying around 20 weeks and will keep laying well until they reach about three years of age. Their production will sometimes go down in winter but there are things you can do to keep it going such as giving them a heat source as well as artificial light.
When do eggs have babies in them?
This has got to be my favorite question - and I've heard some crazy answers for how you get a fertilized egg! Some people say that all eggs have chicks in them or other say a rooster has to sit on the egg after it's hatched but acutally folks, chickens do it the old fashioned way. I haven't owned a rooster yet so I haven't witnessed much chicken sex but I do know without it you don't have any fertilized eggs! So if you don't have a rooster you don't have any chicks on the way! Also, you can still eat fertilized eggs. If the eggs aren't immediately handled correctly a chick will never form so just put your eggs right in the fridge and they'll be just like the others.
Where do I get their feed?
You can get chicken feed at the local feed store or IFA. And though you might not realize it, you might have one closer than you imagined. I was living in a suburb of a very large city and realized I had one right down the road that I had been passing for years! They can also be a good resource for questions you might have or for the other supplies you'll need.
Will I like my chickens, are they like pets?
I have a friend who is terrified of chickens and she cannot imagine that they could be lovable. So while you might not imagine it, chickens are very rewarding animals and many regard them as pets! I too, came to love my hens, even feeling that I'd keep them with or without eggs. I wrote a post about that a while back and you can read more about my chicken love there.
Now that we've gone over a few of the basics we need to get down to the nitty gritty details like housing, feeding, and daily care. Marisa will be going over all of that in Part Two of this post.